North Korea and its nuclear ambitions were the greatest threat to world stability and must be atop the new commander in chief’s priority list, President Trump recalls being told during a closed-door White House transition meeting with then-President Barack Obama in late 2016.
Four years later, analysts and foreign policy insiders say danger on the Korean Peninsula remains high but is now even more of a geopolitical tripwire because growing U.S.-Chinese tensions hang over every aspect of American foreign policy in the region and underscore how individual global hot spots must be viewed as pieces of a much bigger, more complex puzzle.
Whether Democrat Joseph R. Biden wins the White House or Mr. Trump secures a second term, specialists say, the president will face an international landscape that is shifting rapidly during an escalating 21st-century power competition with China and Russia. A full inbox of challenges — an unpredictable Iran, a chaotic Afghanistan, the fallout from a failed U.S.-led regime change effort in Venezuela, Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, civil war in Syria and the continued threat of Islamic extremism across the Middle East and Africa — await the U.S. leader. In each case, his decisions may create aftershocks around the world that help shape a new international order.
Some specialists warn that a new global power ranking is already taking shape and that America’s traditional post-Cold War ability to cajole allies, intimidate foes and craft multinational policy on its own is in jeopardy.
“There has been a rebalancing of power, and the United States is not simply head and shoulders above everyone,” said Mark Simakovsky, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former Europe/NATO chief of staff for the secretary of defense for policy at the Pentagon.
“The world is growing more complicated and challenging, and the U.S. as a global power is facing much more difficulty in managing, essentially, a rise of instability around the world,” he told The Washington Times. “You have regional powers like Russia, Turkey, China as a global power itself, India, Pakistan. We’re at a moment where U.S. confidence in its ability to lead and navigate these challenges is waning all while these challenges are accelerating.”
Perhaps nowhere is the evolving dynamic more apparent than in Asia, where Chinese military and economic influences are growing at exponential rates, changing the calculation for virtually every nation on its periphery. Countries such as Pakistan, which has had a tenuous yet strategically vital partnership with the U.S. throughout the post-9/11 era, are now increasingly locked in economic partnerships with Beijing, giving China’s Communist Party leaders much greater leverage.
In North Korea, the U.S. president in January will still be confronted by unpredictable dictator Kim Jong-un as he develops dangerous new weapons programs, as evidenced by Pyongyang’s display of a massive new intercontinental ballistic missile during a military parade last month.
At the same time, the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and China continues to deteriorate during Beijing’s authoritarian crackdown on Hong Kong, its military expansion into the South and East China seas, its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and its long-term strategy for China to supplant the U.S. as the world’s top economic power. Past administrations have tried to approach China and North Korea as mostly separate issues, but analysts say the commander in chief will not have that luxury and must be keenly aware that each decision on one front likely will affect the other.
“They treat them as isolated challenges when they may not be,” said Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a leading Washington think tank.
“If you have a conflict with China, it is not necessarily safe to assume Kim Jong-un sits on his hands,” he said. “We cannot assume that our adversaries and enemies will be kind enough to challenge us one at a time.”
Indeed, it’s unclear how China would react to hostilities on the Korean Peninsula. Beijing may use the chance to unilaterally claim more territory in the South China Sea or even to take control of Taiwan.
On the other hand, Mr. Kim may view any dust-up between the U.S. and China as a window of opportunity to resume nuclear testing or to take other provocative steps while Washington is distracted.
Mr. Trump has taken a confrontational, transactional approach toward China. He launched a bilateral trade war, increased U.S. military presence in the Pacific and repeatedly accused Beijing of failing to stop the COVID-19 “China virus” from spreading. Administration officials also have criticized Chinese theft of U.S. intellectual property, the Communist Party’s suspected use of technology such as 5G networks to spy on other nations, Beijing’s claims in the Arctic and other policies.
By contrast, Mr. Trump’s rhetoric toward North Korea has been much softer. Although the president began his tenure by threatening “fire and fury” in response to any military aggression by the reclusive state, he subsequently met with Mr. Kim on three occasions, including a 2018 Singapore summit that marked the first-ever meeting between leaders of the two countries. The administration credits Mr. Trump’s approach for the absence of North Korean nuclear tests since September 2017, though the unprecedented diplomatic push has not secured a firm, long-term denuclearization commitment from Pyongyang.
“I have a very good relationship with him. Different kind of a guy, but he probably thinks the same thing about me,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Kim during the final presidential debate. “We have a different kind of a relationship. We have a very good relationship, and there’s no war.”
As for Mr. Biden, he stressed that he would ensure China was part of any discussion involving North Korea, and he criticized Mr. Trump for his willingness to meet with dictators.
“What has he done? He’s legitimized North Korea. He’s talked about his good buddy, who’s a thug,” the former vice president said of Mr. Trump.
In exchange for Mr. Trump’s diplomacy, specialists say, the U.S. gave up a lot, including shelving key joint military operations with South Korea as an olive branch to Pyongyang.
“I see little to no indication that [the situation] is any better now than when President Trump took office,” Mr. Bowman said. “In some ways, it may be less well off. … We made military concessions in terms of military exercises that the North Koreans did not make.”
Pentagon officials have said U.S. military readiness did not suffer as a result of canceling some exercises on the peninsula.
Middle East approach
The Trump administration’s embrace of diplomacy also has been on full display over the past two years in Afghanistan, where top State Department officials engaged in direct talks with the Taliban in the hopes of securing a permanent peace deal. The campaign in Afghanistan is the longest in U.S. history and one that Mr. Trump has pledged to end. He said it is an “endless war” that no longer serves a major strategic American interest.
The administration in February struck a deal with the Taliban that will steadily cut U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan in exchange for guarantees that the Taliban will negotiate with the U.S.-backed government in Kabul and that terrorist groups will never be allowed again use the country as a base of operations.
While Afghanistan remains besieged by violence between Taliban and government fighters, the American withdrawal is moving ahead. Mr. Trump also has cut the number of U.S. forces in Iraq and, over the objections of many Republicans and military officials, removed a substantial number of U.S. troops from Syria.
Across the Middle East and Africa, specialists say, the U.S. must continue to reassess the amount of resources it is willing to commit to counterterrorism efforts. The commander in chief come January will need to decide how much American money, manpower and resources he is willing to allocate to battle stubborn groups such as the Taliban, al-Shabab in Somalia, the Islamic State and other organizations that survive despite intensive U.S. military campaigns lasting a decade or longer.
“Reducing the U.S. government’s counterterrorism bloat will better enable the U.S. to advance its varied strategic interests and is necessary, especially in light of global power competition and in responding to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic,” Katherine Zimmerman, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who studies terrorist groups, wrote in a recent analysis.
“Yet, it should also call into question whether the U.S. is prepared to carry the cost of counterterrorism — particularly against such transnational Salafi-jihadi groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State — indefinitely as they persist despite significant U.S. pressure against them,” she said.
At the same time, American troop reductions in the Middle East carry consequences. Roughly 500 U.S. troops remain stationed in Syria to train U.S.-backed rebel groups and to conduct limited special operations missions against Islamic State targets.
Removing all of those troops, some analysts argue, would provide an opening for Russia, which also operates in Syria in support of President Bashar Assad’s government. It also would present an opportunity for Iran, which has proxy forces operating inside Syria alongside the Russians and remains at odds with the U.S. after Mr. Trump withdrew from an international nuclear deal with Tehran in 2018.
“Great power competition doesn’t just happen in the Baltics,” Mr. Bowman said. “Great power competition increasingly is happening in the Middle East, too.”
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