The Dangers (and Opportunities) of 2018: Views From the Democratic Sideline
Foreign-policy veterans on what to hope for and fear in Trump's second year.
As Donald Trump crossed into the second year of his presidency, a number of publications have taken looks back at his first year in office. Foreign Policy is no exception. Elephants in the Room asked a number of its regular contributors to name one good thing and one bad thing about Trump’s foreign policy in 2017. We at Shadow Government are taking a slightly different approach (in part because looking back at that first year tends to give us all heartburn). Instead, we’ve asked our team to look forward and identify one big danger and one big opportunity for the White House in 2018. Readers should know up front that the list won’t leave them feeling overly optimistic. In fact, most of the Shadow contributors feel like the United States got lucky in 2017; despite growing global anxiety and uncertainty, the administration managed to avoid any major foreign-policy crises. In his State of the Union address last week, Trump touted a narrative of progress but went light on policy. When pressed, even the most pessimistic Shadow contributor still offers up at least one area where the current administration could actually produce a real win — if it’s willing to follow our practical prescriptions.
In 2018, a number of Trump’s pledges are set to come due, especially regarding his promises to remake or break agreements made by his predecessors. On Iran, it’s not just the future of the nuclear deal — which he has said he’ll improve or walk away from. It’s the lack of a strategy to match his rhetoric that Iran is “on notice.” Similarly, it’s hard to imagine Trump reaching a deal to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement that passes muster with Mexicans, mercantilists, and the U.S. Congress — and even harder to imagine him accepting the economic consequences of actually walking away. The danger is that Trump will corner himself and act recklessly to upend agreements that benefit the United States. The opportunity will be in finding the face-saving formulas to do the right thing.
The biggest opportunity for the Trump team in 2018 is to build a more capable U.S. military. The biggest danger is that he will use that military unwisely. The administration has a chance to secure a major, long-term increase in defense spending — something that is badly needed to address the erosion of U.S. deterrence and military advantage in an increasingly contested international environment. Yet the administration will also face the temptation to use military force against North Korea. In part, this is because Trump’s irresponsible rhetoric has walked America into a classic escalation/humiliation trap. In part, it is because any administration would face hard choices, as North Korean missile and nuclear programs near the point at which Pyongyang could reliably deliver a nuclear weapon to the continental United States. The consequences of letting Pyongyang have such a capability, and relying on a policy of robust deterrence, are likely to be uncomfortable and perhaps even dangerous, whereas the consequences of fighting to deny that capability could prove to be far more disastrous still. The Trump team has talked about reviving the Ronald Reagan-era approach of “peace through strength.” Here’s hoping it can develop the strength while preserving the peace in 2018.
Although the past year has felt like one of perpetual chaos, there were mercifully few surprises globally. Our luck may soon run out. The list of potential dangers is long: war on the Korean Peninsula, some kind of Russian adventurism after this summer’s World Cup, a collapsed Iran nuclear deal, the end of NAFTA, a Syria strategy in tatters with Turkey at war with the Kurds, and the risk of a massive terrorist attack. But what concerns me most is the looming constitutional crisis at home — most likely stemming from Trump’s effort to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference or, if the investigation is allowed to proceed to completion, the president’s reaction to Mueller’s findings once they are released. This is going to get worse before it gets better, and the 2018 midterms will almost certainly be an impeachment election. This means a U.S. political system that is even more distracted and chaotic, with a president flailing to hang on. How far will he go? The answer will have a huge impact on U.S. foreign policy — but most importantly on the future of American democracy.
It feels strange to say, but the greatest chance for success could be on Iran. The future of the nuclear deal will get the most attention, but there’s an opening to forge a common way forward with the Europeans on the emerging Iranian threat in the Mediterranean Sea. Iranian access to the Mediterranean is a consequence of the Syrian civil war, and it is key piece of Tehran’s aspirations for regional dominance. Iran’s maritime threat has gotten the attention of the Israelis, U.S. military, and European defense leaders. At this summer’s NATO summit in Brussels, the Trump administration would be smart to push for greater alliance action to address this looming threat. This would breathe life into an otherwise somnolent summit. And for Trump, it would have the added benefit of turning two issues that have bedeviled him — Iran and cooperation with Europe — into a win.
Russia poses the year’s greatest danger. It will continue to be America’s No. 1 threat, a non-status quo power willing to take startling risks — such as attacking the U.S. presidential elections — to weaken the government. To ensure that the Trump administration continues to be unable to counter Russia effectively in Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and, well, all over the world, Russia will continue to surprise the U.S. government. (Think acoustic attacks on U.S. Embassy personnel in Cuba.) Russia will take advantage of opportunities to test technology, much as it did at the outset of its engagement in Syria in 2015, when Russian forces unnecessarily launched missiles from the Caspian Sea into Syria. It will also simultaneously test U.S. and international diplomatic reactions. The Trump team must be ready for Russia to continue to surprise us globally, wherever the Kremlin sees low-cost opportunities.
The grave, immediate danger of deliberate or accidental military engagement with North Korea will continue into 2018, so long as there are decision-makers in the Trump administration who believe that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un cannot be deterred and would eventually use conventional or nuclear force against the United States. This judgment of the North Korean leader is extreme, unrealistic, and harks back to the assessments regarding Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the run-up to President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Then, as now, the leader in question is interested in pursuing nuclear weapons as a means of deterrence and would only use them as a last resort to preserve his regime. Sanctions, diplomacy, and bringing truth to the North Korean people are the elements of a North Korean policy worth perusing.
Any sudden, unprovoked attack on North Korea would bring casualties, world condemnation, and an additional crash in U.S. credibility and influence, without which the country cannot translate its raw power into concerted international action. Meanwhile, not withstanding any Russian casualties, from the Kremlin perspective Russia stands to benefit from the weakening of its Asian neighbors and the United States in such a scenario and from the potential diversion of international attention away from Russian operations and military and intelligence buildups in Ukraine, Syria, Cuba, and disputed northern territories.
Opportunities: At the end of 2017, the situation in the Middle East looked grim and increasingly dangerous for Israel, America’s ally. Israeli officials expressed an expectation that the Trump administration and Russia would and could pressure Tehran to respect Israeli red lines in Syria: no permanent Iranian forces and no increase in Hezbollah capabilities closer to Israel’s border. This was and is unrealistic. However, given the recent demonstrations in Iran, perhaps Israel will receive unexpected help from the Iranian people intent on reining in the costly military adventurism of their government. This, too, could benefit long-suffering Syrian citizens and turn U.S. and international attention back to the blatant human rights assault still being perpetrated every day by Syrian and Russian forces in opposition strongholds such as Eastern Ghouta. And maybe the United States and its allies can find sufficient leverage in Iran’s limitations and in ongoing U.S. military operations to engage in some serious diplomacy and bring an end to the Syrian civil war.
When the bar is set low, there are plenty of opportunities! For starters, in 2018, Trump could take real steps to respond to Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election; develop genuine strategies for Israeli-Palestinian talks, Syria, and Yemen; keep the United States in the Paris climate agreement; and so on. Of course, Trump is unlikely to do any of this, so let’s stick to the realistic opportunities. Concern over U.S. policy in Asia right now runs deep — from talk of war with North Korea to fears that the United States might sell out allies to China. With the recent confirmation of Randy Schriver as assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs and the nomination of Susan Thornton for assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, there is a window of opportunity for the Trump administration to begin charting a more stable, principled strategy for Asia: reassuring allies, pushing back against Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, organizing a diplomatic approach to North Korea, and developing a regional economic approach to fill the giant hole left by the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Even though Trump himself will remain unmoored, an already fast pace of high-level U.S. engagement in Asia, combined with a strong interagency team, could help steady day-to-day U.S. policy in Asia in 2018.
Which brings me to the top danger for Trump in 2018: launching a preventive war against North Korea, initiating a so-called bloody-nose limited military strike on the country, or doing just about anything that starts an unprovoked, unnecessary war. North Korea poses a serious threat to the United States, and the worst policy for addressing that threat would be to initiate preventive military strikes — which, if one listens to National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and other senior officials, appears to be a very real possibility. The devastating drawbacks of war with a nuclear-armed North Korea — millions of people dead, untold economic costs, and the possibility of spiraling into a U.S.-China war — are unthinkable. And there is an unacceptable risk that an attempt at a limited strike on North Korea, intended to teach a lesson or compel Pyongyang to make concessions — would escalate into all-out war. War with North Korea would be an unmitigated catastrophe and would overtake every other conceivable domestic and international event in 2018.
Juan S. Gonzalez
The marathon of elections this year will transform the political landscape in Latin America and the Caribbean. Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Paraguay will all hold elections, and Cuban leader Raúl Castro is expected to hand over power in April. The Trump administration’s “with us or against us” approach to the region is already leading countries in the Western Hemisphere to diversify their national interests away from the United States, and America could find its regional agenda forestalled by the next cohort of regional leaders, many of whom are nontraditional candidates.
Central America will also remain a pressing issue, particularly as the Trump administration begins removing the 200,000 El Salvadorans who previously benefited from temporary protected status. Sending back such a large number of El Salvadorans, many of whom were brought to the United States at a young age, will further destabilize a country that is already struggling with gang-related violence.
In year one, the Trump team moved to turn America into a gated community akin to the president’s private Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida — high barriers for entry, disconnected, alone, and lacking influence beyond the compound’s walls. Trump’s “America First” policy has initiated U.S. retreat on the key, long-game issues that will reshape the world in the coming decade: climate change, migration, preventing the spread of dangerous weapons, advancing the fight for freedom, and leading in the global economy.
Trump’s first year also softened the ground and set the stage for what’s likely to come in 2018: a sharper focus on his nationalist economic agenda. His top priority remains the economy, and his moves on NAFTA, trade disputes, and economic ties with China and Europe could present both opportunities and peril for the United States in the world and for Trump’s political prospects at home.
The president remains erratic and mostly untested by foreign-policy crises not of his own making. There is a serious chance that events could turn really ugly, really fast in Asia or the Middle East. But Trump’s decisions on global economic and trade issues are part of a proactive agenda. Depending on how his economic moves play out, this could create either a positive impact for Trump’s political agenda at home or result in a backlash that splits him further from his Republican Party and creates an opening for Democrats in the midterm elections.
An effective U.S. national security strategy requires calculations involving complex equations, with many factors and variables. The Trump administration often appears as if it cannot do basic arithmetic. A trade move on one front, such as China, could have a negative spillover in trying to deal with an urgent issue on another front, such as North Korea. The same goes for economic ties with Europe while dealing with Iran. The potentially catastrophic combination of a mercurial president operating with an nationalist economic agenda and myriad unpredictable strategic developments will haunt the country and the world throughout the coming year.
The main danger in the months ahead is that Trump actually follows through with his pledges to further isolate and estrange the United States from its allies. If he withdraws from the Iran nuclear deal, scuttles NAFTA, decides that the United States will no longer abide by the rules of the World Trade Organization, and takes other unilateralist and protectionist steps, he could do irreparable damage to the rules-based international order. Leaders and publics around the world are, for the most part, trying to continue working with a United States that has become dangerously erratic, is turning inward, appears to have abandoned its republican and pluralist calling, and is going its own way. Their patience may run out if Trump’s errant turn in foreign policy deepens. Other dangers that possibly loom on the horizon are war with North Korea and Iran.
Trump has identified key challenges for the United States in the years ahead: restoring the economic well-being and optimism of America’s middle class, fixing a broken immigration policy, bringing to an end costly and lengthy wars in the Middle East and advancing the prospects for peace in the region, and getting allies to do more. Unfortunately, he is pursuing these objectives through wrongheaded means. Protectionism, for example, will do more harm than good for the average American. Trump is asking good questions. Moving forward, he needs to start giving us good answers.
The Trump administration has the opportunity to demonstrate that it’s serious about its great-power competition strategy, with the resources, interagency focus, and diplomatic efforts to get U.S. allies onboard. The administration now needs a plan for action. After all, great powers don’t bluff, right?
Risks: A preventive war with North Korea — as some are reportedly advocating inside the Trump administration — would be a strategic disaster. In addition to massive human, economic, and long-term strategic costs, all other issues would be crowded out — foreign and domestic. Goodbye, great-power competition and pushing back on Iran. So long, global economic recovery. What infrastructure bill? You mean the new war supplemental?
Left unfettered, expect China in the year ahead to take additional significant steps toward effective control of the South China Sea, likely deploying advanced military capabilities and doubling down on its expansive and illegal maritime claims. Aside from obvious concerns about a disastrous war in North Korea, the biggest danger for the United States in Asia in 2018 is that Trump will continue treating the South China Sea as a second-tier priority. If so, Beijing will continue consolidating its sphere of influence in the region.
Trump’s remarks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, suggest that he may be starting to reconsider his biggest foreign-policy mistake to date: withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Progress on the agreement without the United States, combined with heightened U.S. economic competition with China, has only underscored the imprudence of rejecting the deal. While defensive measures and enforcement actions are necessary to push back on China’s unfair practices, there is no substitute for establishing high-standard multilateral trade and investment rules that limit Beijing’s ability to establish a China-led illiberal order in Asia and beyond.
The Trump team has been ferociously tough with the use of sanctions and other economic scare tactics to advance national security priorities tied to Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and elsewhere. These coercive tools in the security arsenal are well known, and many policymakers prefer them to others. However, the risk of their overuse is real. If the Trump administration is too aggressive with the exercise of sanctions, even using them to push back allied countries abroad, the United States may lose support and cooperation from wary international allies on key security initiatives. This will undoubtedly undermine U.S. security goals, as well as the effectiveness of sanctions as a policy instrument. An overly aggressive approach by the White House may also drive much more international commerce away from the U.S. financial system, to the detriment of its strength and primacy.
Trump could leverage his reputation as sanctioner-in-chief, and the punishing economic tools his team has burnished, to much more effectively isolate and pressure North Korea. Trump’s deputies at the United Nations and in the Treasury Department have put in place unprecedented authorities to educate and compel friends and partners around the world to finally sever North Korea’s proliferation lifelines. If the Trump administration matches this impressive work with major diplomatic outreach and a coordinated national strategy, it will have the chance to build a stronger, more holistic response to North Korea’s nuclear threat. That will mean a better deterrent and a better source of leverage on the path to any possible diplomatic breakthrough.
One of the biggest foreign-policy challenges of 2018 will be negotiating governance and security arrangements for post-Islamic State Syria. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently laid out the Trump administration’s strategy for Syria, but external actors (particularly Russia and Iran) that have competing interests and agendas will pose challenges to its implementation. For example, debates continue about the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and opposition to a long-term presence by U.S. forces. One of the biggest obstacles has dominated recent headlines: Turkish opposition to a Kurdish region in Syria controlled by Kurdish forces, which potentially puts the United States in the position of choosing between a NATO ally and the ground forces it has backed in the counter-Islamic State campaign.
The Shadow Government contributors have put together an impressive list of dangers the United States faces in the coming year. All of them — from war with North Korea to the United States withdrawing from WTO or NAFTA to the end of the Iran nuclear deal — should keep us awake at night. What worries me more, though, are the unexpected dangers, like the Ebola outbreak in 2014 or Russia’s annexation of Crimea that same year. Addressing a crisis that seems to appear out of thin air requires the U.S. government to rapidly mobilize multiple government agencies simultaneously, create a task force that pulls together the best civilian and military minds, and build international coalitions. It requires diplomatic heft, experience, focus, fully staffed agencies, leadership, innovation, and trust in allies and partners. Today’s U.S. government lacks all of these, the very things it would need to address a crisis for which it has no plans.
As for an opportunity, thanks to both Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive behavior and Trump’s bombastic rhetoric toward NATO allies, defense spending in Europe is on the rise. While the needle won’t move as fast as Trump wants it to, it won’t be long before NATO allies have bigger budgets and more capabilities. If the administration helps NATO allies focus those new resources on specific capability gaps, alongside regional or even NATO-wide strategies, the alliance could find itself in a much stronger position in the next five to 10 years.
War on the Korean Peninsula aside, the Trump administration’s biggest danger is that its actions and rhetoric will continue to alienate the allies that the United States needs to man the thin NATO line in the Baltics, in the field against the Islamic State, and at the diplomatic table as the various stakeholders try to put Syria back together again. While Trump’s tone has softened in some areas, including trade, he still seems to enjoy dissing U.S. partners. If he continues to bash allies such as the U.K. as a way to entertain his xenophobic base, we may see further movements by powerful friends like Germany to keep the United States at arm’s length or, as with France, to build new centers of leadership in the West absent the United States. Autocrats applaud as Trump attacks the European leaders who criticize autocracy, and they are emboldened by Trump’s own tactics to suppress the press at home, often using his charge of “fake news” to justify assaults on their own press. The end of 2018 could see a transatlantic community hardly able to bear that label.
Like Davos, the July NATO summit could provide Trump with a multinational platform on which to show he can lead the U.S.-European relationship. He could start by focusing on issues bigger than defense spending, where Trump’s context for Europe has been stuck since the campaign. As the Islamic State is pushed off the map in Iraq and Syria, Trump could put together a new counter-Islamic State coalition, this time focused on reconstruction, in which NATO would provide the security while the EU could provide rebuilding assistance. In fact, the EU could provide a cash grant to help any Syrian or Iraqi refugee willing to leave Europe and to rebuild his or her life back home. Trump could also announce the deployment of an additional armored brigade combat team permanently to Europe, including a corps headquarters. In return, each ally would commit to providing NATO a brigade or a battalion at 15 days’ readiness. That would go a long way to shoring up NATO deterrence across Europe. The NATO summit could be an opportunity not just to help fix very real NATO problems, but it could show allies that when it comes to European defense, Trump is not just a scold.
There are no dangers that compare to the risk of nuclear weapons being used. Yet on multiple fronts, the Trump administration is making the use of nuclear weapons more likely. By far, the greatest risk is on the Korean Peninsula, where a stepped-up pressure campaign by the United States, combined with a steadfast refusal by Trump to negotiate or seriously engage with North Korea, has created a high degree of risk of miscalculation and accidental conflict. The recent talks between Pyongyang and Seoul are, in fact, a direct result of rising fears in South Korea that the United States is pushing too far and too fast, even considering a preventive strike on North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities.
There is always the risk that nuclear weapons, which now exist in nine countries in growing numbers and means of delivery, will one day be used. That is why the past five U.S. presidents pursued policies to reduce the role of nuclear weapons and negotiate nuclear reductions with Russia. However, as with so many other issues, the Trump administration is moving in a more radical direction. The Pentagon is soon to release the president’s Nuclear Posture Review, which will expand the role of nuclear weapons, seek to develop two new kinds of U.S. nuclear weapons, and almost inexplicably threaten to expand the circumstances under which the United States would use nuclear weapons first against other states with nuclear weapons. This includes the option of responding to a cyberattack by a nuclear state with the first use of nuclear weapons — a move that would almost certainly result in nuclear retaliation against the United States. The risks of nuclear weapons use under Trump are going up for a variety of reasons, not all tied to his personality and impulse control.
Even in this environment, there are opportunities. The U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control treaty New START expires in 2021 but can be extended by executive agreement in both countries. Russia is in compliance with this pact, and it is very much in America’s interest for it to remain so as well. Extending the deal could help thaw the U.S.-Russian relationship and might create momentum for deeper discussions on strategic stability and unraveling the dangerous decision by Russia to violate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The only thing preventing Trump from extending the pact is his personal aversion to supporting anything negotiated by his predecessor. For our sake, let’s hope that he can be convinced to extend New START to prevent the last element of nuclear risk management with Russia from collapsing.