February brings the most significant series of tests yet of whether President Trump can transform his disruptive U.S. foreign policy into concrete outcomes.
The four to watch most closely are:
- negotiating a trade deal with China
- denuclearizing North Korea
- rallying an international community to contain Iran
- democratizing Venezuela.
Trump’s trade team, led by U.S. 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 G-20 in Buenos Aires.
That would not only head off the increase of tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods from 10 percent to 25 percent, 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, 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,” Trump said in the speech.
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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 Pompeo. In an interview this week with Fox Business, 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 advisor 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 U.S. 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 U.S. global interests during the Trump administration.
There’s also much more in play, stretching the bandwidth of a U.S. 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 U.S. delegation of all time, including over 40 members of Congress, is heading to Germany this Friday for the Munich Security Conference, a symbolic opposition to any steps Trump would take to weaken U.S. commitment to NATO or, at the very worst, withdraw from the alliance.
The House of Representatives has passed legislation that is engineered to “ring fence” Trump on NATO, and the 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 James 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 Mattis, John Kelly and H.R. 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.
Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper’s European edition. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter
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