Trump faces raft of foreign policy challenges in new year

Unpopular overseas, the US president must deal with numerous global trouble spots as he struggles with a likely impeachment trial in the Senate and conducts a reelection campaign

US President Donald Trump pauses during a Christmas Eve video teleconference with members of the military at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, December 24, 2019. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
US President Donald Trump pauses during a Christmas Eve video teleconference with members of the military at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, December 24, 2019. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — US President Donald Trump starts the new year knee-deep in daunting foreign policy challenges at the same time he’ll have to deal with a likely impeachment trial in the Senate and the demands of a reelection campaign.

There’s still no end in sight to America’s longest war in Afghanistan. North Korea hasn’t given up its nuclear weapons. Add to that simmering tensions with Iran, fallout from Trump’s decision to pull troops from Syria, ongoing unease with Russia and Turkey, and erratic ties with European and other longtime Western allies.

Trump is not popular overseas, and being an impeached president who must simultaneously run for reelection could reduce the time, focus and political clout needed to resolve complex global issues like North Korea’s nuclear provocations. Some foreign powers could decide to just hold off on finalizing any deals until they know whether Trump will be reelected. Trump himself has acknowledged the challenge in his December 26 tweet:

“Despite all of the great success that our Country has had over the last 3 years, it makes it much more difficult to deal with foreign leaders (and others) when I am having to constantly defend myself against the Do Nothing Democrats & their bogus Impeachment Scam. Bad for USA!”

At the same time, there is widespread expectation that Trump never will be convicted by the Republican-controlled Senate, so 2020 could well bring more of the same from the president on foreign policy, said Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.

“America still has an awful lot of power,” said Neumann, a three-time ambassador and former deputy assistant secretary of state. “With a year to go, a president can still make a lot of waves, impeachment or not.”

For Trump, 2019 was a year of two steps forward, one step back — sometimes vice versa — on international challenges. Despite claiming that “I know deals, I think, better than anybody knows deals,” he’s still trying to close a bunch.

US Marine Corps General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, speaks as a picture of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is seen during a press briefing October 30, 2019 at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)

Trump scored high marks for the US military raid in Syria that killed the leader of the Islamic State, but US military leaders worry about a resurgence. He is credited with coaxing NATO allies to commit to spend billions more on defense, but along the way has strained important relationships.

His agreement on a “Phase 1” trade deal with China has reduced tensions in their ongoing trade war. But the deal largely puts off for later complex issues surrounding US assertions that China is cheating to gain supremacy on technology and China’s accusation that Washington is trying to restrain Beijing’s ascent as a world power.

A deeper look at the state of play on three top foreign policy challenges on Trump’s desk as 2020 begins:

US-North Korea Nuclear Talks Lose Traction

The US is watching North Korea closely for signs of a possible missile launch or nuclear test.

Pyongyang had threatened to spring a “Christmas surprise” if the US failed to meet Kim Jong Un’s year-end deadline for concessions to revive stalled nuclear talks. Trump speculated maybe he’d get a “beautiful vase” instead. Any test flight of an intercontinental ballistic missile or substantial nuclear test would further derail the diplomatic negotiations Trump opened with Kim in 2018.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (right) and US President Donald Trump prepare to shake hands at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, South Korea, June 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Washington didn’t accept Kim’s end-of-year ultimatum, but Stephen Biegun, the top US envoy to North Korea, said the window for talks with the US remains open. “We are fully aware of the strong potential for North Korea to conduct a major provocation in the days ahead,” Biegun, the new deputy secretary of state, said recently. “To say the least, such an action will be most unhelpful in achieving lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

In recent months, North Korea has conducted a slew of short-range missile launches and other weapons tests.

In 2017, Trump and Kim traded threats of destruction as North Korea carried out tests aimed at acquiring the ability to launch nuclear strikes on the U.S. mainland. Trump said he would rain “fire and fury” on North Korea and derided Kim as “little rocket man.” Kim questioned Trump’s sanity and said he would “tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire.”

Then the two made up and met three times — in Singapore in 2018, in Vietnam last February and again in June when Trump became the first US president to set foot into North Korea at the Demilitarized Zone.

While the get-togethers have made for good photo-ops, they’ve been devoid of substantive progress in getting Kim to get rid of his nuclear weapons.

Trump has held out North Korea’s self-imposed moratorium on conducting nuclear tests and trials of long-range intercontinental missiles as a major foreign policy achievement. “Deal will happen!” he tweeted.

Trump’s former national security adviser doesn’t think so.

“The North Koreans are very happy to declare that they’re going to give up their nuclear weapons program, particularly when it’s in exchange for tangible economic benefits, but they never get around to doing it,” John Bolton told National Public Radio.

US-Iran Tension Escalating

Tensions with Iran have been rising ever since Trump last year withdrew the US from the 2015 nuclear deal that Tehran had signed with the US and five other nations. Trump said the deal was one-sided and gave Iran sanctions relief for rolling back, but not permanently dismantling, its nuclear program.

After pulling out of the deal, Trump began a “maximum pressure” campaign, reinstating sanctions and adding more that have crippled Iran’s economy. His aim is to force Iran to renegotiate a deal more favorable to the US and other nations that are still in the agreement.

In response, Iran has continued its efforts to destabilize the region, attacking targets in Saudi Arabia, interrupting commercial shipping through the critical Strait of Hormuz, shooting down an unmanned US aircraft and financing militant proxy groups. Since May, nearly 14,000 US military personnel have deployed to the region to deter Iran.

The USS Boxer transits the Strait of Hormuz, August 12, 2019. (US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class David Ortiz/Released)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his country’s nuclear experts are testing a new type of advanced centrifuge. Iran recently started exceeding the stockpiles of uranium and heavy water allowed by the nuclear deal and is enriching uranium at a purity level beyond what is permitted. Tehran’s violations, which it says are reversible, are an attempt to get France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia — the other nations that signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — to offer new economic incentives to offset the American sanctions.

The White House says its pressure campaign is working. The Iranian economy is collapsing, inflation is high. And crushing US sanctions blocking Iran from selling its crude oil abroad have helped fuel nationwide protests.

Earlier this month, there was a rare diplomatic breakthrough when a Chinese-American Princeton scholar, Xiyue Wang, who has held in Iran for three years, was freed in exchange for a detained Iranian scientist in the US.

Trump said the prisoner exchange could be a “precursor as to what can be done.”

Iran says other prisoner swaps can be arranged, but there will be no other negotiations between Tehran and the Trump administration.


When Trump made his first visit to Afghanistan on Thanksgiving Day, he announced that negotiations with the Taliban, which had fallen apart in September, were back on track. He claimed the militant group wanted to find a political resolution to the war, now more than 18 years old.

“We’ll see if they want to make a deal,” he told US troops at Bagram Air Base. “‘It’s got to be a real deal, but we’ll see. But they want to make a deal.”

Less than two weeks later, talks were back on pause after an attack outside Bagram killed two Afghans and wounded 70 others, including members of the US-led coalition force. The Taliban later claimed responsibility for the attack, which also damaged the base.

It’s no secret that Trump wants US engagement in Afghanistan to end, but critics worry that this will lead him to make too many concessions to the Taliban.

Despite progress in the negotiations, Trump abruptly canceled the talks in September when violence continued and a US service member was killed. This time around, the US is seeking a reduction in violence with the end goal of getting the Taliban to agree to a permanent cease-fire and start all-Afghan talks to find a peaceful future for the country.

Former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who resigned from the Trump administration over his opposition to the president’s decision to remove troops from Syria, said the Taliban have not proven trustworthy in the past so instead of “trust and verify,” the US should “verify and then trust.”

US President Donald Trump speaks to the troops during a surprise Thanksgiving day visit at Bagram Air Field, on November 28, 2019, in Afghanistan. (Olivier Douliery / AFP)

But he added: “I think the president was right to start the negotiations with the Taliban and I think he was right to call it off when the bombings occurred.”‘

General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress this month that the Pentagon is considering several options to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan. One option would mean shifting to a leaner counter-terrorism mission. That would leave only a minimal US footprint in Afghanistan to battle Islamic extremists.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who visited Kabul this month, said Trump might announce an American troop drawdown from Afghanistan before the year’s end. He said that beginning next year, the president could reduce troop numbers to 8,600, down from the current estimate of 12,000.

Graham has opposed a withdrawal before, but says 8,600 US troops would be enough to make sure that Afghanistan doesn’t become a launching pad for another 9/11-style attack on the US. The Taliban have said any peace agreement must include getting all American troops out of the country, where more than 2,400 American service members have been killed.

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