Bolton’s exit comes at critical time for Trump

Bolton’s exit comes at critical time for Trump

Donald Trump dismissed his National Security Adviser John Bolton. (AP Photo)

Donald Trump’s dismissal on Tuesday of his hawkish National Security Adviser John Bolton — the third man to leave the role during this administration — comes as the president enters a critical few weeks for his foreign policy that will determine whether he enters his re-election year in 2020 on the crest of a wave or potentially facing further setbacks.

Trump has proven to be at least a partial exception to the rule that most presidents in the modern era have tended to put predominant emphasis on domestic policy in their first few years in office. To be sure, Trump’s sole major legislative success, his corporate tax cuts of 2017, came during his first three years. Yet he has also placed very significant emphasis on foreign policy, from China to North Korea, Iran to Russia. Not to mention a series of big plays around multilateral trade, from the proposed new US-Mexico-Canada agreement through to pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal with about a dozen other countries in Asia-Pacific and the Americas.

This pattern looks set to continue and may only intensify. The next big moment for Trump could be in New York this month, with world leaders gathering for the high-level UN General Assembly. And, looking into next year, the US is, for instance, hosting the next G7 summit, which will occupy a significant amount of White House attention, especially with Trump looking to make the event — potentially at a property his family company owns in Miami — as big a success as possible.

In placing so much emphasis on foreign policy in his first term, Trump has pre-empted the pattern of recent second-term presidents, who increasingly looked overseas after re-election, rather than before. His team believes there are multiple big foreign policy prizes still in play in the coming months. Yet, in all cases, the process remains fragile and prone to reversal, as the US-Taliban peace talks show.

Take the example of Iran, with Trump indicating on Monday that there is a possibility of a meeting with President Hassan Rouhani at the UN. The apparent prize here for the White House is the possibility of Tehran agreeing, in the face of growing pressure, to a new, tougher deal that goes beyond the 2015 nuclear agreement. However, while that possibility cannot be ruled out entirely, a breakthrough appears unlikely. Indeed, it is at least equally likely that the tensions with Tehran will grow further in the coming weeks.

There are two other key areas where Trump sees potentially legacy-defining agreements. Firstly, North Korea, where it remains an open question whether sustained moves toward the “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula will ultimately prove anything more than a mirage. Despite all the challenges, Trump is likely to continue his Korea gambit with his re-election campaign on the horizon. This, along with his desire to cement a place in history, means the potential prize of permanently de-escalating tensions on the world’s last Cold War frontier is likely to remain appealing to him.
At the heart of the apparent logjam between Washington and Pyongyang is not just the vagueness of the commitments agreed at the Singapore summit by Trump and Kim Jong Un. There may also still be a fundamental difference over what next steps are needed to build confidence. It was always very likely that Kim would be wary about making big concrete commitments, at least initially, and would want to win economic and political concessions from Trump before any reduction in nuclear capabilities, let alone committing to “full denuclearization.” With the two sides not having met at senior level for some time, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday that this process will resume again as soon as this month.

Trump’s team believes there are multiple big foreign policy prizes still in play in the coming months.

Andrew Hammond

The other key battleground for Trump comes on China, where several months ago he appeared on the verge of a breakthrough trade deal. Yet, despite the fact that the expectations were so high, an agreement remains elusive. With high-level negotiations expected to resume next month, after several weeks of impasse, there remains a significant possibility of a breakthrough. Trump, for his part, still asserts a “very big deal” is on the horizon, and the possibility cannot be excluded that he and President Xi Jinping will ultimately conclude it is in their personal political interests to take this issue off the table in the context of a slowing global economy.

However, if the trade talks do break down again in the coming weeks, it may be harder to reach a deal in 2020 with the extra political pressures of a US election year. Ultimately, as Trump moves into campaign mode, he needs to show his US political base a wide range of concessions from China as he seeks to fulfill his “America First” agenda. 

Taken together, all these issues underline why this autumn will be such an important time for Trump. He could either enter election year with a foreign policy wind in his campaign sails or continue to be flummoxed by policy challenges that have long bedeviled him.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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