Bremmer: Trump has 3 big foreign policy wins his predecessors couldn't get, but his methods come with major risks

Alex Wong/Getty ImagesPresident Donald Trump
  • A little over a year in office, President Donald Trump’s foreign policy stock is up.
  • Part of that has to do with his unconventional approach to dealing with both friends and foes.
  • But his tactics carry risks with them, and those wins could sour.

President Donald Trump has notched three notable foreign policy successes amid the acrimony of his first year in office, according to Ian Bremmer, president of geopolitical-risk firm Eurasia Group.

The wins hit three major hotspots – South Korea, North Korea, and Syria – but, as Bremmer explains, each comes with its own risks.

Most recently, at the end of March, senior US officials detailed the agreement reached with South Korea in principle to revise a trade deal first implemented in 2012.

Trump had slammed the previous deal as “horrible” and a “job killer,” and US officials heralded the revision as “visionary and innovative.”

With the new arrangement, US automakers can send up to 50,000 cars that meet US safety standards to South Korea, up from 25,000. Any cars beyond the new threshold will have to meet South Korean safety standards, which US companies say put them at a disadvantage. (No US carmaker sold more than 11,000 vehicles in South Korea in 2017.)

The revised deal also limits South Korean steel exports to the US and includes a provision preventing either country from weakening its currency to make its exports cheaper, though the latter provision lacks an enforcement mechanism.

Even with those stipulations, Bremmer said, “there are a host of regulatory tweaks that will make life easier for the US automotive industry, a change in South Korean steel-export limits that is favourable to US producers, new trucking rules that will improve us exports, and a Korean commitment to open their drug-reimbursement program to US pharmaceutical companies.”

“I’d bet on it going forward,” Bremmer wrote in an email newsletter earlier this week. “And I’d call the new agreement a meaningful improvement in bilateral economic ties.”

Beyond economics, Bremmer said Trump has also eked out diplomatic wins in northwest Asia.

“China’s decision to support a number of unanimous Security Council resolutions to stiffen sanctions against Pyongyang came on the back of direct Trump administration pressure,” Bremmer wrote, “and linkage to the broader US-China relationship.”

Ian BremmerWorld Economic ForumIan Bremmer.

Chinese pressure also brought Kim Jong Un to the table, Bremmer said.

Trump also appears to have come out ahead in his approach to the conflict in Syria, particularly with his decision to launch limited strikes on an Syrian regime air base after Bashar Assad launched a chemical attack against civilians in spring 2017.

The strike, which came after Trump moved to bar refugees from the war-torn country from the US, was criticised as illegal and likely to be ineffective.

But, Bremmer said, “without advance bluster, the strikes put the [Syrian] regime on notice, reset a broader precedent and signalled that the Americans wouldn’t tolerate prohibited weapons to be used, and showed both the Russians and Iranians that their direct military backing of Assad did not insulate his regime from American force.”

Each case underscored themes in Trump’s approach to policymaking and foreign affairs.

“It was a combination of Trump’s spontaneity and unpredictability; his willingness to be risk-acceptant in challenging a previous status quo in policy; and his acceptance of advice on actual policy implementation from experts inside the administration,” Bremmer said, “coupled with the power and influence of the United States leading other governments, friend and foe alike, to not want to be caught on the wrong side of Washington.”

Risks involved in each win

This approach carries with it flaws, however.

“Miscalculations are more likely when you’re willing to blow up the status quo,” Bremmer wrote. “If your bluff is called, you lose significant credibility. If you’re not bluffing, you’ve created a crisis that causes far more pain for both sides than you had anticipated or welcomed.”

In dealing with North Korea and China, talks that go awry increase the potential for a US military strike, he said – “all the more so with Trump’s new set of foreign-policy advisers.”

Those talks are likely to happen in May, but before the sides even sit down, their prospects look dim.

Both sides have expressed interest in denuclearization. Trump has mused about it, criticising the South Koreans for not paying the US to defend them and suggesting allies in the region develop their own nuclear deterrents. But Kim Jong Un has always mentioned denuclearization in the context of the whole peninsula, ridding it of US forces.

“To be clear, what the Americans say they want and what the North Koreans are prepared to deliver is unbridgeable,” Bremmer wrote. The Trump administration’s approach to proliferation elsewhere in Asia also looms over talks with Pyongyang.

“After all, if the Trump administration now rips up the terms of the Iran nuclear deal, right after it was negotiated and signed by the Obama administration – unilaterally deciding they don’t like it so they’re leaving – what would stop the Americans from doing the same to North Korea?” Bremmer added.

Similar peril exists in Trump’s approach to Syria. Assad and his allies appear to have gained the advantage after seven years of brutal civil war. His removal looks unlikely, as Russia and Iran wield more influence, Bremmer said.

Moreover, there looks likely to be less resistance in the White House to Trump’s instinct to pull out, according to Bremmer, as no one has a “winning strategy” to offer and many of Trump’s supporters are hostile to US military engagement in far-off places.

“While you can argue the Americans leaving cedes Syria to the Russians and Iranians,” Bremmer added, “that’s been essentially true for years now.”

In the background of all this are what appears to be increasingly contentious relations with Russia, with whom Trump has previously taken a hands-off approach.

The US expulsion of Russian diplomats was largely symbolic, as it didn’t directly affect Moscow’s economic or national-security interests, Bremmer wrote, adding that Trump himself seems to be taking a harder line, likely in response to Russian moves that challenge his leadership.

That trend, coupled with the addition of new, more hawkish advisers to Trump’s staff, suggests a more muscular approach – and likely more tension.

“There’s virtually no contact between the Russian ambassador and top Russian officials with the Trump administration. Everybody is skittish given the Mueller investigation,” Bremmer cautioned. “It’s one thing for the relationship to be adversarial but functional. It’s another for there not to be an actual relationship. And that’s what we’re now heading into.”

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