Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


MAY 2018

President Trump's national security team is embarked on highly risky foreign policy confrontations with allies and adversaries that could cause serious harm to U.S. national interests. If successful, however, the outcome could be a stronger, more confident America that places greater emphasis on its own interests and less on others' priorities, especially Europe's. Here are three cases.

Confrontation with Iran

When Mr. Trump cancelled U.S. participation in the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, three European signatories-- Britain, France and Germany--objected to his unilateral action. They prefer to amend the deal, they said, not cancel it. They have begun negotiations with Tehran to see if the deal can be revised and preserve their companies' recent financial investments in Iran. The Treasury department, at Trump's urging, plans to impose new financial sanctions on Iran that will jeopardize Europe's ability to finance those contracts and threaten their much larger markets in the U.S.

Secretary of State Mike Pompao, in a major speech on May 21, advised Iran's leaders that the United States was willing to renegotiate the nuclear deal, but only if Iran renounced any development of nuclear weapons and stopped its armed interventions in the Middle East. Those include Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria. If Tehran refuses to accept these demands, the two countries could find themselves at war in the Persian Gulf.

The additional risk for Washington is that Europe, also critical of Trump's unilateral action on Jerusalem and his earlier withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, will decide to preserve the nuclear accord and try to salvage some of the economic benefits while not jeopardizing trade with the U.S. The reality must now be faced that Europe is drawing away from economic and political ties with the U.S. while hoping to preserve the vital security relationship.

North Korea's nuclear ambitions

Kim Jong-un, North Korea's dictator, agreed to meet President Trump in Singapore June 12, but now threatens to cancel the event if Washington insists on Trump's goal of complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. On May 24 the president withdrew from the summit but suggested it could be rescheduled. Kim had earlier canceled a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jai-in to discuss a peace treaty and reunification of the two Koreas. Mr. Moon was in Washington this week trying to salvage the June 12 meeting. Trump says he's willing to reduce economic sanctions and cut U.S. troop strength in South Korea, but only gradually as North Korea dismantles its nuclear facilities

The risk here is two-fold: First, Kim may decide to withdraw from the Singapore meeting, or attend but refuse to dismantle his nuclear arsenal and refuse to proceed with reunification. Kim will claim that Trump stands in the way of a Korean peace treaty and reunification and try to persuade South Korea's public that he wants peace on the peninsula. The second risk is seeing President Moon draw away from Trump's insistence on denuclearization and press for a peace treaty with the North. Failure at Singapore therefore opens the prospect of armed clashes of U.S. and North Korean forces in Northeast Asia.

Trade war with China

The likelihood of an armed confrontation between U.S. and China in the near future is probably remote, but a trade war is a real possibility. Mr. Trump campaigned on a promise to cut the trade deficit with China, which in the past year expanded to its highest level, $375 billion. Trump hopes that China will cut that by $200 billion by importing more from the U.S. After reportedly difficult negotiations recently in Beijing and Washington this month, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced that plans to impose tariffs on Chinese exports will be "on hold" while negotiations continue.

Both sides say they hope to avoid a trade war, but President Xi and President Trump both face strong domestic pressures that make a deal to meet the $200 billion reduction unlikely in the foreseeable future. If tariffs eventually are levied on China's steel and aluminum exports, Beijing will retaliate with limits on U.S. agricultural products. Tough negotiations lie ahead, and a damaging trade war would damage both political and economic relations, making resolution of the North Korea threat more difficult.

The Trump administration believes it leads from strength, both economically and militarily, in dealing with Iran, North Korea, and China. Because of their growing economy, expanding military budget, and strength of the US dollar, Secretary of State Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin seem confident they will prevail against Iran's ambitions in the Middle East and on North Korea's nuclear threats in Asia. But in the process, they seem less confident that Europe will retain its strong ties to the United States. It's a large risk; but for Trump it's worth taking.

File last modified on Sunday, 27-MAY-2018 08:30 PM EST

Feedback to Author