Donald Trump begins the search in earnest this week for a new National Security Adviser after sacking John Bolton. The dismissal of the hawkish Bolton, Trump’s third such adviser, comes as the president is now entering a critical few weeks for his foreign policy which will determine whether he enters his re-election year on the crest of a wave, or facing further setback.
Trump has proven at least a partial exception to most presidents in the modern era who have tended to put predominant emphasis on domestic policy in their first few years of office. To be sure, Trump’s sole major legislative success, his corporate tax cuts of 2017, also came during his first three years.
Yet, he has also placed very significant emphasis on foreign policy too already during his presidency from China to North Korea, Iran to Russia. Not to mention a series of big plays around multilateral trade from the proposed new US-Mexico-Canada agreement through to pulling out the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal with around a dozen other countries in Asia-Pacific and the Americas.
He [Trump] could yet enter election year with a foreign policy wind behind his campaign sails, or continue to be flummoxed by policy challenges.
This pattern looks set to continue, and may only intensify. Looking into next year, the United States is for instance hosting next year’s G7, which will occupy a significant amount of White House attention, especially with Trump looking to make the event — potentially at the property his family company owns in Miami — into as big a success as possible. In placing so much emphasis on foreign policy in his first term Trump has pre-empted the pattern of most recent second-term presidents who increasingly looked overseas after re-election, rather than before.
As world leaders prepare to travel to New York for this month’s high-level General Assembly event, there are multiple big foreign policy prizes that the Trump team perceives are in play. Yet, in all cases the process remains fragile, and prone to reversal, as the US-Taliban peace talks show.
Take the example of Iran with Trump indicating last week that there is a possibility of a meeting with President Hassan Rouhani later this month at the UN. The apparent prize here for the White House is the possibility of Tehran agreeing in the face of growing pressure to a new, tougher deal that goes beyond the 2015 nuclear agreement.
However, while that possibility cannot be ruled out entirely, a breakthrough appears unlikely in the immediate term. Indeed, it is at least just as likely that the tensions with Tehran will grow further in coming weeks.
There are at least two other areas in which Trump see potentially legacy defining agreements. Firstly, North Korea where it remains an open question whether sustained moves toward “denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula will ultimately prove anything more than a mirage.
Yet, despite all the challenges, Trump is likely to continue his Korea gambit with his re-election campaign on the horizon. This, along with his desire to cement a place in history, means the potential prize of potentially permanently de-escalating tensions in the world’s last Cold War frontier is likely to remain appealing to him.
At the heart of the apparent logjam, right now, between Washington and Pyongyang is not just the vagueness of the commitments agreed in Singapore. There also may still be a fundamental difference between Pyongyang and Washington over what next steps are needed to build confidence.
It was always very likely that Kim would be wary about making big concrete commitments, at least initially, and want to win economic and political concessions from Trump before any reduction in nuclear capabilities, let alone committing to “full denuclearisation”. With the two sides not having met at senior levels for some time, Mike Pompeo said last week that this process will resume again as soon as this month.
Yet another potential win for Trump comes with China where several months ago he appeared on the verge of a breakthrough trade deal. Yet, despite the fact that the mood music and expectations were so high, agreement remains elusive.
With high-level negotiations expected to resume next month, after several weeks of impasse, there remains a significant possibility of a breakthrough to avert a potential trade war. Trump for his part still asserts a “very big deal” is on the horizon, and the possibility cannot be excluded that he and President Xi Jinping both ultimately conclude it is in their personal political interests to take this issue off the table in the context of a slowing global economy.
Yet, if the trade talks do break down again in coming weeks, it may be harder to reach a deal in 2020 with the extra political pressures of a US election year. Ultimately, as Trump moves into campaign mode, he needs to show his US political base as wide a range of concessions from China to seek to fulfil his “America First” agenda.
Taken together, this underlines why this autumn will be such a big few months for Trump. He could yet enter election year with a foreign policy wind behind his campaign sails, or continue to be flummoxed by policy challenges that have long bedevilled him.
— Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics