The waning of Pax Americana?

On May 8th, President Donald Trump announced his decision to pull the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal. The deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), went into effect in January 2016, after then-President Barack Obama signed the agreement in July 2015, along with the European Union and the so-called P5+1 countries, or the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC): China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom, plus Germany. Candidate Trump campaigned heavily on withdrawing from what he has consistently referred to as “the worst deal ever,” though he was dissuaded from leaving the JCPOA earlier by now-departed advisers like H.R. McMaster and Rex Tillerson.

The decision is a blow to the U.S.’s transatlantic allies. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel both visited Washington in the days preceding the administration’s decision, hoping to convince the president that the deal could be rejiggered rather than jettisoned. There was talk of a “side deal”—a new negotiation to limit Iran’s missiles and to combat its sponsorship of terrorism—but such proposals came to little. Critics argue that leaving the deal corrodes Washington’s international credibility, as well as undermining its leveraging position in potential future nuclear talks between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has responded that negotiations will go forward with the other signatories to the nuclear deal, but warned that Iran would resume enriching uranium if a favorable agreement cannot be reached.  

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has agreed to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Scrapping the Bill Clinton-era pact between the U.S., Mexico and Canada was another rallying cry of the Trump campaign, and the deal has continued to be a major target throughout the president’s first term. The ongoing negotiations between the parties was further complicated in early March, when Trump first maneuvered to impose sweeping tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, and then announced that he would exempt Mexico and Canada if they acquiesced to his demands for changes to NAFTA. (For now, most countries will be exempt, though tariffs are notably going ahead for China and Japan.)

One of the president’s first major moves in office was to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a would-be trade pact between the U.S. and 11 Pacific Rim countries. In March, those 11 countries went forward with the deal sans the U.S. The new pact includes Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam, together accounting for some 13% of global GDP. In April, Trump floated the idea of re-joining the TPP, but later reverted to his original opposition.

Recommended Readings:

Ben Hubbard, “With Demise of Nuclear Deal, Iran’s Foes See an Opportunity. Others See Risk of War,” The New York Times (May 13, 2018).

Gideon Rachman, “The New World Order: Donald Trump goes it alone,” Financial Times (May 11, 2018).

John Dickerson, “The Hardest Job in the World,” The Atlantic (May 2018).


China and America: the new geopolitical equation

Alarm is growing over the possibility of a trade war between the U.S. and China. The U.S. has recently made a series of assertive trade moves, most notably the imposition of 25% tariffs on Chinese steel and 10% tariffs on aluminum.

In early May, two days of trade talks between U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He were held in Beijing. China refused to concede to U.S. demands that it cut its trade advantage by $200 billion dollars by the end of 2020, while also presenting its own list of contentious requests. U.S. negotiators further targeted Chinese subsidization of industries and some policies related to technology transfers.

The U.S. wants China to ease its protectionist trade policies, complaining of unfair trade practices. In April, President Trump announced that he would slap an initial 25% tariff on at least 1,300 Chinese imports like toys, shoes and clothing. That alone represents $50 billion in tariffs.

Yet one Sunday in May the president shifted his tone dramatically. Just 72 hours after the Chinese invested half-a-billion dollars in one of his personal business projects in Indonesia, President Trump announced that he would try to save the Chinese Telecom giant ZTE from collapse by allowing it to resume buying U.S. parts. The Commerce Department had banned U.S. companies from dealing with ZTE in April because of the company’s continued business with Iran and North Korea in defiance of U.S. sanctions.

Some experts have noted that the brewing trade war may actually have less to do with deficits than it appears. The U.S. has been running trade deficits for 40 years, starting before China became a major trading nation. On top of that, current trade deficits are largely driven by the U.S.’s low savings rates. The real point of contention might therefore be the threat China poses to the U.S. as a technological leader, specifically in Artificial Intelligence (AI). Chinese President Xi Jinping has made AI one of the central pillars of his Made in China 2025 plan, and has set his sights on becoming the global leader in AI by 2030.

Amidst all the news about trade wars, the Pentagon charged in May that China had targeted U.S. Air Force pilots with military-grade lasers near Djibouti, close to where China established its first overseas military base in 2017. The use of lasers raises the risk of an inadvertent conflict between the U.S. and China, and may represent part of China’s broader efforts to build maritime bases and undermine U.S. security interests.

China also appears to be playing a long game for influence in the Middle East. Beijing has recently increased investments in human capital—for example, setting up local think tanks that focus on the Arab World. It has also invested in massive infrastructure projects; namely vis-à-vis the Belt and Road infrastructure initiative that aims to integrate East and Central Asia.

Recommended Readings:

Ali Wyne, “The Greater Danger of US-China Trade Relations,” The Diplomat (May 9, 2018)

Xie Tao, “When America Stands up to China,” The Diplomat (Apr. 2, 2018).

Yukon Huang, “US trade tussle with China is actually about technology,” Financial Times (May 2, 2018)


Media and foreign policy

Throughout his first months in office, President Donald Trump has defied established norms of foreign policy decisionmaking and diplomacy through his use of the social networking platform Twitter. Here are some of the most noteworthy ways in which the president communicated U.S. foreign policy on Twitter, and selected reactions from other leaders, from January 2018 until today:

On North Korea, a historic meeting between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in took place on April 27th in South Korea. President Trump tweeted that tough U.S. sanctions had succeeded in bringing Pyongyang to the negotiating table. Referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump wrote that “Rocket Man now wants to talk to South Korea for first time. Perhaps this is good news, perhaps not - we will see!” In early May, the president tweeted that newly appointed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was escorting three Americans who had been detained in North Korea back to the U.S. Shortly thereafter, he wrote that he would meet Kim on June 12th in Singapore. That meeting, if it goes ahead, would mark the first time in history that a sitting U.S. president has met with the North Korean “supreme leader.” This relatively friendly atmosphere follows a period of extreme volatility last year, in which Kim and Trump (often via Twitter) traded threats of war.

On the Iran Nuclear Deal, Trump published a media-teasing tweet on May 7th, explaining that he would announce his decision on U.S. membership in the JCPOA the next day at 2pm. On May 8th, the president confirmed that the U.S. would withdraw from the deal. Shortly thereafter, French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted his disappointment at the decision. Former President Barack Obama issued a lengthy statement on Facebook.

On Syria, President Trump tweeted in April: “Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart’ [missiles]!” Russia responded by mocking Trump’s “Twitter diplomacy.” Several days later, the U.S. launched missile strikes in partnership with allies against chemical weapons facilities in Syria.

Twitter is not the only company ensnared in the thicket of modern international relations. Facebook has come under fire after it was revealed that the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which has ties to Donald Trump’s election campaign, stealthily harvested profile data from tens of millions of Facebook users without their consent. The data was obtained through a loophole in the way Facebook allowed third-party apps to gain access to information from users, their friends and their networks. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had repeatedly brushed aside concerns that his company’s policies may have had a hand in the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. But in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica episode, Zuckerberg in April travelled to Washington to testify to Congress about how Russia and other actors might have used the platform to influence U.S. politics. 

Recommended Readings:

Dion Nissenbaum, “In His Foreign Policy, Trump Values Action Over D.C.’s Caution,” The Wall Street Journal (May 9, 2018).

Joseph S. Nye Jr., “How Sharp Power Threatens Soft Power,” Foreign Affairs (Jan. 24, 2018).

Steven Erlanger, “Trump’s Twitter Threats Put American Credibility on the Line,” The New York Times (Jan. 7, 2018).


U.S. global engagement and the military

In May, the Pentagon announced that it would be augmenting the U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) presence in the Atlantic Ocean. The Pentagon will reestablish the U.S. Second Fleet, and will launch a new naval command. The so-called Atlantic Command will be headquartered in Norfolk, Virginia.

The move comes in response to Russia’s ramped-up military presence in the region. Earlier this year, NATO accused Russia of destabilizing actions with regard to nuclear and cyber capabilities, and other covert behavior, including use of a lethal nerve agent against a Russian former double agent and his daughter in a London park in March. Russia, however, has denied the accusations, and said that NATO poses risks to peace in Europe.

Relations between Washington and Moscow could be further strained if the 2010 New Start treaty, which limits U.S. and Russian strategic warheads, is not renewed. The treaty is set to expire in 2021. Failure to renew could leave the two countries uninhibited by any nuclear arms caps for the first time since 1972. Further, the Trump administration’s 2018 nuclear posture review cites plans to loosen constraints on the U.S.’s use of nuclear weapons, and develops additional “usable” nuclear warheads.

In March, President Trump announced that he would be pulling U.S. troops, currently numbering 2,000, from Syria. While ISIS has at last been territorially defeated there, officials estimate that there remain nearly 2,200 ISIS fighters in the east of the country. In mid-April, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said that his country would be willing to take part in a new plan to replace U.S. troops in Syria with an Arab force. However, Riyadh remains locked in a proxy war with Iran in Yemen, straining the resources it might contribute to such a force. President Trump’s new national security advisor, John Bolton, has reached out to Egypt’s acting intelligence chief to see if Cairo would be willing to take part as well.

In Washington, President Trump’s appetite for a military parade, contracted after he witnessed the Bastille Day celebrations in Paris last July, will be sated. Estimates for the parade put the cost at as much as $30 million. It will feature a military air show, and will coincide with the annual Veterans Day celebrations in the capital.

Recommended Readings:

Charles Lister, “Syria: which way forward?” Middle East Institute (Feb. 7, 2018).

Helene Cooper, “Military Shifts Focus to Threats by Russia and China, Not Terrorism,” The New York Times (Jan. 19, 2018).

Robin Wright, “The Rise of the World’s New Emperors—With America’s Help,” The New Yorker (Feb. 27, 2018).


Global health: progress and challenges

A recent report on air pollution by the World Health Organization (WHO) states that nine in ten people around the world breathe highly polluted air. According to the report, air pollution is responsible for one third of all deaths from noncommunicable diseases (e.g. heart diseases, stroke, cancer), or one in every nine deaths worldwide. Poor countries with growing populations, like India, face especially serious risks. In some countries where pollution has become a pressing public concern, like China, strong industry-led reforms have resulted in limited progress.

On May 8th, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) declared an outbreak of the Ebola virus in the northwestern part of the country, confirming two active cases, and reporting 21 patients with consistent symptoms, and 17 deaths. The virus, which can quickly spread through direct contact, devastated West Africa from 2014 to 2016, infecting 28,600 people and killing more than 11,300. Two years later, the WHO declared the region Ebola-free, though there have been subsequent isolated outbreaks. A vaccine has been developed, but it has not been approved for market.

War-torn Yemen, meanwhile, is being ravaged by a Cholera epidemic. Although the first vaccination campaign is now underway, the 18-month-old war has seen an estimated 1 million cases of cholera, with 2,275 deaths since November 2016. Cholera is primarily spread as a result of unsanitary water conditions, making the mid-April–August rainy season an especially dangerous time.

In the U.S., President Trump sought to cut funding by $7 billion from the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) as part of the administration’s broader efforts to cut $15 billion from the federal budget, outlined in a rescissions package sent to Congress in May. The administration has defended the cuts, arguing that the money would come from untapped leftover funds that would not affect CHIP operations.

In addition, the U.S. is facing a boom in the number of tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease, as climate change makes conditions ripe for bacterial infections. As many as 300,000 people are affected by Lyme disease in the U.S. every year, with no vaccination yet available. A recently published report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that illnesses from mosquito, tick and flea bites have more than tripled from 2004 (27,000 cases) to 2016 (96,000), but the frequency of unreported cases of infection likely means the real numbers are higher.

Recommended Readings:

Bill Gates, “Gene Editing for Good,” Foreign Affairs (Apr. 10, 2018).

Siddhartha Mukherjee, “Surgical Checklists Save Lives—but Once in a While, They Don’t. Why?” The New York Times Magazine (May 9, 2018).

The Editorial Board, “When Republicans Are Honest About Their Policies,” The New York Times (May 3, 2018).


The UPDATES were written by Roshni Majumdar, editorial intern at FPA.