President Donald Trump’s 2020 looks set to be dominated by domestic politics, including a tough reelection campaign and the ongoing impeachment process, relegating his foreign policy to second fiddle. However, Trump has mixed foreign and domestic politics in an approach that is highly unusual in the United States, according to analysts, making foreign issues domestic, partisan and often transactional. “What in another administration might be foreign policy, in this administration is a domestic political issue,” says Anjali Dayal, assistant professor of international politics at Fordham University.
The blurring of lines has been a staple of the Trump’s presidency from the onset, but the Ukraine saga is perhaps the most obvious illustration. The president used an official phone call with a foreign leader to push for an investigation of his domestic political rival, leading the Democrats to impeach him.Dayal gives the example of migration and how Trump used crises in Central America to drum up support at home. Trade talks, similarly, seem as much about domestic talking points as advancing US interests.
“You can’t really do an analysis of American foreign policy in most of the world without taking into account how Trump’s personal interests interfere in that,” says Jacob Parakilas, an associate at LSE Ideas. This approach has left both allies and adversaries confused, risking long-term partnerships, such as with Europe, and potentially provoking volatile situations, like the one emerging with Iran. “The longer it goes on the harder it’ll be for counter parties to deal with the US in a good faith and consistent way, which means people will think about alternatives,” says Parakilas, noting that a second Trump administration would likely force European nations to reposition themselves.
Already, second-tier allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, are vying for position in the emerging uncertainty of a potential US wind-down across the region — even as the US is still no closer to actually leaving the Middle East now than it was when Trump took over.
Moreover, a key piece of stabilising infrastructure, the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal with Iran, is now dead and no future deal is emerging, leaving space for greater anarchy.
“We don’t have a foreign policy any more, we have politics,” says Steven Cook, an expert on the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations. “There is a lot of sloganeering and politics and not a deep think about what’s important.”
The assassination of Qassem Soleimani, a commander of Iranian forces, is the latest in a string of military actions outside of clear policy frameworks. In addition to Iran, experts see North Korea as being the major threat over the next year. In the longer term, the collapse of an arms control regime with Russia is a growing concern, as Moscow and Washington must decide in 2020 if they are to extend the only existing nuclear deal they have, New START. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty collapsed in 2019, and Trump has signalled he is not keen on cooperation agreements meant to reduce weapons build-ups.
“I think that’s a really interesting experiment to run, if you get rid of all of the measures that were used to slow the arms race,” says Jeffrey Lewis, a scholar in nuclear policy at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, sardonically.
He says that in the past 20 years, a “rot” has set in and eroded global arms control. Some of this stems from a refusal in the White House to see the obvious, according to Lewis — such as that North Korea probably has bombs that could hit the US and Kim Jong Un will not disarm, despite a Trump charm offensive.
Lewis compares arms control to climate change, in that both require global action. But just as global efforts to prevent a nuclear arms race are collapsing, Trump has also pulled the US out of the Paris agreement and is rolling back environmental regulations at home. — AFP