14 January 2019

Donald Trump and the World in 2019

No world leader has had a larger impact on global affairs in recent years than United States President Donald Trump, as his significant changes to many long-standing US policies have dramatically altered international relations since he took office nearly two years ago. Sure, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin have moved to push their countries and their agendas to the forefront of global affairs, but neither has the economic or military power of the United States behind them, and neither has so quickly changed the direction of their countries’ foreign relations in so short of a time.  

For some, President Trump is threatening to destroy a global order that was shaped and dominated by the United States to a degree that no other single power was ever able to do in world history. From this perspective, President Trump’s policies are weakening the United States’ position in the world and threatening to unleash the chaos and conflicts that were prevented by US global leadership.  For others, President Trump is moving his country back to the position that it long strived to maintain, that of a more insular superpower, separated from the rest of the world’s problems by two vast oceans (and perhaps a wall).  What is certain is that US foreign policy, and its relationship with the rest of the world, is changing.  What is not certain is whether or not these changes will be permanent, or if the Trump Era will prove to be an outlier in an era of large-scale global engagement by the United States.  Below is a look at how the United States’ relations with different parts of the world have changed, or are changing, since President Trump took office. 

  • North America: No other region is more impacted by changes in foreign and economic policy in Washington than the US’ neighbors in North America, Canada and Mexico.  Since taking office, President Trump has made it clear that he views the United States as the dominant power in North America and that he expects its neighbors to bow to its wishes.  Given the fact that the Canadian and Mexican economies are dependent upon the vast US market for much of their growth, he has been able to negotiate with these countries from a position of strength.  As President Trump repeatedly blamed the now-replaced NAFTA free trade agreement for the flow of manufacturing jobs from the US to Mexico, he was able to force Canada and Mexico to accept a new deal (the USMCA trade deal) that replaced NAFTA.  Meanwhile, President Trump’s relations with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have been frosty, and he may struggle to find common ground with Mexico’s new left-wing President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
  • Latin America: So far, the Trump Administration has paid relatively little attention to Latin America, apart from repeated threats to build a wall along the US’ border with Mexico and occasional threats to use military force to drive Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro from power.  Looking ahead, Central America is likely to be a region that draws some of Washington’s attention, as this is now the region that is providing the bulk of the Latin American migration to the United States.  Meanwhile, President Trump is likely to find that he has much in common with Brazil’s new President Jair Bolsonaro, who proudly compares himself to the US president.
  • Europe: President Trump has shown a great deal of disdain for Europe since taking office, deriding the region’s lack of military power and accusing it of taking advantage of the United States by hiding behind the United States’ security umbrella.  In fact, it is entirely possible that President Trump would withdraw the US from NATO if he could do so on his own.  While the leaders of many West European countries have very strained relations with President Trump, Central and East European leaders have assiduously courted the US president, offering major concessions to Washington in return for an enhanced US military presence in that region. As some European leaders push for more strategic autonomy, they could draw further ire from President Trump in the coming months, a trend could eventually lead to a major split in the Western alliance.
  • Russia: In terms of strategic position, few countries have benefitted more from the policy changes made in Washington over the past two years than Russia.  Some of these changes have allowed Russia to once again portray itself as a great power, even if its relative power today is but a fraction of what it was during the heyday of the Soviet Union.  Meanwhile, President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin appear to have a strong personal relationship, one that has caused a great deal of consternation in the US and among its allies.  In fact, it has been the US Congress that has taken the lead in attempting to thwart Russian ambitions by maintaining the sanctions on Russia that continue to damage that country’s economy.  In fact, with a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, US-Russian ties could be the issue that most divides the president and the legislature in 2019.
  • Middle East and North Africa: As with previous presidents, the Middle East and North Africa has been a primary focus of the foreign policy of the Trump Administration.  Since he took office, US armed forces have remained engaged in the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, although the sudden announcement by President Trump of a withdrawal of most US forces from Syria, and some from Afghanistan, was met with alarm by the US’ allies in the region. Meanwhile, President Trump has given Saudi Arabia a blank check to pursue its foreign policy goals in the Middle East, which is largely focused on weakening Iran’s position in the region. In fact, almost no country has been the focus of more criticism from the Trump Administration than Iran. Nevertheless, the US president, and many of his backers, would ultimately like the United States to play a much lesser role in a region that seems to bring nothing but trouble to the US.
  • Asia: President Trump’s standing is Asia is probably higher than in any other region, as his efforts to find a solution to the standoff on the Korean Peninsula and his government’s hard-line with China have generally been welcomed in most Asian capitals. Furthermore, President Trump appears to enjoy strong personal ties with many key political leaders in Asia. However, there are also concerns that his protectionist policies, including the US’ withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), could cause major economic problems for Asia’s export-dependent economies.  Likewise, the growing tensions between Washington and Beijing are forcing many countries in the region to decide between closer ties with the US or China, a decision most countries would like to avoid having to make.
  • China: While the United States has many important foreign relationships, none is as important as its relationship with China, the one country with the potential to emerge as a long-term threat to the US’ position of leadership in the world.  In fact, as China’s economic, military and technological power rises, the world is confronted with the possibility of a G2 world in which two powers compete for global leadership, much as the US and the Soviet Union did during the Cold War.  At the moment, the leading tensions between the US and China are over the issue of trade, as the escalating trade war between the two countries has already disrupted the world economy and shaken global markets.  For Beijing, the goal is to maintain political stability and avoid a hard-landing for the slowing Chinese economy.  However, the Trump Administration, wary of the rising power of China, may choose to apply even more pressure in the form of more trade barriers.  As such, 2019 could be the year in which the US and China reach a trade truce, or it could be the year in which a new Cold War emerges between the world’s two most powerful players.

The loss of the House of Representatives to the Democrats and mounting legal troubles could result in President Trump focusing more of his attention on foreign affairs in 2019.  For long-time US allies, there are fears that the US will increasingly throw its weight around in world affairs, without any consideration for the interests of its allies.  For others, the dramatic policy changes undertaken by the Trump Administration will be seen as an opportunity to improve their own strategic position.  Of all of the United States’ foreign relationships, it is the one with China that will overshadow all others and it is the one that has the potential to severely shake up global affairs in the years ahead.  What is certain is that, once again, the shadow of President Trump will loom large over international affairs in 2019.