Jim Meszaros
EVP, International Affairs
Oct 31

What’s next in U.S. foreign policy

13 issues that will define US foreign relations ahead of the 2020 election

Article originally published on our Public Affairs publication, Issues Decoded, here.

As the United States engages in great power competition to counter Russia, China and Iran, Washington’s relationships with allies are evolving. President Trump brings an unorthodox negotiating style and “America First” ideology to the geopolitical landscape.

Allies and adversaries are calculating whether they want to work with the Trump administration or wait to see if a new president takes office in 2021 or before. They must also prepare for the contingency that the Trump era extends another four years.

President Trump wants to show foreign policy successes as he runs for re-election next year, while avoiding any foreign conflict that would turn voters against him.

Click the image below to access the online PDF version showing the state of play of U.S. foreign with key allies and adversaries around the world.


The U.S.-China relationship is fraught with irritants on trade, investment, technology, 5G/AI, Taiwan aid, Hong Kong protests and other issues, deepening the rift between Beijing and Washington. Other countries in Asia are trying to balance their relationship between both global powers. The U.S.-China trade dispute is causing uncertainty for the global economy, as business and markets react to fast-changing events. Both countries will seek to finalize a Phase 1 agreement before the end of 2019.


The U.S. is seeking to shape European policy to align with efforts to confront China, Russia and other geopolitical risks. President Trump criticizes U.S. trade deficits with Europe, especially Germany, and is pushing NATO members to contribute more to regional security. Europe favors multilateral negotiations and collaboration, in contrast with Trump’s bilateral approach. EU leaders oppose U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and Iran nuclear agreement. Europe is targeting U.S. tech companies on taxes, data privacy and antitrust.


The U.S. has renegotiated a trade agreement with its two largest regional partners — Canada and Mexico. The USMCA awaits congressional ratification. Mexico and Central America are at the center of the Trump administration’s efforts to reduce illegal migration and trafficking on the U.S. southern border. The U.S. and Brazil are looking to expand commercial ties. The U.S. would welcome a regime change in Venezuela, but action has been limited to imposing sanctions. Other world regions and crises have minimized U.S. focus on the region.


The Trump administration has sought to improve relations with Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. ISIS’s control of territory and regional influence has declined. President Trump wants to remove all U.S. forces from Afghanistan and Northern Syria — the latter creating concern that Turkey will target the Kurdish population.


The U.S. withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement and imposed new sanctions. Tensions are rising in the Gulf, as the U.S. works with regional allies to contain Iran’s growing influence while Tehran tests Washington’s appetite for conflict. Europeans are urging the U.S. and Iran to return to the negotiating table.


India and the U.S. are aligned on the broad parameters of regional defense and security, but trade tensions and U.S. sanctions on oil from Iran and Venezuela could unsettle the relationship. The U.S. is concerned about growing India-Russia military ties.


Trade negotiations have been completed with South Korea and a narrow agreement reached with Japan. The U.S. is watching how the Japan-South Korea dispute might impact regional business and politics. President Trump wants both countries to rely less on the U.S. security umbrella.


Talks to curtail North Korea’s nuclear program have stalled, but the U.S. remains committed to a process that would lift sanctions in exchange for ending the nuclear threat on the Korean peninsula.


Russia’s interference in the 2016 election has created a difficult challenge for bilateral relations. Russia is seeking to build leverage in the Middle East, Venezuela and Asia and prevent NATO from building up military assets in Eastern Europe. Any Trump effort to improve bilateral relations would face a pushback from Congress, which will watch closely for evidence of Russian interference in the 2020 elections. The U.S. is withdrawing from the INF treaty, citing Russian violations.


While China, India and other countries are increasing their economic influence and diplomatic presence in Africa, the Trump administration has had limited engagement.


President Trump has criticized multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and World Trade Organization but has not pulled the U.S. out of these entities. The U.S. has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Agreement. The U.S. is participating in an OECD-led effort to reform global taxation.


The U.S. has sanctions in place against Iran, North Korea, Syria, Sudan, Venezuela and Cuba. In addition, sanctions or embargoes are in place against individuals and terror/criminal networks in numerous other countries.


President Trump has sought to reduce foreign aid to countries that do not support the United States. However, aid spending remains level at about $50 billion annually, and includes economic, military/security, humanitarian and political assistance. Africa receives 32% of all U.S. aid, the Middle East 31% and South and Central Asia 25%.

Article edited by Lexi Mondot and Nicole Sheehan

For more information on public affairs consulting from us, please contact Ellen DeMunter at DeMunter@webershandwick.com

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