It’s That Man Again
As 2019 begins, one thing seems certain — the US, and its President, Donald Trump, will remain the most significant agent of geopolitical change. The unconventional, transactional nature of Trump’s decision-making, when combined with a radical reprioritization of US policy goals, has shaken the international community to its core. And Trump, despite the blow of the Democrats winning control of the US House of Representatives in November’s midterm elections, shows no sign of throttling back. When he took office in January 2017, Trump inherited a world in which many long-standing global institutions and alliances were facing new challenges and new questions over their relevance and viability. By challenging conventional wisdom and breaking with established norms and practices, Trump unleashed forces of change which will continue to resonate globally across the entire geopolitical spectrum. 2018 was but a preview — 2019 will be more of the same, but on steroids.
One of the most significant factors in Trump’s often chaotic interaction with the rest of the world has been the state of domestic political affairs in the US. From the start of his term, Trump has been fighting political forces on both sides of the aisle which took umbrage at his electoral victory. The result has been a series of investigations by Congress and the Judiciary which, on their surface, question the very legitimacy of a Trump administration by positing the notion that the 2016 presidential election was stolen with the help of Russia. Moreover, the focus on Russia hobbled Trump in what was supposed to be his foundational foreign policy initiative — improving relations with Russia. Instead, he has been forced to implement additional economic sanctions and forgo meaningful arms control in order to appease domestic political forces opposed to any rapprochement with Moscow.
Many of Trump’s planned signature foreign policy initiatives, including nuclear disarmament and a rethinking of Nato mission priorities, were intended to be implemented in lockstep with better US-Russian relations. Without any such détente, arms control has transformed into an arms race, and Nato has revived its Cold War focus on the Russian threat. This was precisely the scenario Trump was seeking to avoid — divisions in Europe which could not be foreseen when Nato was created make any unified anti-Russian military effort unworkable in the long term. Russia has taken full advantage of Europe’s political and economic woes to further divide a continent already stressed by Brexit and fresh fears over the euro. Ironically, this crisis, while flirting dangerously with the kind of militaristic brinksmanship from which wars are born, will most likely bring all parties to the endgame originally envisioned by Trump — a Europe weaned from its dependence on US military might, yet subordinated to the strength of the US economy, and a Russia too weak to fill the vacuum, yet satisfied with the stability along its western frontier, the ongoing crisis in Ukraine notwithstanding. This outcome will not occur overnight, but the seeds have been sown.
In the Middle East, meanwhile, Russia has played, and will continue to play, an outsized role in Syria. But while the Russian role has been dramatic in its short-term impact, at the end of the day the long-term effect of the survival of President Bashar al-Assad will be measured by the level of rapprochement between Damascus and its Arab neighbors, the balancing of Iranian influence in that equation, the resolution of Turkish-Kurdish tensions, and the defeat of radical Islamic ideology — all matters that will be decided by non-Russians. Russia will retain a limited military presence inside Syria, while the US will continue its military retreat from the region. But politically both the US and Russia will find their influence subordinated to regional realities.
There are two major fissures in the Middle East today that could significantly disrupt global geopolitical calculations. One is the ongoing regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the other is the brewing conflict between Israel and the so-called “Axis of Resistance” — Lebanon, Iran and Syria. The resolution of the Syrian conflict in favor of Damascus, combined with the quagmire of the ongoing war in Yemen, have tilted this rivalry in favor of Tehran. 2019 is likely to see this trend continued, as Riyadh struggles to regain its regional relevance. The US exit from the Iran nuclear agreement in May 2018 was supposed to represent the start of a process that saw the marginalization of Iran and the ascendancy of Saudi Arabia. But the international outcry over this action has blunted the impact of renewed economic sanctions, while the political chaos in Riyadh caused by the policies of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, have put the kingdom on the back foot.
The Israeli question is far more problematic. The victory of the “Axis of Resistance” in Syria has radically and negatively altered the military reality for Israel, which can no longer assume that the fallout from any significant military action against Hezbollah will be confined to the Lebanese-Israeli frontier. Moreover, this would be a fight Israel could neither sustain nor win outright. This conclusion, however, is mooted in part by domestic political realities. Israel’s hard-line prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is facing imminent indictment on corruption charges, and seemingly willing to use artificially heightened external tensions, including the possibility of war, as a means of offsetting the impact of criminal charges on the eve of a national election. Until this situation is resolved one way or another, Israel remains a wild card.
US-China relations also resonated globally in 2018 and will continue to do so in 2019. The simmering trade war between the two behemoths has disrupted the economic health of both nations and has been felt around the world. There is no quick fix to resolve the gulf between US and Chinese expectations on trade. Negotiations currently under way may narrow the range of differences, but in the end what the US wants and what China is willing to give are two different things, meaning the game of tariffs and counter-tariffs will continue unabated for the foreseeable future.
Beyond the ongoing trade dispute, US-China relations will evolve along three primary tracks. The first is the South China Sea. Here, China is in the process of consolidating its position to such an extent that only major military action could remove it, and this simply isn’t in the cards. The danger is that the willingness of the US and its regional allies to challenge China through freedom of navigation operations is evenly matched by China’s determination to assert its territorial claims, creating a situation where low-level conflict becomes almost inevitable. In the end, however, China is in the South China Sea to stay.
The denuclearization of North Korea is another area where China plays, and will continue to play, a critical role. The denuclearization and economic integration of North Korea into the region is something China takes very seriously, and the scope and pace of decisions made in this regard will be driven more by Beijing, through Pyongyang, than any policy imperatives being pushed by the US. Void of any resumption of missile flight tests or related nuclear weapons development activity, the stability achieved through the initial US-North Korean summit has produced an outcome far superior to anything that has existed since the Korean War. The endgame remains denuclearization, but how and when this is accomplished is something China will determine, together with North Korea. The anticipated second US-North Korean summit will more than likely advance the issues involved, but not resolve them. 2019 seems likely to see a continued diplomatic dance as the pace of North Korean denuclearization is paired with the willingness of the US to ease economic sanctions and finalize a permanent peace on the Korean peninsula.
Perhaps the most significant impact China will have on the global geopolitical scene will be through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Last year witnessed some hesitation on the part of several nations invited to participate in the initiative, who feared falling into a Chinese debt trap. But the reality is that there are simply no equivalent development programs available from either the US, Asia or the International Monetary Fund that could match the BRI in scope and scale. This puts China at the center of global economic affairs, and thus potentially able to assert its political will in ways previously considered impossible.
Many observers have assessed the events of 2018 and concluded that they are witnessing a world where US power, both economic and military, is on the wane, replaced by an ascending Sino-Russian axis. The reality is that 2018 witnessed an ongoing US renegotiation with the rest of the world of what their future relationship should look like. In this sense, it was more a reallocation than a transfer of power. Russia has maxed out its current geopolitical potential, and while China’s economic situation will continue to improve, it remains vulnerable to the vagaries of US policy initiatives. Trump’s continued disruption of established global norms will hinder US competitors as much as it aids the US. In this new era of transactional diplomacy, 2019 will be a continuation of US-led negotiations — and renegotiations — with the rest of the world, where Trump largely calls the shots, even if the outcomes remain uncertain.