It looks like Americans are not the only people following the 2020 presidential contest closely, and that’s causing serious and growing challenges for President Donald Trump.
A self-proclaimed world-class dealmaker, a perhaps overconfident Trump is confronting not one, not two, but a half-dozen serious foreign policy problems simultaneously. None of these escalating challenges, save perhaps Venezuela, are new. And solving them has stumped all other recent presidents.
But the timing and scale of some are of Trump’s own choosing or making, depending on your view of him. This accumulation of coincidental crises could be intentional or the result of an unorganized administration reflecting its leader’s sometimes impetuous inclinations.
But each one carries important consequences and threats for the nation’s foreign relations, peace and the president’s chances of capturing a second term next year.
In fact, the possibility — some would say likelihood — of a Trump with chronically unfavorable poll numbers joining George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter as one-term presidents seems to be a factor in recent decisions by China and North Korea to back off of previous commitments. Iran also has been willing to stir up more trouble, and the Taliban has dragged out peace talks on Afghanistan, awaiting perhaps a more friendly successor administration.
Waiting out the maximum eight-year life of an American administration unfavorable to their interests is a default option for many foreign governments, especially in Asia where one-man or one-party rule is common. Japan has been successfully employing protectionist trade policies this way for decades.
Last week, as he has long threatened, Trump imposed large tariff increases on Chinese goods when, he said, officials reneged on commitments already agreed to, including protecting intellectual property rights.
“I’m different than a lot of people,” an understated Trump said without admitting that includes many in his own adopted GOP. “I happen to think that tariffs for our country are very valuable.”
Few beyond Beijing doubt the need for significant changes in Chinese cyber-espionage and trade policy, as the world’s second-largest economy expands to challenge U.S. preeminence. Trump has earned some praise for taking on this difficult task through his now-familiar personal policy of carrot-and-stick, starting with sanctions and then more of them.
But few are sanguine that China’s one-party leadership, now effectively installed for life, will make such serious commitments, let alone keep them.
Imperial, democratic or communist, leaders in the vast, ancient land of China always believes time is on their side. This time, that’s correct.
Possibly two dozen Democrats are competing for their party’s presidential nomination next year starting with the Iowa caucuses, one measure of both their unleashed ambitions and Trump’s perceived political vulnerability, now perhaps wishfully shared abroad.
Springtime in Iowa and across the Midwest, where voters bought into Trump’s victorious 2016 campaign, is always a time of new hope, life and crops soon to be planted. But this year, it’s a troubled place.
Retaliatory Chinese tariffs on U.S. agricultural goods are hurting farmers, badly. Trump has allocated $12 billion to ease the economic pain of lost sales and may soon proffer more, using tariff money collected from China.
However, as Carter discovered after his ban on wheat sales to the Soviet Union for its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, other countries are more than willing to step into the supply void and take away those markets, often permanently.
While Trump can justifiably tout the nation’s bustling economy, job market and gross national product growth, realistically he cannot afford to have his geographic base in the heartland enduring such heartburn. A fact that some Chinese organizations bought newspaper ads to underline.
Trump’s international economic sanctions on North Korea, plus a credible display of military force after its ICBM tests, did bring Kim Jung-un to a promising summit in Singapore last year.
There, Pyongyang agreed with conditions to eventually denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. Predictably based on past behavior, at a second summit this year, the North sought to have sanctions eased before keeping its promise.
As he warned, Trump refused and last week seized a North Korean vessel exporting coal in violation of sanctions. The North has begun reopening a missile test facility and test-fired several short-range projectiles in recent weeks. Talks appear stalled, awaiting something.
Trump withdrew from the Obama-era nuclear pact with Iran, reimposed severe economic sanctions and last week tightened the squeeze by halting waivers to allies and trading partners buying Iranian oil.
Based on an undisclosed threat to U.S. interests that Trump ominously said “you don’t want to know about,” the commander-in-chief ordered B-52s and a large carrier task force to the Persian Gulf area, a response that’s similar to Pyongyang’s missile-rattling.
On Venezuela, Trump again has levied a series of severe economic sanctions on the Maduro regime, its leaders and oil company.
With Russia and China, Iran is part of a trio of troublemakers using Venezuela’s turmoil to get a political and strategic foothold in the Americas, as Russia has done during Syria’s civil war.
Administration officials maintain “all options are on the table” just 1,600 miles south of Miami, including U.S. military intervention.
For an American president who vowed to end foreign nation-building and too many U.S. military entanglements abroad, actually sending American troops into Venezuela months before he seeks re-election is an unthinkable event.
But then, once, so was a Trump presidency.