Posted on: World Politics Review | January 31st, 2018


U.S. President Donald Trump struck an unsurprisingly triumphal tone in his first State of the Union address last night, although the speech’s national security passages focused mainly on the threats from North Korea and Iran more than any particular successes.

It’s tempting to say that Trump’s first year in office has been a wash when it comes to foreign policy. Despite the alarm and uncertainty that greeted his election, it has not resulted in the catastrophe many feared. Due to the interventions of his Cabinet and advisers, there has been more continuity than disruption in the day-to-day conduct of U.S. foreign policy than expected. At the same time, Trump’s promises to reshape America’s global role remain aspirational, while his erratic and bellicose style has rattled allies and undermined America’s global standing, making 2017 a year more of lateral drift than of forward progress.

Trump’s campaign rhetoric and his administration’s opening moves upon taking office amounted to a high-stakes gamble. On a wide range of issues, Trump took declarative stances at odds with long-standing American policy and embraced unpredictability as a tactical approach to negotiations. In doing so, he sought to generate uncertainty and fear among America’s interlocutors and thereby create openings for major gains at little cost.

So far, those gains have not materialized. In part because of the disconnect between Trump’s words and his administration’s actions, but also due to the widespread perception that Trump is more bark than bite, none of America’s enemies, rivals, adversaries and partners have blinked. To the contrary, after a period of assessment, adjustment and adaptation, they seem prepared to stand their ground on the various demands Trump has made of them.

That raises the question, Does Trump have a Plan B?

Four files in particular are likely to reach inflection points in the coming months—North Korea, China, trade relations with U.S. partners, and Iran. How those inflection points play out, and how the Trump administration responds, will determine whether 2018 is a year of further drift, dramatic breakthroughs or catastrophe.

North Korea is the highest-profile and highest-risk example of Trump’s penchant for brinkmanship. He has very publicly committed himself to preventing Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile programs from directly threatening the continental U.S., including through the use of preventive military force if necessary. But far from capitulating, North Korea has demonstrated its own commitment to achieving its nuclear ambitions.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo recently estimated that North Korea is only months away from being able to target the U.S. with a nuclear-armed missile. That gives the Trump administration just months to either find a diplomatic off-ramp to the crisis or decide whether to follow through with its threats. In the meantime, the administration is reportedly seriously considering a limited military strike to signal its resolve, despite the high risk of North Korean retaliation and escalation.

Trump campaigned for the presidency vowing to get tough with China on trade, and he caused alarm immediately following his election victory by accepting a congratulatory phone call from the Taiwanese president and questioning Washington’s adherence to the One China policy. But after an ice-breaking summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in April, Trump abruptly reversed course, putting divisive issues over trade on the backburner and instead seeking Beijing’s help in pressuring Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programs.

To his credit, Trump succeeded in getting the Chinese to tighten sanctions on North Korea. But just two months after Trump’s lavish state visit to China in November, tensions over trade have resurfaced. The Trump administration has begun to roll out a range of threatened punitive tariffs targeting Chinese imports. In the meantime, Beijing has reportedly concluded that Trump is a paper tiger and is preparing to retaliate. Though most observers agree that taking a tougher stance with Beijing is necessary, a trade war with China would be tremendously damaging to both sides, as well as to the global economy, and there is no guarantee the U.S. would prevail.

Trump may soon be forced to choose between admitting he was bluffing all along and following through on his threats.

While China was a primary target of Trump’s campaign rhetoric, he was no less hostile to trade deals with America’s partners, including NAFTA; the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement, known as KORUS; and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. In one of his first moves after taking office, Trump pulled the U.S. out of the TPP, arguing that he would pursue better bilateral deals with the 11 other signatories, starting with Japan. He subsequently launched renegotiations of NAFTA and KORUS, under threat of withdrawing from both should he not get the concessions he sought.

A year later, Japan has politely refused to open talks for a bilateral trade deal, instead pursuing and finalizing a lightly modified TPP among the other parties and without the United States. Talks with Canada and Mexico to give NAFTA a long-overdue facelift have made recent progress, but any agreement will require a breakthrough in an upcoming final round of negotiations, as both Mexico and Canada have rejected several U.S. demands as nonstarters. Meanwhile, South Korea has taken a hard line on talks to amend its free trade agreement, which began in early January. Pulling out of either deal will jolt markets and supply chains, with particular damage to core Trump supporters in states where the automotive and agricultural sectors are concentrated.

Finally, Trump has repeatedly postponed a final decision on whether or not he will torpedo the Iran nuclear deal by reimposing sanctions, despite Tehran having complied with the terms of the agreement. Upon waiving sanctions for the third time on Jan. 12, Trump threatened it would be the last time he does so unless the deal is renegotiated to address not just its supposed weaknesses, but also unrelated issues like Iran’s missile program and regional behavior.

Trump is not alone in his criticisms of the agreement; even proponents of the deal consider some of its terms to be unattractive but necessary concessions for the broader goal of reining in Iran’s nuclear program. But no one seriously believes the deal itself can be substantially renegotiated beyond cosmetic face-shaving changes around the margins. Unilaterally withdrawing from it would put the blame for its demise squarely on Washington rather than Tehran. In addition to alienating European allies, that would allow Iran to relaunch its nuclear program, adding greater urgency to the challenge its regional behavior presents.

On all four files, the potential for face-saving compromises remains, as does the possibility that Trump will end up achieving marginal gains or even dramatic concessions. But if not, he will soon find himself with the choice between admitting he was bluffing all along and following through on his threats. Pursuing the second option on any single one of these challenges would have major implications for global political and economic stability. Pursuing it on any combination of them would rattle the global system to its foundations. But backing down would have similarly disastrous effects on American power and influence.

Trump may very well have a Plan B. But if he doesn’t, it won’t take long for that to become clear.

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