So even as China will have to contend with rising debt vulnerabilities, supply chain disruptions, currency stress and the social unease of an all-out trade war, it is prepared to do just that if the White House refuses to significantly scale down its demands. In other words, China is preparing for the worst while testing just how badly Trump wants to clinch a deal, however imperfect, to strengthen his reelection bid and remove a thick layer of uncertainty hanging over the global economy. If the White House sticks to its guns, then China would rather forgo a deal than agree to a bad one that ends up aiding Trump’s 2020 campaign.
A Worried Lot Prays for Distraction
While Iran and China are the most pressing and unavoidable foreign policy challenges facing Trump, there are a number of nervous countries on his target list hoping to ride out the clock to 2020 without major incident.
The European Union has little hope of reaching a trade compromise with the Trump White House that effectively neutralizes the threat of auto tariffs and opens European agricultural markets to more U.S. competition. EU negotiators will try to drag out talks for as long as possible and hope that the economic blowback from Trump’s existing trade wars will constrain further escalation.
The European Union also seems to have given up hope on engaging the Trump administration on World Trade Organization reform to stop the White House from driving the trade authority’s appellate body into paralysis. Instead, the European Union is improvising by creating an ad hoc system to arbitrate trade disputes in the hopes that 2020 will produce an American president who will be more willing to uphold the rules-based system that the United States itself created to govern global trade.
Japan, on the other hand, has a decent shot at negotiating a successful trade deal with the United States to avoid auto tariffs. And in the event that trade talks drag out, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is going out of his way to demonstrate his alignment with the United States on an array of issues, including Iran, China and North Korea, to lessen the chances of Japan becoming a trade casualty in the final months of Trump’s term.
India meanwhile had managed to fly under the radar for most of Trump’s term but has only recently grown into a big target for the White House. New Delhi will do its best to avoid escalating a confrontation with the United States over trade barriers and India’s ties to Iran and Russia while hoping that a new American president will take a more careful approach to managing strategic allies like India that can help hedge in China.
Mexico does not have time on its side. Border security will feature prominently in Trump’s reelection bid, and instability in Central America will continue to drive migrants northward. If and when ill-equipped Mexican security forces fall short of curbing migrant flows to the United States within the next three months, then Mexico City and Guatemala will be expected to reform their asylum laws to prevent migrants from reaching the United States. But the asylum step will be rife with legal complications and delays, raising the potential for Trump to once again threaten Mexico with heavy tariffs.
Mexico City is sticking to an official policy of “patience and prudence,” while hoping that the massive economic consequence that comes with upending North American trade will constrain Trump from following through with his tariff threats in the runup to the 2020 election. Mexico will nonetheless be unable to escape the fact that it remains an easy target in Trump’s tough guy border act.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, on the other hand, may have dodged a bullet. After a flopped U.S.-backed coup attempt, Venezuela has fallen low on the list of U.S. foreign policy priorities. And with another Mideast war scenario now consuming him, Trump is unlikely to have the appetite to even entertain a messy military intervention and post-coup mop-up in Venezuela. Instead, the United States will stick to its sanctions campaign and watch from the sidelines as Venezuela continues to spiral on its own.
The Opportunists Lean In
For a small group of countries, the Trump presidency is a true window of opportunity. And if there is a chance of that window closing in November 2020, then this is the time to squeeze as much out of the Trump White House as possible before he becomes a lame duck.
Israel has already succeeded in securing the White House’s recognition of Jerusalem as its capital and of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory. It has even succeeded in getting the White House to neuter the concept of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to turn a blind eye toward West Bank annexation.
Now the question is how far does Israel want Trump to carry the anti-Iran campaign. Israel will be dealing with a lot of blowback from Iranian proxies, but it’s also no stranger to that threat. And if Iran is already driving the United States toward a military strike anyway, Israel will try to ensure that the target set is as comprehensive as possible to set the Iranian military and possibly Iran’s nuclear program back as much as possible.
Israel is, therefore, a key variable that could widen the scope of a U.S. military plan against Iran. Saudi Arabia, while wary of Iranian retaliation in a military scenario, shares Israel’s interest in ensuring Iran is severely weakened on Trump’s watch and lacks the economic resources to fund its proxies in the region. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia are also well aware that a Democratic presidential win in 2020 would raise a lot more scrutiny on the U.S. relationship with both of their countries. While it still can count on the American president’s low regard for human rights in conducting foreign policy, Saudi Arabia will rely on Trump to thwart congressional efforts to curb U.S. defense ties with the kingdom.
North Korea has a lot to gain from the Trump window and very little to lose. An Iranian military distraction along with a building great power competition with China and Russia means there is little chance that the White House entertains a military option with North Korea. On the contrary, Trump desperately wants to claim North Korea as his foreign policy success story that avoided a costly war and drove an international pariah to negotiation at the highest level.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has shored up his own credibility in securing high-level diplomatic recognition by the American president and he has used the diplomatic opening to convince North Korea’s neighbors to ease up on sanctions. In the remainder of Trump’s term, Kim can push the envelope with missile and possibly nuclear testing to try and draw Trump’s attention back to their negotiation. But even if North Korea fails to secure sanctions easing from the United States, it has managed to fully retain its nuclear deterrent in a negotiation ostensibly framed around “denuclearization.”