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What an unburdened Trump means for the rest of the world

Having apparently survived the Mueller report, President Trump appears to feel unchained — ready to “go full animal” in the words of Steve Bannon. What does that mean for U.S. foreign policy? 

President Donald Trump
Donald Trump remains the perfect U.S. president for China – he’s not going to fuss about human rights and democracy, and he isn’t an attractive alternative to Xi’s claim to world leadership in other areas.
REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Having apparently survived the Mueller report, President Trump appears to feel unchained — ready to “go full animal” in the words of Steve Bannon, particularly against his opponents. Should the rest of the world worry?

Domestically, Trump is going after the Affordable Care Act again. He’s threatened to close the  border with Mexico this week and says he’s pulling aid to Central American countries. But a lot else hasn’t changed, and one big reason is the dynamics within his own administration. In cases where his instinct is to accommodate strongmen, opposition from officials such as National Security Adviser John Bolton might help preserve a rough status quo. Where they’re in broad agreement on an aggressive policy, things could get dicey.  So you might think twice if you live in the Middle East – or Venezuela.

Plus, there is always the potential for a surprise; the Trump administration could be tested by a sudden crisis.

For now, though, Russia is particularly – and publicly — gleeful. While Attorney General William P. Barr’s summary makes clear that Russia did, in fact, meddle in the 2016 election, the finding of no collusion is a blow to Russia’s most bitter U.S. critics, which strengthens the guy who cannot bring himself to criticize Moscow.

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Unless Russian President Vladimir Putin gambles on another Ukraine-like adventure, chances are that little will change. Few, aside from the most extreme wing of the Republican Party, have a positive view of Russia, so any rapprochement would create an outcry. Perhaps more to the point, Bolton is a hardliner when it comes to Russia. The U.S. is distancing itself in one area where it would be possible to reach some agreements – arms control – which Russia says is a mistake. Bolton hates the arms control deals the U.S. has signed with Russia.

He is also likely to temper Trump’s inclination to cozy up to Kim Jong Un. The North Korea leader is probably feeling quite pleased. You would, too, with a president who abruptly announces he’s canceling sanctions crafted by his own administration because he “likes” you — even though your last meeting was a flop. Bolton is one of the reasons the two sides walked away from the Hanoi summit last month. He fought hard against a splashy comprehensive deal, which probably would have been a big win for the North Koreans.

China has a better idea now of the U.S. political landscape, and that might make it easier to strike a trade deal. It would be wise for President Xi Jinping to get this issue off the table so he can focus on managing China’s economic slowdown. In other ways, Trump remains the perfect U.S. president for China – he’s not going to fuss about human rights and democracy, and he isn’t an attractive alternative to Xi’s claim to world leadership in other areas. Things could get tense, though, if Xi gets too aggressive on Taiwan or projecting China’s naval power.

It will be tougher for Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela – where it appears the instinct of both Trump and Bolton is to be aggressive. A year and a half ago, Trump floated the idea that the U.S. had “military options” for Venezuela. Then, the U.S. conducted a series of secret meetings with rebellious military officers. The U.S. – and many other countries – have recognized the head of parliament as the legitimate president. It keeps piling on sanctions, and Bolton is keeping up the rhetorical pressure.

Everyone who matters in the Trump administration is a hardliner on Iran, and despite their vulnerabilities, the president still is tight with Iran’s two staunchest regional foes – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Netanyahu is awaiting a likely indictment on corruption charges that could imperil his re-election April 9. But Trump’s proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights was an unsubtle message that Netanyahu’s close ties to Trump have value. The proclamation cited “aggressive acts by Iran and terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, in southern Syria,” and was roundly condemned in the region – including by the Saudis.

The killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is still roiling U.S.-Saudi relations, but so far Trump has been able to shield Bin Salman from the worst of the blowback, and over Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen. That has to count for something, and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner has been seeking Saudi diplomatic muscle – and cash – to grease Trump’s “deal of the century” peace plan for Israel and the Palestinian territories, likely to be released after the Israeli election.

Netanyahu stands a decent chance of gaining a new term despite his legal troubles and a strong challenge from an alliance led by several former generals. Trump’s move on the Golan Heights doesn’t change the military balance there, but may push Syria’s allies, Hezbollah and Iran, to respond. Bin Salman doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, or detest Iran any less.

The most likely scenario is that the U.S. will muddle along with Russia, North Korea and China. It might try to speed up the inevitable collapse of Maduro’s government in Venezuela. If Trump feels emboldened on Iran, there are plenty of people in his administration and the volatile Middle East only too happy to help.