Disruptive Trump faces decisive February

February brings the most significant series of tests yet of whether President Trump can transform his disruptive US foreign policy into concrete outcomes. The four to watch most closely, all of dizzying importance, are negotiating a trade deal with China, denuclearizing North Korea, rallying an international community to contain Iran and democratizing Venezuela.

Trump’s trade team, led by US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, will visit China early next week seeking progress toward a trade deal before a March 1 deadline, ending a 90-day truce agreed to by the two country’s leaders at the G20 in Buenos Aires.

That would not only head off the increase of tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods from 10% to 25%, but it would also show markets that the world’s two leading economies can find mutually beneficial ways to settle trade differences. More important over time will be to see whether the two sides can as well navigate even more difficult disputes over future technologies and regional security issues.

On North Korea, President Trump in his State of the Union address – otherwise light on foreign policy issues – said he would meet for his second summit with Kim Jong-un on February 27-28 in Vietnam. “If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea,” said Trump.

The meeting will be a test of whether the “great chemistry” Trump says he has developed with Kim will help him achieve gains toward denuclearization, building upon the release of three American prisoners and the remains of 55 American soldiers. While his intelligence community, in a report to Congress last week, said North Korea is “unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capability,” Trump aims to show he is correct that there is a “good chance” of a deal because Kim so badly wants to engineer an economic turnaround.

This week, on February 13-14, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will host in Warsaw, Poland an international conference on peace and security in the Middle East (even as the US pulls its troops out of Syria by April). Media reporting is skeptical about whether the meeting can produce more pressure on Iran, garner support for an emerging Trump administration Mideast peace plan between Israel and the Palestinians or lay the groundwork for an alliance of Arab states to advance common interests.

What the conference, involving more than 40 countries, underscores is the continued US ability to convene, even if many countries won’t be sending ministerial level representatives. What I’ll be watching:

    • Interactions among Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of Bahrain, Jordan, Oman, the UAE and Saudi Arabia – particularly given US efforts to promote warmer Israeli-Gulf relations.
    • Progress toward a new Arab defense coalition, referred to as a “historic alliance” by Secretary Pompeo. In an interview this week with Fox Business Network, Pompeo said “a big number of countries (would) announce that they want to be part of this here in the not-too-distant future, and we’ll develop an outline that isn’t reactive.”

Although Palestinians weren’t invited, the Trump administration “peace team” will be there – senior adviser Jared Kushner and special envoy Jason Greenblatt. On Thursday morning, they will brief and field questions during a session hosted by Børge Brende, the former Norwegian foreign minister and now-World Economic Forum president.

February will likely also be a decisive month in Caracas. My CNBC column last week argued that Venezuela has become the first battleground in a new era of great power competition. As such, the outcome of this contest will be an indication of whether democracies or autocracies will be the dominant forces that will shape the future. The coming month will show whether the interim President Juan Guaido alongside the US and its regional and European allies can leverage public dissatisfaction, international isolation and sanctions to create serious cracks in Maduro’s regime.

Conversely, if Maduro weathers – with the support of Cuba, China and Russia – the most intense public, diplomatic and economic pressures ever to face his autocratic system, it would mark the most severe setback to US global interests during the Trump administration.

There’s also much more in play, stretching the bandwidth of a US administration in which so many foreign policy jobs remain unfilled. For example, the United States on February 2 triggered a six-month withdrawal period from the INF Treaty on short and medium-range land-based ballistic and cruise missiles in Europe, and a NATO defense ministerial this week will discuss consequences and next steps.

There is also some disruptive Trump foreign policy thinking less likely to gain traction.

The largest US delegation of all time, including over 40 US members of Congress, is heading to Germany this Friday for the Munich Security Conference, a symbolic opposition to any steps President Trump would take to weaken US commitment to NATO or, at the very worst, withdraw from the Alliance. The US House of Representatives has passed legislation that is engineered to “ring fence” Trump on NATO, and the US Senate is preparing to do the same.

For his part, the President in his State of the Union altered his tone on NATO, speaking of how for years “the United States was being treated very unfairly by NATO,” but that he now had “secured a $100 billion increase in defense spending from NATO allies.”

What confounds Trump critics, as illustrated above, is his success at identifying real foreign policy problems and then taking them on with characteristic rhetorical gusto and tweets. A less bold American president wouldn’t have made the progress he has achieved on a host of issues that seemed previously immovable. And his most ardent opponents won’t be able to complain much if in February he shows progress in addressing China’s unfair trade practices, toward denuclearizing North Korea, in rallying support to counter Iran’s malevolent behavior and in replacing Venezuela’s odious dictatorship with democratic change.

What should concern his supporters, however, is his disdain for the sort of allies, strategies and process that he’ll need to address all the above challenges. With their level of risk and complexity, Trump isn’t going to score lasting wins on any front without allies. Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’ resignation letter was all about differences he had with Trump on that central issue.

It won’t make it any easier that he’s dealing with a cabinet that lacks the many decades of experience lost through recent departures. Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan observes in her weekend column that, when Jim Mattis, John Kelly and HR McMaster left the Trump White House “a cumulative 123 years of military and diplomatic experience left with them.”

To steer all the above issues across the finish line and beyond may take a more strategic actor and thinker than President Trump. Let’s see where we are at the end of this month.

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(Editor’s note: A similar version of this commentary is published by CNBC.com as a column.)

The week’s top reads below capture more questions about Trump’s foreign policy, our new world of nuclear weapons, the ongoing US-Chinese tech drama and this week’s 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution.

Onward and upward,
fred sign

Trump’s Skeptics Pondering whether he Deserves more Credit
Nahal Toosi / POLITICO

Can Trump Handle a Foreign Crisis?

Politico’s foreign affairs correspondent Nahal Toosi takes the two-year mark of the Trump presidency to ask foreign policy experts about their verdict on the Trump administration’s foreign policy performance.

Despite much handwringing over the effect Trump’s disruptive approach might have on US global leadership and the strength of US alliances, “some of these critics grudgingly concede that Trump’s bulldozer mentality has pushed leaders of all political stripes into difficult conversations they’d long avoided … after all, on these and other fronts that have long troubled U.S. leaders — America’s ongoing presence in Afghanistan, potential long-term involvement in Syria, NATO defense spending and more — there was little or no movement until Trump took office,” Toosi writes. Read More →

The WSJ’s Peggy Noonan however cautions that the Trump White House is ill-prepared to face a “sudden, immediate and severe foreign-policy crisis.”

While “everything depends on personnel, process and planning,” she writes ”the president is famously impulsive, uninterested in deep study, not systematic in his thinking. His recently leaked schedules give no sign he spends a lot of time forging deeper relationships with advisers and agency heads on whom one day a great deal may depend. There is a marked lack of trust between the intelligence community and the White House—and intelligence is front and center during a crisis.” Read More →

Will Europe be Victim of Nuclear Power Plays?

Jon Huntsman Jr.: This is Russia’s Last Chance to Save Our Nuclear Treaty
Jon Huntsman Jr. / DESERET NEWS

The German magazine Spiegel provides the best, long-form reflection I’ve seen yet on why the INF Treaty had ceased to serve its purpose. It goes further than that, however, and reports richly on the next generation weapons Russia is fielding – and how hard it will be for traditional forms of deterrence to work when the Kremlin can so easily and quickly strike European targets that become increasingly hard to defend from the US mainland. Read More →

The Atlantic Council’s former chairman Jon Huntsman, now US ambassador to Russia, sizes up the stakes in his home state newspaper the Deseret News. He reminds readers that “Russia signed the INF Treaty and agreed to eliminate its ground-launched intermediate range missiles… because its leaders realized that the absence of such weapons would make Russia more secure, not less.” In arguing for Russia to seize a “last chance” to return to INF compliance during the US six-month notification period, he argues that abandoning the treaty will make Russia less secure. Read More →

The China Dream: Their Goals and Ours

The Unpredictable Rise of China
Daniel Blumenthal / THE ATLANTIC

The Trump administration is looking to de-escalate its trade war with China even as it moves to escalate its confrontation over future technologies.

So with the globe’s most significant bilateral relationship turning even more uncertain, two pieces this week are worth reading.  Gary Schmitt in the American Interest provides a smart, well-researched account on how US hopes were dashed by Chinese developments – and why a confrontation of some sort was inevitable. Read More →

Daniel Blumenthal provides an even more useful account in the Atlantic, given its reflection on numerous ups and downs in Chinese history. He raises legitimate questions about the durability of President Xi’s approach “as China’s economy slows and its politics are consolidated around a new high-tech police state…. As policy makers and scholars stand in awe of what China has accomplished since 1978, they must also continue to examine the internal workings of the system for signs of trouble ahead.” Read More →

Is an Iron Curtain Falling Across Tech?
Adam Segal, Cobus van Staden, Elsa B. Kania, Samm Sacks, Elliott Zaagman / FOREIGN POLICY

The Internet, Divided between the US and China, Has become a Battleground

The two pieces above underscore my previous argument in Inflection Points that tech is emerging as the primary battlefield in our new era of major power competition between China and the US.

Foreign Policy authors, noting that a “perfect storm is brewing in Washington and Beijing,” usefully handicap two major questions this raises.

First, what will be the impact of breaking the 5G ecosystem on the pace of innovation.  Second, how is it likely to divide up the world?

“…especially development economies,” the authors write, “may not find Huawei so threatening.” They may believe they can’t stop China and the US from spying on them “and given that reality, they might as well benefit from cheap, reliable Huawei equipment.” Read More →

Iran: The Islamic Republic’s 40-year itch
Najmeh Bozorgmehr / FINANCIAL TIMES

Why We Invited the Pope to the Arabian Peninsula
Yousef Al Otaiba / POLITICO

This week, the Iranian revolution turned 40.

US National Security Adviser John Bolton predicted last year that the Islamic “republic would not last until its 40th birthday,” and on that he was wrong.

“But,” writes the FT’s Najmeh Bozorgmehr, “for the first time in four decades there is a serious debate inside the country over whether the Islamic Republic can survive in its current form… battered by sanctions, criticised over its involvement in foreign conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and distracted by internal splits over who will replace the ageing supreme leader, the Islamic Republic looks highly vulnerable.” Read More →

Positive moments in the Mideast should be celebrated, particularly when they involve religious tolerance and tilt the balance against extremism.

Writing for Politico, the UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba draws on the past to inspire a better future.

“Sixty years ago deep in the desert, missionary doctors and Bedouin villagers built a bridge between two faiths with acts of kindness and understanding. We can do it again.” Read More →

Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @FredKempe. Subscribe to his weekly InflectionPoints  newsletter.

Image: President Donald Trump delivered the State of the Union address at the Capitol in Washington, DC on February 5, 2019. (Doug Mills/Pool via REUTERS)