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Why foreign policy will loom large in the US in 2020

Trump is seeking key achievements in the coming months in arenas such as Iran, China and North Korea, even if a win may not be easy.

President Trump with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at their 2017 meeting in the White House. Mr Lavrov is to visit again this week.

RUSSIAN Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met Donald Trump on Tuesday, as the House of Representative moved closer this week to impeaching the US leader.

The impeachment process will shape domestic politics in 2020, yet it will also increasingly bring foreign policy into election year, given the Ukrainian dimension to the affair.

There are already growing signs that the Democratic US presidential candidates, who have mainly focused on domestic policy in debates, are dialling up their foreign policy focus.

Meanwhile, the president, who believes that his international policy is one of the strongest reasons for his re-election in 2020, wants to make it key to his campaign.

This combined emphasis on foreign policy will mean that the 2020 campaign will be especially eagerly watched, not just in the United States, but right across the globe. Part of the reason for the global interest is the massive international concern about the prospect of his getting re-elected.

This was illustrated in data released by Pew Global last week, which showed that, in a significant number of countries, domestic populaces decreasingly see the United States as the ally they can most depend on.

Take the example of three key US allies in Asia-Pacific: In India, there is a 12 percentage-point fall-off in responses to this question between 2014 (when Barack Obama was president) and this year. In the Philippines, the drop-off is 19 percentage points, and in Indonesia, 12 percentage points.

Within the United States itself, it is also likely that foreign policy will be a significant factor on the minds of the electorate. This is not just because of the controversies over Mr Trump's Ukrainian policy, but also continuing wider concerns of his stance toward key international allies, not to mention his unorthodox policies toward states of long-standing US concern, including Russia, which was the key topic of conversation in the White House on Tuesday.

In the last US presidential election year in 2016, the very high salience of international issues in the campaign was illustrated in a separate Pew survey that found 34 per cent of the population believed foreign policy, especially tackling international terrorism, was then the biggest challenge facing the country. By contrast, "only" 23 per cent mentioned economic problems.


That data showing higher salience of foreign policy compared to economic issues was very unusual in the context of the past few decades. Indeed, it resembles the first 25 years of the Cold War, from 1948 to 1972, when international security issues dominated the concerns of US voters during presidential campaigns.

By contrast, since the early 70s, economic matters have tended to be the electorate's highest priority. For instance, just before the 2012 presidential election year, some 55 per cent of US citizens cited economic worries as the most important factor facing the country, said Pew. By contrast, only 6 per cent mentioned foreign policy or other international issues.

While foreign policy may not prove to be quite as salient for voters in 2020 as in 2016, there are a significant number of reasons why international affairs will be prominent. In part, this is because Mr Trump has - unlike many presidents in the modern era - put a very significant amount of emphasis on foreign policy in the first three years of his presidency.

Foreign policy has been a surprisingly big feature of his presidency so far - from China to North Korea, Iran to Russia, not to mention multilateral trade from the renegotiation of Nafta - the proposed new US-Mexico-Canada pact - through to pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal.

This pattern looks set to continue in 2020.

The United States is, for instance, hosting next year's G7, which will occupy a significant amount of White House attention in spring and summer. In placing so much emphasis on foreign policy, the US leader has replicated a pattern of most recent second-term (rather than first term) presidents, who have tended to increasingly look overseas after re-election, rather than before.

This has often been done for reasons including the search for legacy, and the "lame duck" factor which drains power from presidents as they approach the end-point of their second terms, given that they cannot serve more than eight years.

There are at least three areas where Mr Trump is seeking key achievements in coming months, including Iran, North Korea and China. Take the example of North Korea, where it remains an open question whether sustained moves toward "denuclearisation" of the Korean peninsula will ultimately prove anything more than a mirage.

Yet, despite all the challenges, Mr Trump is likely to continue his Korea gambit with election year on the horizon. This, along with his desire to cement a place in history, means the potential prize of possibly permanently de-escalating tensions in the world's last Cold War frontier is likely to remain appealing to him.

At the heart of the apparent logjam right now between Washington and Pyongyang is not just the vagueness of the commitments agreed in Singapore. There also appears a fundamental difference between Pyongyang and Washington over the next step needed to build confidence.

It was always very likely that Kim Jong-un would be wary about making big concrete commitments, and want to win economic and political concessions from his US counterpart before any reduction in nuclear capabilities, let alone committing to "full denuclearisation". The next few weeks could be key, with Pyongyang putting an end-of-year deadline on significant progress being made or it threatens "a different path to the one promised" in Singapore.


Another potential perceived win for Trump is with China, where he has appeared several times on the verge of a trade deal. Yet, agreement so far remains elusive.

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 both ultimately conclude it is in their personal political interests to take this issue off the table in the context of a slowing global economy. Yet, if the trade talks do break down again, it may be harder to reach a deal later in 2020, with the extra political pressures of an election year.

Taken together, this underlines why 2020 could be a significant year for US foreign policy. Mr Trump could yet enter election year with a foreign policy tail wind behind his campaign, or continue to be flummoxed by policy challenges that have long bedevilled him - with the US and world at large watching.

  • The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics