Trump faces raft of foreign policy challenges in new year

Deb Riechmann
Associated Press

Washington – 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.

American troops are still engaged in 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.

In this Dec. 20, 2019, file photo, President Donald Trump arrives with first lady Melania Trump to sign the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 at Andrews Air Force Base, Md.

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 Dec. 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.

Trump scored high marks for the U.S. military raid in Syria that killed the leader of the Islamic State, but U.S. 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 U.S. 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:

The U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

Washington didn’t accept Kim’s end-of-year ultimatum, but Stephen Biegun, the top U.S. envoy to North Korea, said the window for talks with the U.S. 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 U.S. dotard with fire.”

Then the two made up and met three times – in Singapore in 2018, in Vietnam last February and again in June.