As President Donald Trump approaches his 100-day benchmark on Saturday, a media deluge has already begun bemoaning the demise of the liberal order, celebrating waves of deregulation or simply blaming the president’s rocky start on the “disaster” he inherited on taking office. Rather than wade into that predictable morass, we prefer to focus instead on what the next 100 days hold in store.
Trump is often described as a “transactional” president who sees the world as one big negotiating table where he can leverage his business experience to exact better terms and conditions for American workers and corporations. Trump will therefore try to keep his core agenda focused on what he regards as his sweet spot: U.S. economy and trade.
But even though the domestic economy may be the thing closest to the president’s comfort zone, it’s also where he comes up against a wall of institutional barriers. As a result, his much-touted tax overhaul attempting a steep reduction in the corporate tax rate will remain gridlocked in congressional battles over health care and the budget.
A slippery slope on trade
The new U.S. administration will have a bit more room to maneuver on trade issues. Its simplistic fixation on countries with which the United States has a large deficit will become more nuanced with time. The United States cannot simply force other countries to buy more of its goods in volumes that would make an appreciable difference in the trade deficit. And in some cases, America’s existing factory capacity is neither ready nor able to meet a sizable increase in demand from abroad. Instead, for select industries, Washington will try to boost U.S. purchases of American goods and the enforcement of trade measures to restrict certain imports from abroad.
The steel sector is a logical place for the White House to focus its attention. After all, it’s an industry that appeals to Trump’s support base in the Rust Belt (though price hikes risk alienating big U.S. steel consumers); the United States has the domestic capacity to meet most of its steel demand (save for specific, often military-related applications); and there are several World Trade Organization provisions that the United States can use to tighten restrictions on imports (well before Trump’s election, Washington had placed more than 150 countervailing and anti-dumping duties on steel imports).
A number of these measures will inevitably invite challenges in the WTO, but a much bigger and more consequential question will still hang over U.S. trade partners. The Trump administration has outlined a trade policy to Congress that “will aggressively defend American sovereignty over matters of trade policy.” Specifically, the White House has said the United States wouldn’t subject itself to WTO provisions that are “inconsistent” with U.S. law.
This raises the question of just how far a protectionist White House will try to stretch trade loopholes — and what it will risk in the process. Trump has ordered the Department of Commerce to open an investigation into whether importing steel harms the national security interests of the United States by sidelining domestic producers. Based on precedent and the current definition of national security in the context of trade, it will be difficult for the United States to argue that it does. But the national security clause is an extremely powerful tool in the hands of the executive. If the Trump administration expands that definition to include issues such as employment and domestic stability, the White House would have a much broader set of tools with which to target other industries under duress from foreign competition.
Trump is thus at the top of a slippery slope. If the United States aggressively plays the national security card in trade, its trade partners will be compelled to do the same. The tit-for-tat would severely undermine the foundation of the international trade order that the United States has underpinned as part of its global hegemonic responsibilities for the past 70 years.
Still, this isn’t cause for alarmist predictions of the end of free trade as we know it. Decades of interwoven supply chains wrapped around the globe won’t be undone by a single president. Moreover, there’s no guarantee that the White House will follow this course to its extreme end. The Trump administration isn’t prepared to absorb the political cost of greatly compromising its trade links abroad, and the White House still needs a credible WTO to enforce many of the trade measures it is already trying to invoke. In fact, the mere threat of upending international trade governance may simply be a useful negotiating tactic as the White House tries to improve its bilateral trade terms with countries such as Mexico and China.
A familiar conundrum in North Korea
Trump has broadcast to the world that the trade pressure he has applied on China will achieve things “never seen before” in managing the North Korean crisis. But intertwining trade with foreign policy gets messy very quickly.
The president has framed his recent reversal on labeling China a currency manipulator as a negotiating tactic intended to push China to do more in pressuring North Korea. But there was little weight behind the threat of using that label in the first place. China has been defending, not devaluing, its currency for the past three years; in fact, it hopes to avoid a steep fall in the value of the yuan, which would exacerbate capital flight and hamper Beijing’s efforts to boost domestic consumption and reduce its heavy reliance on exports. China is concerned, of course, about the more selective trade measures the White House is pursuing to target Chinese imports, and it will float promises of granting U.S. investors greater market access in certain sectors to keep those frictions manageable.
Does this U.S.-China trade dynamic amount to substantive change in how North Korea is handled? Not exactly. While consolidating power at home ahead of this year’s Communist Party Congress and fending off trade attacks from Washington, Chinese President Xi Jinping has been using a careful blend of economic incentives and military moves with its neighbors to carve out and seal a sphere of influence in its near abroad, squeezing out the United States. North Korea has interfered with those plans. As Pyongyang inches closer to fielding a long-range weaponized nuclear device, the United States is drawn deeper into the Asia-Pacific, encroaching on what China regards as its regional turf.
China is far more concerned about having an unstable North Korea on its doorstep than a nuclear one. And though China does have substantial economic leverage over North Korea, there are clear limits to how far Beijing will go in applying sanctions. The Chinese don’t want to face a refugee crisis on their border and aren’t interested in triggering the government’s collapse in Pyongyang if it also means accelerating a scenario in which China must contend with a reunified Korea tucked under a U.S. security umbrella.
Military planners in the region and the United States know that there are simply no good military options for managing North Korea’s actions when Seoul is in range of a massive artillery barrage and both Japan and China are in range of North Korea’s missile arsenal. Real potential exists for a military crisis on the Korean Peninsula to escalate into a regional conflict. Kim Jong Un’s reclusive government, meanwhile, has done an exceptional job of keeping China (and the rest of the world) at arm’s length to muddle intelligence estimates and leave adversaries with little choice but to factor the worst-case scenario — regional war — into the cost calculations of their military plans.
So, even as “strategic impatience” begins to dominate Washington’s rhetoric about North Korea, Trump will likely meet the fate of his predecessors. After reaching the limits of exerting economic pressure through China, his administration will reserve the high-risk military option of conducting a pre-emptive attack against North Korea for the event that Washington detects Pyongyang’s preparations for a suicidal strike against the United States, Japan or South Korea. Pyongyang, for its part, will proceed apace with the development of its nuclear deterrent. The United States will try to mitigate this threat in other ways by focusing on covert means of disrupting the program, stepping up missile defense in the region, and reinforcing the defenses of Japan and South Korea.
A heavier U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific will worsen tension between China, on one hand, and the United States and its security partners on the other. And with the reality of a nuclear North Korea setting in, Washington’s security commitments in the region will be tested. If Japan and South Korea have reason to seriously question their protection under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, they could well take steps to develop their own nuclear weapons programs, just as Trump himself bluntly advocated during his presidential campaign.
An enduring standoff in Eurasia
The United States’ relationship with Russia will remain rocky in the months ahead. An unrelenting congressional probe into Russian meddling in the U.S. election is a political fire the White House will be unable to completely stamp out. As a result, the issue of easing sanctions will likely continue to be too thorny to touch for the time being.
Neither the United States nor Russia will let its military guard down in Europe as the standoff endures. If Moscow and Washington hold a substantive negotiation of any kind over the next 100 days, it will be on the matter of arms control. But they will encounter major obstacles there as well. With U.S. ballistic missile defense expanding and a race for hypersonic weapons underway, Russia has no intention of hamstringing itself under foundational agreements such as the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which is rapidly becoming defunct.
And as China sits out of the arms control discussion, both Russia and the United States will have motivation beyond their competition with each other to operate outside the obsolete bounds of their 20th-century pacts. All the while, however, they will be trying to suss out where new deals can be made.
An unrelenting congressional probe into Russian meddling in the U.S. election is a political fire the White House will be unable to completely stamp out. As a result, the issue of easing sanctions will likely continue to be too thorny to touch for the time being.
As he copes with rising discontent at home, Russian President Vladimir Putin will stick by his longstanding strategy of cracking the core of the European Union and NATO.
The first round of France’s presidential election pit the politically hollow and moderate Europeanist Emmanuel Macron against far-right National Front euroskeptic Marine Le Pen. Though the second round will likely favor Macron, thus buying Europe time to hold itself together, the Continent is still on shaky ground. A polarized French electorate and the potential for gridlock to emerge from National Assembly elections in June — not to mention the deeper issues driving economic stagnation and social tensions — will keep the country’s euroskeptic current alive and hinder structural reforms.
At the same time, Italy, still highly fragile, will inch toward its own elections, and the north-south chasm in Europe will widen — just as German voters prepare to head to the polls in the fall. The United Kingdom, meanwhile, is gearing up for the long and arduous negotiation ahead as it divorces itself from the European Union. (In the process, it will be creating a template for other members of the bloc to potentially do the same.)
The White House has openly endorsed the euroskeptics’ vision for Europe, in line with its own view that national self-interest isn’t just preferable but also plain sensible. Nonetheless, this is a precarious and all-consuming path for Europe that will leave little room for the United States to impose its preferences on the bloc — and plenty of loose threads for Russia to pull in trying to unravel the Western alliance.
Risky readjustments in the Middle East
As tremors spread across Europe and Asia, the United States will be occupied by trying to dodge pockets of political quicksand throughout the Middle East. The Syrian battlefield offers opportunities for decisive shows of military action, as demonstrated recently when Trump ordered a limited strike on a Syrian air base in response to a chemical weapons attack. But Syria is also a siren song for mission creep that the United States will struggle to resist while staying focused on the fight against Islamic State. Within that fight, Russia will alternate between playing spoiler and mediator, trying to poke and prod the United States into a more productive dialogue.
Turkey, fresh off its win in a recent constitutional referendum, can also be expected to butt heads with the Americans, Russians and Iranians while staking out its own sphere of influence across northern Syria and Iraq in the name of containing the Kurds and protecting the Sunnis against Iranian encroachment.
The leading Sunni powers of the region, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, will find this U.S. president much more willing to help keep Iran at bay than the last. While former President Barack Obama undertook the task of neutralizing the Iranian nuclear threat so that the United States could avoid being pulled into another Middle Eastern war, Trump will now work to further tilt the regional balance of power toward the Sunni camp.
This doesn’t mean the Trump administration is prepared to walk away from its nuclear deal with Iran and reopen yet another potential theater for conflict. Instead, the White House will take a tougher stance on Iran by reinforcing its Sunni allies in proxy battles in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Sanctions that directly interfere with the Iranian nuclear deal will likely be averted, and sanctions waivers tied to the nuclear deal will likely be extended, but additional sanctions related to human rights abuses and Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism can be expected.
And with Iran’s presidential election set for May 19, a hard-nosed U.S. administration’s efforts to keep Iran in check will have the unintended effect of bolstering Iranian hard-liners, injecting more uncertainty into the tenuous working relationship between Washington and Tehran.
Deepening crisis in the Caribbean
The United States will also have a tough time ignoring the alarms sounding in the Caribbean in the months ahead. Deteriorating economic conditions in Venezuela have finally given way to large demonstrations in the country’s urban core, including the poorest neighborhoods of Caracas where the once-powerful ideology of Chavismo has faded. The risk of state-run oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PdVSA) defaulting on its debt will rise substantially in the second half of the year, adding yet another source of instability.
As that specter looms, the Venezuelan government — led by embattled President Nicolás Maduro and riddled with corrupt officials trying to evade extradition — will take steps to consolidate power into a one-party state and hunker down for the impending struggle in the streets. But deep rifts among the security and military forces charged with quashing unrest threaten to tear the government apart.
The United States has the option of accelerating the administration’s collapse by leveling weightier sanctions against PdVSA, but with a number of other crises and priorities to consider, it could opt to keep its distance as the country crumbles from within.
The 100 days in perspective
Despite the prestige the U.S. presidency traditionally carries, it is an office designed by America’s founding fathers to be hemmed in from many sides. And though the executive branch has a little more room to shape foreign policy than domestic law, it must often contend with jagged geopolitical realities that cut into, rather than bend with, the president’s worldview.
“America First” also means “China First,” “Russia First,” “Germany First” and so on. Each state will pursue its national interests and, in doing so, often find its imperatives collide with others’. The irreversible technological, demographic and economic forces shaping global trade, the menace of a Northeast Asian war started by North Korea, the historical distrust between Russia and the West and within Europe itself, and the deeply rooted ideological and sectarian battles being waged within the Islamic world are a daunting collection of crises for any president to grapple with.
And whether we look 100 days behind us or 100 days ahead, there is no question that the bounds of U.S. presidential power are being put to the test.
Reva Goujon is vice president of global analysis at Stratfor. This article was published with the permission of Stratfor, the Austin, Texas-based geopolitical-intelligence firm.
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