The Washington DIplomat / March 2017
By Larry Luxner
From Berlin to Beijing, from Tallinn to Taipei, President Donald Trump seems eager to pick fights — even among U.S. allies — without leaving the White House, where infighting among his own team has made his young administration one of the most volatile in U.S. history.
In less than a month in office, the 45th president has managed to turn the world order upside down.
He infuriated Chinese leaders by questioning America’s long-standing commitment to Beijing’s “one China” policy regarding Taiwan, provoked anger across the Islamic world by instituting a refugee order widely seen as a blanket ban on Muslims and infuriated Arabs by insisting he would move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Two weeks into the job, he even sparked outrage in Australia, one of America’s most steadfast allies, by abruptly cutting short a 25-minute phone conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
As if that’s not enough, he’s lashed out at Germany, indirectly called for the dismantling of the European Union and threatened to start a trade war with Mexico over the building of a massive border wall to keep out illegal immigrants.
Yet all this pales in comparison to the fallout following the forced resignation of Trump’s national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, after it was revealed that he had discussed U.S. sanctions in a phone call with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and then lied about it to no less than Vice President Mike Pence. The White House, embroiled in controversy over the timeline of who knew what when, is now in full damage control mode.
On Feb. 14, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said it was “highly likely” that the events leading up to Flynn’s departure would be included in a broader congressional probe into Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Democrats smell blood and are pushing for a wider independent investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia (the FBI is already reportedly looking into contacts between Trump’s campaign associates and Moscow a year before the U.S. election).
Leaks have gushed out of the White House at an unprecedented pace and constant chaos seems to have become the new norm. Conservative pundit Eliot A. Cohen, director of the strategic studies program at Johns Hopkins University and a noted Trump critic, suggests that precisely because the problem is one of Trump’s temperament and character, the situation will not get better.
“It will get worse, as power intoxicates Trump and those around him,” Cohen wrote recently in The Atlantic. “It will probably end in calamity — substantial domestic protest and violence, a breakdown of international economic relationships, the collapse of major alliances, or perhaps one or more new wars (even with China) on top of the ones we already have. It will not be surprising in the slightest if his term ends not in four or in eight years, but sooner, with impeachment or removal under the 25th Amendment. The sooner Americans get used to these likelihoods, the better.”
At the start of the year, many journalists and think tanks reported on possible conflict scenarios to watch out for in 2017, ranging from Islamic State attacks on Turkey to humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen to bloodshed in South Sudan, Myanmar, Afghanistan and Iraq.
But in just a span of a few weeks, Trump has upended that equation, creating new trouble-spots that could erupt in violence or cause global chaos. To make sense of it all, we have selected five areas of conflict, military or otherwise, likely to worsen in 2017 under Trump — and what experts say can be done to prevent things from spiraling out of control.
It remains to be seen whether Trump’s connections with Russia snowball into a Watergate-like downfall. Regardless, Trump’s admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin is well documented, as is his desire to please Moscow by lifting sanctions imposed against it by his predecessor, Barack Obama. That leaves Ukraine, still split between a beleaguered central government in Kiev and Moscow-backed rebels in the east, in the crosshairs.
The Flynn scandal may have quashed the administration’s hopes of a major rapprochement with Russia for the time being, but European leaders worry about America’s commitment to the sanctions imposed on Moscow for annexing Crimea in 2014. Europe, a major trading partner with Russia, has felt the sting of those penalties far more than the U.S. has, and without Washington’s backing, Germany and other countries may be hard pressed to convince their publics to stick with sanctions that have hurt their economies.
But removing those sanctions would amount to rewarding the Kremlin for bad behavior, warned John Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center.
He said it’s no coincidence that within 36 hours of Trump’s Jan. 28 phone call with Putin — which focused mainly on working together to defeat the Islamic State — “the Russians upped the violence in Ukraine substantially.”
Herbst, who was U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006, noted that for three days, as fighting raged in eastern Ukraine that killed over two dozen civilians and soldiers, “the administration said only that, ‘We’re concerned about this.’ Only on Thursday, the fourth day of the violence, did Nikki Haley [U.S. ambassador to the United Nations] in New York slam the Kremlin for its aggression. But this slamming was never repeated by the White House. That Sunday, Trump was asked on the news if he was embarrassed by the fact that the violence went up substantially after his phone call, and he said he wasn’t.”
Observers say there is also a chance, however, that Ukraine instigated some of the violence itself.
“Kiev, too, has become less inclined to compromise as it has grown more uncertain about Washington’s policy toward the conflict,” wrote Kiev-based Isaac Webb in a Feb. 6 Foreign Policy article.
He noted that Ukraine has been making frequent incursions into the “gray zone,” the no man’s land separating government and rebel forces, increasing the likelihood of clashes. Moreover, neither side seems particularly inclined to implement the hard compromises laid out in the Minsk accords that led to the current fragile ceasefire.
“At the same time, the Ukrainian president’s office has used the escalation to remind Trump of the costs of rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin: ‘The shelling is massive. Who would dare talk about lifting the sanctions in such circumstances?’” Webb wrote.
But for Trump, Ukraine — whose Russian intervention has led to nearly three years of war and about 10,000 deaths — is at best a secondary consideration, according to Herbst.
“That’s why he keeps talking about lifting sanctions if the Russians help us fight ISIS [Islamic State]. He doesn’t seem to understand that Russia is conducting a war of aggression in Ukraine, and that their aim is to weaken NATO and the EU,” Herbst told The Diplomat. “What we’re seeing right now is a fair amount of institutional pushback against this unwise policy, and not just from Sen. John McCain [R-Ariz.] and the Democrats. Even McConnell made a statement about how this is not the time to be talking about removing sanctions. Sen. Paul Ryan [R-Wis.] said the same thing. I suspect that if Trump keeps pushing, he’ll produce a serious response from Congress.”
Peter Doran, executive vice president at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), said this debate is being watched very closely throughout Eastern Europe, but especially in the three ex-Soviet republics of the Baltics: Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. “If the United States is going to be tested somewhere on its frontier of power, that test is likely to come where American capabilities are weak,” Doran told us. “Certainly NATO’s eastern flank has been one of the most neglected zones of conflict in recent memory. Since the Crimea invasion, the U.S. has scrambled to catch up with the game that Vladimir Putin is already playing very well — and winning, for now.”
As part of an agreement struck by Obama last year, NATO has already begun moving thousands of troops to shore up its defenses in Eastern Europe, with the first contingent arriving in Poland in January. But allies remain nervous whether Trump will follow through on the new deployments and other promised NATO initiatives. Indeed, during a Feb. 15 visit to Brussels, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reiterated Trump’s longstanding threat that NATO members must contribute their fair share and spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense.
“If your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to this alliance, each of your capitals needs to show support for our common defense,” he warned.
At the same time, Mattis has repeatedly sought to reassure allies that the security bloc remains vital to U.S. interests.
Still, NATO allies are closely watching to see how the Russia drama will unfold. Doran said that despite the general rancor in Washington, there is “strong bilateral support” on Capitol Hill for taking a tough line toward the Kremlin, as well as a transatlantic consensus that the sanctions against Russia are there for good reason.
“Keeping the sanctions in place sends a very clear message to Russia: that the international system is governed by laws, that those laws must be respected and that these actions are not acceptable in the 21st century. Putin is a leader who respects strength and power — and removing the sanctions as a way of accommodating the Kremlin would be a serious mistake.”
Many observers assumed the initial flashpoint between China and the U.S. under a new administration would occur because of maritime disputes in the South China Sea, where Beijing has been aggressively staking its territorial claims.
But Trump’s surprise December acceptance of a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen — the first since the U.S. and Taiwan severed relations in 1979 — infuriated China and drove a wedge between the world’s two largest economies.
Even before that, the billionaire candidate blasted China for manipulating its currency and ruining the U.S. economy. Once in office, Trump promptly questioned whether the U.S. will use the one China policy — under which the U.S. acknowledges that there is a single Chinese government in Beijing — as leverage to extract concessions from Beijing, which views Taiwan as a renegade province and a core national interest.
But after receiving the diplomatic cold shoulder from Chinese President Xi Jinping for weeks, Trump toned down his anti-China rhetoric, though it’s unclear what might happen next — especially with regard to Taiwan and an even more potentially serious flashpoint: North Korea.
“Donald Trump is enabling Xi Jinping to make China great again,” quipped Robert A. Manning, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.
“Trump stepped in with his initial inane, ignorant comments, thinking that since the whole world is a real estate deal, he’d put Taiwan on the table as a bargaining chip,” Manning told The Diplomat in a phone interview. “The Taiwanese were pretty indignant. It achieved the unique goal of pissing off Taiwan and China at the same time.”
On Feb. 10, Trump agreed to accept the one China definition during a phone call with Xi, his first since taking office.
“The reality is, this is not a bargaining chip,” Manning said. “That’s why we’re able to have a policy with China in the first place. The idea that the Chinese would negotiate that is really dumb and deeply flawed.”
In fact, he said — and this goes back way before Trump’s election — “many of our core assumptions about China have been proven wrong, for instance the notion that as they became more integrated into the international system, they’d buy into our rules, or as they succeeded economically, we’d begin to see political reform. Actually, it’s going the other way. Given that, there will be a rethinking of China policy in any event.”
High on that policy agenda, of course, are economic issues. Yet here too, says Manning, the Trump administration has been long on rhetoric and short on facts.
“They’re right in identifying China as a troubling economic actor, but they’ve chosen all the wrong issues,” he argued. “They have not manipulated their currency in years. If you talk to 100 businessmen operating in China, 99 of them will tell you the currency issue is pretty far down on their list. The real issue of concern is China’s very nationalistic industrial policies.”
Manning cited a recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce poll which found that 80 percent of U.S. companies say they feel less welcome in China than before.
“Being frozen out — that is the central issue, and hopefully [the Trump administration] will eventually figure that out.”
But Trump may have lost his biggest source of economic leverage by abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a sweeping trade deal with 12 Asia-Pacific nations that notably excluded China. While widely expected, the move opens the door for China to push its own competing trade pact — which has far less labor, intellectual property and environmental protections — and further cement its hegemony over the region.
“By preemptively eliminating tools like economic statecraft from its foreign-policy toolbox, the Trump administration will be leaving itself with only hard power to counteract China’s ambitions,” wrote Hunter Marston in Foreign Policy magazine on Jan. 23.
Marston cited comments by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at his confirmation hearing that the U.S. would deny China access to artificial islands it is building in the international waters of the South China Sea. White House press secretary Sean Spicer doubled down on that statement, perhaps unaware of its implications. That’s because any attempt by the U.S. to militarily bar China from those islands would require a naval blockade, which would be tantamount to an act of war.
Whether those comments were a slip of the tongue because Trump officials don’t fully grasp the issue or an intentional warning, they sent a chilling signal to China watchers.
“Tillerson’s provocative remarks may be a rhetorical gesture, another tenuous red line, or they may signal the beginnings of a far more assertive American policy of containment aimed at curbing China’s control of the South China Sea. Either interpretation invites peril,” warned Marston.
What this means for North Korea’s nuclear ambitions remains to be seen. Trump has lamented that Beijing should do more to rein in its erratic neighbor, which fired a nuclear test and a barrage of missile launches last year. Its most recent provocation was an intermediate-range ballistic missile test that took place while Trump was visiting with Japan’s prime minister. Trump’s response was uncharacteristically muted as he sought to avoid an escalation with the North’s mercurial dictator, Kim Jong-un. But if the North fires an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S., that would immediately change the calculus.
Regardless, Trump needs the cooperation of China, North Korea’s economic lifeline, to address the nuclear threat on the Korean Peninsula. But Beijing is wary of toppling Kim’s regime, fearing an influx of millions of poor refugees and a unified U.S. ally on its doorstep.
“In the past, China’s role [in North Korea] has been cited as an area of U.S.-China cooperation,” said Manning. “But there’s a real risk it will become an area of U.S.-China contention. They clearly hate North Korea, and North Korea hates them, but they’re stuck with each other. China’s biggest fear is instability on the Korean Peninsula. They don’t want to do anything that would threaten that stability, so there are limits to how far they’d go.”
To that end, some experts say it’s time to end the U.S. policy of strategic patience and engage with the North, a prospect China favors. John Delury, a senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, wrote in Foreign Affairs that the Trump administration “should negotiate a freeze of North Korea’s nuclear program in return for a U.S. security guarantee, since that is the only measure that could enable Kim to start concentrating on economic development and the belated transformation of North Korea.”
He adds: “Like it or not, North Korea’s nukes are a reality. The United States needs a new strategy for dealing with Kim — and Trump is well placed to deliver it.”
During his presidential campaign, Trump vowed to crush the so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL) and “defeat the ideology of radical Islamic terrorism.” But that’s easier said than done — Obama essentially made the same pledge to defeat the terrorist group. Last year, Obama’s administration did, in fact, significantly degrade the group’s capabilities, dislodging it from large tracts of territory in Iraq, Syria and Libya and killing thousands of its fighters through a relentless bombing campaign. At the same time, the Islamic State has adapted into a guerilla-style insurgency still capable of recruiting lone wolves to launch spectacular attacks abroad, both in the U.S. and Europe.
Experts fear that Trump’s controversial refugee ban will only add fuel to the fire, helping the Islamic State recruit disgruntled Arabs all over the world to attack the West. In any event, “crushing” the Islamic State has little to do with ending the grinding six-year war in Syria, a war that’s cost more than 500,000 lives and sparked Europe’s worst migration crisis since World War II. Nor will a military victory over the group end the global war on terrorism that began with 9/11.
Michael Totten, a veteran foreign correspondent with more than a decade of experience in the Middle East, said Trump’s Mideast approach is doomed to fail.
“President Trump has repeatedly said he wants to partner with Russia in Syria to fight ISIS, but there are a couple of problems with that,” Totten told The Diplomat in an email.
“First, Russia is not fighting ISIS in Syria. Russia is propping up the [Bashar al-] Assad regime and fighting every faction in Syria except ISIS. Second, Russia is part of the Iranian/Syrian/Hezbollah axis. Syria has been a Russian client state since the Cold War, and Iran gets its nuclear material from Moscow. So Vladimir Putin is a patron and armorer of Syria, which is the biggest state sponsor of international terrorism in the Arab world, and of Iran, which is the biggest state sponsor of international terrorism in the entire world.”
Totten, winner of the Washington Institute Book Prize for his 2012 analysis of Hezbollah, “The Road to Fatima Gate,” is predictably pessimistic about Trump helping to end Syria’s horrific civil war.
“Trump wants to be tough on Iran and tough on ISIS, but he can’t do both at the same time if he climbs into bed with Vladimir Putin,” he told us, referring to Iran and Russia’s alliance in Syria.
As of late 2016, write professors Hal Brands of Johns Hopkins University and Peter Feaver of Duke University in Foreign Affairs, the Islamic State had lost control of key strongholds such as Fallujah and Ramadi in Iraq, and Manbij and Jarabulus in Syria. Iraqi forces are currently struggling to retake Mosul, while U.S.-backed militia groups in Syria are attempting to capture the de facto Islamic State capital of Raqqa. Since August 2014, the Pentagon estimates that the U.S. coalition has killed more than 45,000 Islamic State fighters.
But even if the Islamic State can be destroyed, what happens next in the Middle East?
“Remnants of the caliphate may morph into an insurgency. Al Qaeda and its affiliates will still pose a threat. Moreover, the conditions that breed jihadist organizations will likely persist across the greater Middle East,” the professors write.
They say that leaves four options. “At one extreme, Washington could abandon its military commitments in the greater Middle East on the assumption that it is U.S. interference that provokes terrorism in the first place. At the other, it could adopt a heavy-footprint surge strategy that would involve using overwhelming military force … and attempt to politically transform the societies that produce [terrorist groups]. In between lie two options: one, a light-footprint approach akin to that taken by the Obama administration before ISIS’s rise; the other, a more robust approach closer to Washington’s response to ISIS since late 2014.”
Their conclusion: None of the four options are ideal. “The least worst choice would be an approach close to the medium-footprint strategy being used to defeat ISIS today.”
A February report by Rand Corp. suggests a similar strategy and advocates viewing the group as a trans-regional threat.
“The nature of the threat suggests the need to prioritize the security of Americans in the homeland, but does not imply placing the United States on a continuous war footing,” write authors Lynn E. Davis, Jeffrey Martini and Kim Cragin.
Rather, this approach involves boosting resources for intelligence and law enforcement, as well airstrikes and special ops raids. The authors also say the U.S. must help address underlying grievances that breed radicalism, including weak states and poor governance.
“The U.S. counter-ISIL strategy overseas should be designed to improve these conditions to the extent possible, but strategists must recognize that the United States has limited leverage to affect these conditions, and improvements will require years to accomplish.”
Will Trump be the president that finally brokers peace between the Arabs and Jews?
It’s hard to say, though Trump is the first U.S. leader to have a Jewish daughter and son-in-law. His relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is certainly warmer than the one his predecessor, Obama, had with Israel’s leader.
Throughout his campaign and even during the first week of his presidency, Trump vowed to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But no such move appears imminent. That doesn’t surprise Gershon Baskin, founder and co-chairman of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.
“Trump will probably sign the order delaying the implementation of the move, mainly because the intelligence and military people will tell him that if he moves the embassy, American lives will be at risk,” Baskin told The Diplomat in a phone call from Jerusalem. “That’s what’s happened for the past 20 years, and that’s not likely to change.”
Even so, Trump is seen as more pro-Israel than any American president in recent memory. Although the president has called additional settlement construction unhelpful toward achieving peace, his pick for U.S. ambassador to Israel, Orthodox Jewish lawyer
David Friedman, is an unabashed proponent of settlements who has disavowed the two-state solution and bashed liberal Jews.
The administration’s pro-Israeli bend is not necessarily a good thing, warn Dana H. Allin and Steven N. Simon, authors of “Our Separate Ways: The Struggle for the Future of the U.S.-Israel Alliance.”
In a lengthy article for Foreign Affairs, the two authors outline the dangers of Trump’s alliance with Israel’s hard right.
“Although any new administration would find the landscape daunting, the United States’ strategic interests and moral values call for continued opposition to Israeli settlements in occupied territory, a continued insistence that the Palestinians pursue their cause through peaceful means, a continued commitment to a two-state solution, and continued attentiveness to Israel’s strategic vulnerabilities,” they wrote. “In other words, the most basic requirement is to do no harm, thus following in the tradition of past presidents.”
On Feb. 15, Trump — who has suggested enlisting the help of Arab states to break the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate — met with Netanyahu in Washington and held a joint press conference.
“The body language was terrific, and their rhetoric on Iran is probably very close,” said Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center. “I think both Bibi and Trump are coming to the conclusion that it’ll be almost impossible to scuttle the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] on Iran, but they both want to work to enforce strictly the [nuclear weapons] agreement.”
He added: “They also want to work with Sunni Arab countries. One of the interesting challenges and opportunities is to get Arab states to recognize Israel and provide the imprimatur for some kind of long-term or permanent peace arrangement.”
But that has effectively left the Palestinians out of the equation. In fact, the president, in typical Trump fashion, jettisoned decades of diplomatic convention by declaring that he was open to the idea of a one-state solution, thereby effectively abandoning Washington’s long-term support of two states — one for Jews, the other for Palestinians — as a way of ending the conflict. “I can live with either one,” he told reporters.
Whether the Palestinians can is another matter entirely.
The two issues that propelled Donald Trump into the White House were trade and immigration — and Mexico is the proxy for both issues. It’s unfortunate, because until Trump’s election, the relationship between North America’s two most populous countries was quite positive.
Yet Trump’s rhetoric about building a wall (now estimated to cost $21 billion), deporting up to 3 million undocumented immigrants and slapping a 35 percent tariff on imports from Mexico hasn’t ended with his campaign. That worries Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank.
“This administration is still figuring out what it’s going to do on both immigration and trade issues,” he said. “They’ll have to do something that’s a change from the previous administration, because that’s why Trump was elected.”
But things are complicated by the fact that nobody is currently in charge of Latin America at the State Department. And while Roberta Jacobson — a seasoned diplomat who spent four years as Obama’s assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs — is now U.S. ambassador to Mexico, she’s unlikely to stay in that position for very long.
“The question is, how far will he go?” Shifter mused. “[Secretary of State] Tillerson recently met with Mexico’s foreign minister. He and other Cabinet officials like [Secretary of Defense] James Mattis and [Secretary of Homeland Security] John F. Kelly have a better understanding about what the stakes are in the U.S. taking such an aggressive position, which could really hurt us economically. It’s already damaged Mexico in a number of ways and is playing into the election campaign of 2018. If these economic measures are applied, that’s going to make economic conditions in Mexico worse, which is likely to spur migration to the United States.” (Ironically, net migration from Mexico has been down since the 2008 recession.)
Shifter warned that Mexico — which has been “very helpful” on issues ranging from drug interdiction to stemming the flow of Central American migrants — might not want to cooperate if the U.S. government pursues policies that hurt its southern neighbor.
“The hope is that if you have responsible people like Tillerson, Kelly and Mattis in senior positions, and some members of Congress, including Republicans, begin to speak out, the basic elements of our relationship will be preserved going forward and some of the damage could be contained.”
Shifter says he has no doubt that NAFTA will be renegotiated, most likely under the leadership of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
Yet Walter Molano, writing in Latinvex, says Mexico could be the “unexpected star” of Latin America in 2017.
“Despite the rhetoric from the White House, the Mexican economy will benefit from economic revival in the United States,” he predicted. “Today, Mexico is an integral part of the U.S. industrial base. Hence, the expansion in U.S. economic activity will surely be felt south of the border.”
Molano noted that many of the companies that have announced changes to their Mexican investment plans, like General Motors and Chrysler, either received government bailouts in the past or depend heavily on federal contracts.
“It is only natural that they kowtow to the new powers in Washington,” he observed. “Still, the larger set of corporations that are not as dependent on government assistance or projects will continue to operate unabatedly, and provide a strong boost to the Mexican economy. In other words, there will be winners and losers in 2017, but Mexico could be holding the proverbial Trump card.”