Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS
Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS

Washington — US President Donald Trump ended 2018 dramatically by ordering US troops out of Syria and accelerating his defence secretary’s resignation by two months. The first quarter of 2019 looks to be just as tumultuous.

From China to Iran, Trump has set a host of deadlines for action that will help reveal if the president is really the global deal-maker he professes to be or a leader who’s leaving the US diminished on the world stage as he boasts of his “America First” foreign policy.

“The next several months are pivotal,” Stewart Patrick, director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Programme at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview. “There’s a really crowded international calendar populated by things that have risen to the top of the agenda because of the US administration’s policies in forcing confrontation.”

Beyond the change-over at the Pentagon, Trump is going without a UN ambassador — Nikki Haley’s tenure ended last month and the president has yet to formally nominate state department spokesperson Heather Nauert, his choice to replace her. And Trump will confront a House of Representatives controlled by Democrats, who promise closer scrutiny of the administration’s foreign policy.

Trump could always push his deadlines later into the year — he’s famous for saying a decision will be made in “two weeks”, and then not following through. For now, at least, here are some of the most important foreign-policy deadlines the president and his team have set for the first few months of the year.

China

The biggest test of Trump’s approach to world affairs will be China and a trade dispute that reaches a crisis point in March. That’s when the president has threatened to raise tariffs on $200bn in Chinese goods to 25% from 10% unless Beijing agrees to a trade accord on terms favorable to the US.

While Trump tweeted over the weekend that he had a “very good call” with Chinese President Xi Jinping and “big progress is being made”, the tariff threat encapsulates the administration’s increasingly aggressive stance toward toward China and Trump’s willingness to take on other countries no matter the potential economic fallout.

“Ninety days is not much time to tackle issues that have bedeviled Beijing and Washington for years,”’ Michael Hirson, who leads Eurasia Group’s coverage of China and served for three years as the US treasury department’s chief representative to Beijing, said in a recent note.

Trade isn’t all that’s stoking tensions: there’s a simmering dispute over China’s claims in the South China Sea. In Washington, the justice department announced indictments accusing Chinese officials of co-ordinating a decade-long espionage campaign to steal intellectual property (IP)and other data from dozens of companies. The US is also seeking the extradition from Canada of Meng Wanzhou, CFO of China’s Huawei Technologies, over allegations that she helped the firm evade sanctions on Iran.

North Korea

Last year started with North Korea’s nuclear programme as Trump’s most intractable foreign policy problem. Then, at a historic summit in June, Trump and Kim Jong-un shook hands and reached a vague agreement to forge better ties and “to work towards the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”. While little has happened since, Trump has said he’d like a second summit with Kim in early 2019.

Below the surface, positions are hardening. US secretary of ctate Michael Pompeo’s envoy to North Korea has struggled to get one-on-one time with his counterpart. And although the US says the goal of its détente is the “fully verifiable” dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, the country’s state media said in December that “complete denuclearisation” means the US needs to remove its nuclear weapons from the region as well.

Kim used his New Year’s address to warn Trump that North Korea will take a “new path” in nuclear talks if the US doesn’t relax economic sanctions.

For now, the diplomatic process is “stuck and really there are no meetings”, according to Joseph Yun, the former US special representative for North Korea. “There has been no progress on the key issues.”

Syria and Afghanistan

Trump shocked the world and drew bipartisan criticism with his sudden decision during a phone call with Turkey’s president last month to withdraw US troops from Syria — shifting the landscape of that country’s crowded battlefield in one fell swoop. Syrian forces backed by Russia and Iran are rushing to fill the void, while America’s Kurdish allies confront the prospect of being abandoned (again) by the US

The US move precipitated Jim Mattis’s resignation as defence secretary. It also took Israel’s government by surprise, prompting the US to re-affirm that Israel has the right to defend itself against Iran — and Iranian proxies, such as Hezbollah, across the border in Syria.

But Trump has since signaled that the troops will be sent home “slowly” while still fighting Islamic State (IS) “remnants.” That leaves the pace of withdrawal and terms of future engagement to be decided in coming weeks.

The president also is under pressure to clarify his intentions for US troops in Afghanistan soon. Despite reports he’s ordered half of the 14,000 soldiers there to come home, a national security council spokesperson said last week that “the president has not made a determination to draw down US military presence in Afghanistan”.

Iran

Trump pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in May and unleashed sanctions against nations that keep importing Iranian oil in October. Eight governments won waivers from those restrictions — exemptions that expire in April. The deadline presents the US with some tough decisions.

While some countries that won waivers — such as South Korea, Italy and Taiwan — may manage to wean themselves off Iranian crude, Trump will have to determine how far he’s willing to go to confront and punish India, a strategic ally, and China. With oil below $50 a barrel, the US may feel it has even more leeway to pressure those countries, no matter the diplomatic fallout.

Russia and the INF

Trump’s vows to seek better ties with Moscow have been sidelined by Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian ships near Crimea, its poisoning of a former spy in the UK, and the growing evidence of its interference in the 2016 election. In early December, Pompeo said Russia has 60 days to come back into compliance with a 1987 treaty on nuclear weapons, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), or the US would pull out.

A withdrawal could lead to heightened military tensions in Europe, but Russian President Vladimir Putin said last month that no talks with the US are taking place. The end of the Cold War accord seems near.

“Our nations have a choice”, Pompeo told Nato in December. “We either bury our head in the sand, or we take common sense action in response to Russia’s flagrant disregard for the express terms of the INF Treaty.” 

Venezuela

The Trump administration is also mulling new actions against Venezuela by January 10, the day President Nicolás Maduro’s current term expires. The US says that May elections that gave Maduro another term were a sham and the administration needs to send a signal to show its disapproval.

This could take many forms. One possibility would be to designate Venezuela a state sponsor of terrorism. US officials believe they have a clear legal case to do this because of Venezuela’s support for rebel groups in Colombia. But this move must be weighed against political considerations and the reality that it would mean the imposition of sanctions that could further strangle Venezuela’s oil economy, lead to a new surge of migrants flowing from the country into Colombia, a US ally, and affect the bottom line for US refiners that import Venezuelan oil.

With Jenny Leonard and Shannon Pettypiece.

Bloomberg