U.S. President Donald Trump is heading into the midway point of his term with many of his 2016 campaign promises left undone. As the recent announcement about the withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Syria shows, Trump is willing to buck the counsel of many of his advisers to fulfill those pledges. And as his focus turns to the 2020 election, he will likely push to honor those that are incomplete.
President Donald Trump's decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, announced suddenly on Dec. 19, fulfills one of his 2016 campaign promises. As he looks toward the 2020 election, the president is clearly trying to make good on as many of those pledges as possible. Aside from the Syria move, Trump has started the process for leaving the Paris Agreement on climate change, departed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations, withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal and placed tariffs on a large number of Chinese goods. But many of his vows involving his signature foreign policy agenda and other geopolitically important items have yet to be fulfilled. Trump is likely to become more aggressive in trying to achieve some or all of them so he can campaign on additional achievements through 2019 and 2020. Here are updates on some of the promises that Stratfor believes are the most likely to see action.
U.S. Troop Drawdown in Afghanistan
In August 2017, Trump announced that the United States would increase its troop presence in Afghanistan, but he also said that the decision went against his instincts. Since then, periodic reports have indicated that he had been looking for way to cut troops there, and now he has ordered the withdrawal of about 7,000 service members, or about half of the U.S. contingent. A serious drawdown of U.S. forces will further encourage the Taliban. The militant group may decide to press its advantage at the negotiating table or to simply wait out the U.S. military, but the troop cut will certainly allow it to maintain its momentum in the conflict. In addition, Pakistan, Iran, China and even Russia will feel forced to increase their involvement there.
Is Iraq Next?
Beyond Afghanistan, there are an additional 5,000 U.S. troops who could be pulled out of Iraq. But while the Islamic State's capabilities to control territory have been significantly degraded, it remains an active terrorist threat, much as in Syria. Islamic State ambushes, bombings and assassinations remain possible in much of western and in parts of northern Iraq. Of the 20,000 to 30,000 Islamic State members believed to be left in Iraq and Syria, about half are thought to be in Iraq. U.S. troops are key in supporting Iraqi security forces and Kurdish forces in operations against the group. Just as in Syria, a U.S. troop withdrawal could allow the Islamic State to regroup. Moreover, Iran would gain a freer hand in influencing Iraqi politics, especially at the national level, which is dominated by Iraq's Shiite population.
European Defense and Car Tariffs
During the presidential campaign, Trump criticized Germany's massive current accounts trade surplus and suggested that the euro was abnormally cheap. He also denounced Berlin's relatively low military spending. While his threat to pull out of NATO's collective protection clause has not materialized, he still demands that Germany, and others, up their defense budgets. However, the main threat to the European Union is higher tariffs on its exports to the United States. Germany is the main EU manufacturer of automobiles, and the United States is its main customer outside of Europe, meaning that Germany has a lot to lose if the White House imposes higher tariffs. The European Union reached a trade truce with the United States during the summer, but that agreement is hanging by a thread. The White House is likely to demand that agriculture be included in any free trade agreement with the bloc, but France and others are likely to oppose that position, which would increase the chances of higher tariffs on European-made cars.
Trump's Trade War With China
China dominated Trump's 2016 campaign rhetoric, and measures to correct what he sees as its unfair trade practices dominated his policy toward Beijing throughout 2018. As part of Washington's priority shift to deal with a rising peer competitor, the White House launched three rounds of tariffs on roughly $250 billion worth of Chinese goods. Now the United States and China are locked in a negotiations cease-fire until March 1. The prospects for a quick and easy trade deal are dim, because the United States is demanding significant concessions on Chinese industrial policy. But as the U.S. stock market wanes, the negotiations may get kicked further down the road.
Paralyzing the WTO's Dispute System
Trump also campaigned heavily against the World Trade Organization and China's inclusion in the body, threatening to pull the United States out of the organization. Because of the legal limits on a president's authority to do so, a U.S. withdrawal hasn't happened yet. But his administration will risk grinding the body's dispute mechanism to a halt next year. The United States has been blocking new appointments to the Appellate Body, which functions as the WTO appeals court. If the United States doesn't approve new members by Dec. 10, 2019, the appeals body will no longer be able to hear cases. This possibility has led the organization's other members to try to jump-start reform efforts to appease the United States. But it's unclear whether that can be done: The core issue is China's involvement. For Trump leaving the WTO may not be possible, but destroying its adjudication process might be the next best thing.
Troubled Waters Ahead for USMCA
Trump's renegotiation of NAFTA has been one of his signature achievements in foreign policy so far, but the process is not complete because the U.S. Congress still needs to sign off on the revamped United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). Democrats are set to take control of the House of Representatives and are demanding that some of their key demands, such as on labor standards and climate, be included in the implementing legislation. Trump has also said that he will announce his intent to withdraw from NAFTA as he submits the USMCA for approval, potentially setting up a showdown with incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The Elusive Israeli-Palestinian Deal
Trump has been touting a "deal of the century" to bring peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that is unlikely to happen in 2019. Instead, to demonstrate his personal and much-touted commitment to Israel, Trump and his supporters in Congress may push more seriously for an official U.S. recognition of Israel's annexation of Syria's Golan Heights. Mimicking the strategy of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, such an action would be designed to remove a hurdle from Israel's path for recognition regionally. But in doing so, it would imply that the United States might recognize other border changes around the world that were made through the use of military force. That change would set a precedent questioning one of the taboos of international relations, which has been in place since 1945.
U.S. Infrastructure and a Border Wall
On the campaign trail, Trump presented a $1 trillion plan to build up U.S. infrastructure. Two years later, the proposal has been downsized, and little progress has been made on implementation. But the president has pledged to work with the Democrats in a bipartisan way to improve the nation's infrastructure. The plan could be one of his biggest domestic pushes in 2019, especially if the House blocks his other marquee legislative proposals. Nevertheless, it won't be an easy process because Democrats will want to include climate change initiatives. And Trump has been adamant that without funding for his wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, there will be no cooperation on infrastructure.
What's Next on Iran?
Trump also campaigned heavily against the Iran nuclear deal and has already pulled the United States out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as it is officially known. But he also noted that he would be willing to sign a new deal with Iran if it were better and that he hoped to peel back the Islamic republic's regional influence. With U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, one of the moderating voices in Trump's White House, on his way out, the prospects for a more hawkish Iran policy could grow. Given Trump's wariness about expensive, messy Middle Eastern wars, this change is unlikely to mean a full-blown conflict with Iran. But the United States — and especially allies Israel and Saudi Arabia — could be more aggressive and launch a limited airstrike should Iran take a significant provocative action against the United States or a regional ally. Sanctions will also be ratcheting up this year, but the potential for new talks with Iran are negligible, given that the demands of many of Trump's hawkish advisers are tantamount to regime change.
Don't Forget North Korea
In the run-up to the 2016 election, candidate Trump criticized his predecessor's policy of not engaging with North Korea at the top levels and said he would be willing to meet with leader Kim Jong Un directly. As the North Korean nuclear and missile programs advanced in 2017, Trump's administration focused on building up credibility behind its threat to strike North Korea. Perhaps taking the U.S. threat seriously or perhaps seeing opportunity in Trump's maverick dealmaker persona, North Korea shifted gears in late 2017, focusing on outreach to the United States and South Korea. And, in June 2018, Trump made good on his long-expressed willingness to meet with Kim. At the moment, the nuclear threat is on the back burner but by no means off the table. And, with the president's term ending in January 2021 and campaigning for a second term occupying a chunk of that time, a promised "deal" will be difficult to manage.