This time next year, regardless of whether the House of Representatives impeaches him, Donald Trump probably still will be in office and running hard for re-election. He would love to have some major foreign policy deal that his campaign can argue only he could have negotiated.
The range of possible issues is relatively narrow and pretty obvious: Afghanistan; North Korea; Iran; a broad trade agreement with China.
But Trump’s methods also are obvious by now, as are his weak policy-making bench, his lack of interest in detail and the pickle he’s in politically. Each of these adversaries has ways of increasing the pressure, and several are likely to do so. If the U.S. political establishment is so preoccupied with impeachment, it might not be able to respond forcefully. If it does, Trump’s track record suggests the response would be haphazard. On the other hand, if Trump comes home some day with a “diplomatic breakthrough,” chances are it’s the kind that reminds you of an ill-mannered pig gussied up with rhinestones and a smudge of lipstick.
Impeachment is no picnic. But it’s also likely to make what’s already shaping up to be a pretty ugly year in foreign policy even uglier.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban will almost certainly play hardball. The lesson to be drawn from Trump’s dramatic cancellation of a Camp David peace conference and declaration that talks are over is actually quite the opposite: The fact that Trump came so close to holding the conference is an indication of how badly he wants out. In fairness, most of the leading Democratic candidates do, too. The U.S. checked out on Afghanistan a long time ago; it just hasn’t managed to actually leave.
The Taliban already controls a lot of Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s presidential election this weekend has exposed how divided political leaders are. If the Taliban can’t directly exploit them, those differences at least make the Afghan government less cohesive. Some experts argue the growth of the Islamic State faction in Afghanistan puts the Taliban under pressure to negotiate, as well. But overall, its most logical approach is to attack across the country, and try to force a president desperate to withdraw to accept an agreement that limits future U.S. counter-insurgency efforts, as well as its support for elected leaders and all those who oppose Taliban influence.
At this point, it’s fair to ask whether North Korea’s Kim Jong Un could do anything that would publicly upset Trump. From threatening “fire and fury” a little more than two years ago, Trump now professes to be untroubled by Kim’s renewed missile tests. Analysts cite satellite images that suggest he has increased production of long-range missiles and fissile material. But Kim hasn’t been able to get a comprehensive agreement from Trump that covers sanctions relief and his nuclear program.
One reason their February summit in Hanoi failed was that then-National Security Adviser John Bolton fought to make sure Trump wouldn’t give away too much. But Bolton is gone. Look for Kim to keep charming Trump. Perhaps he’ll make another overture, or propose a third summit at which he could try again to gain tangible concessions in exchange for commitments on his nuclear program that he can cheat on. Meanwhile, he continues to develop his missiles and nukes.
Even before Bolton left, Iran was getting Trump figured out. Yes, sanctions are hurting its economy badly. But so far, authorities have been able to keep public discontent under control, as they have in the past. Mike Pompeo and Bolton notwithstanding, regime change looks like nothing more than a dream.
There is an enormous potential upside for Iran. The lack of response so far to a drone attack on Saudi oil facilities (Iran denies widespread accusations that it had a hand in it) raises doubts about whether the U.S. will defend the Saudis and other Gulf states, potentially driving a wedge in their anti-Iranian alliance. Trump’s expressed willingness to talk to Iran has officials in Israel, Iran’s other main foe in the region, also wondering about Washington’s commitment. There appears more to be gained from keeping the pressure high. If Trump does get a dramatic election-year meeting with the Iranians, that would indeed be something no other president has done. But it wouldn’t result in a breakthrough. The differences are far too deep. It might slightly lessen fears of a conflict, but mostly it would drive traditional U.S. allies in the region crazy.
Whatever China does in regard to its trade dispute and global competition with the United States will be done with an eye on domestic public opinion. China’s international stature is an important element of the Communist Party’s continuing claim on power. Xi Jinping may be president for life, but he cannot allow Chinese to think Trump got the better of him. Perhaps he cools the trade dispute in a way Trump could interpret as a victory; for now at least, he’s keeping the pressure on. In the worst of circumstances, he feels he has no alternative but to crack down in Hong Kong, or decides to dramatically increases the pressure on Taiwan. What does a bitterly divided country with an impeached president do about that?
Impeachment may be the main drama of the coming months, but the rest of the world isn’t going to sit and wait. It will be an important part of the calculation.