Trump’s three most pressing problems

By Daniel DePetris

After several days of the pomp-and-circumstance typical of presidential inaugurations, Washington is now back to work. President Donald Trump—who pledged his administration will put American workers, the American economy, and U.S. foreign policy before anything else—is now sitting behind the big desk with a large stack of international problems that America must confront.

Americans appear eager for a dramatic shift in how Washington conducts U.S. foreign and national security policy. With 52 percent of Americans agreeing U.S. foreign policy over the past 15 years has made the country less safe, the Trump administration is presented with the best opportunity that any Commander-in-Chief has had since the end of the Cold War to reorient the way America does business.

There are plenty of crises in the world, all of which the United States will be expected to mollify or solve in the eyes of its friends, allies, and partners. Some of these crises are peripheral to America’s core national security interests, while others—the prevention of another wide-scale, 9/11-style terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland—will and should be high on the administration’s list. Ultimately, it will be vital for President Trump to distinguish between conflicts that require immediate American investment from those that would best be addressed through long-term solutions from regional actors that have a direct, important stake in the outcome.

Before President Trump orders his team to formulate policies on specific issues, however, he needs to understand which issues truly mandate the attention of America’s national security apparatus.

1. Stop North Korean nukes: The Trump White House has been handed a North Korean regime that is already a nuclear weapons power.  Successive U.S. administrations have attempted to change Pyongyang’s calculus on the nuclear question through the enactment of ever-stringent economic sanction regimes that aim to exponentially decrease North Korea’s export earnings.  Those sanctions have failed to convince Kim Jong-un to abide by Security Council resolutions. South Korea’s Defense Ministry estimates that Pyongyang has increased its plutonium stockpile from 40kg to 50 kg, enough for 10 nuclear weapons. It’s obvious it’s time for a new course of action.

Rather than paving the way toward some type of diplomatic agreement with North Korea, ceaseless and increasing sanctions have simply become a way for Washington to show the American people and its allies in Asia that they are doing something, anything, about the problem.

The Trump White House should consider any alternate strategy that has a chance of successfully defending American security, including a robust discussion of whether an unconditional diplomatic process with Pyongyang is an option worth pursuing.  Setting down preconditions that Kim Jong-un has proved he is unwilling or politically unable to meet before a substantive discussion can occur should be viewed as the waste of time it would be.

2. Thread the needle on Iran: Thanks in part to Iran’s unique asymmetric capabilities and our own foreign policy mistakes in the region (i.e. the invasion of Iraq and Libya),Iran is not only an adversarial power in the Middle East but one whose power and influence relative to the U.S. has been strengthened in a post-Saddam world. Tehran’s ballistic missile program isn’t curtailed despite a series of Security Council resolutions, and its financial and military commitment to the Assad regime is rightly interpreted by policymakers and lawmakers in Washington as one of the only safeguards to the Syrian dictator’s downfall. 

President Trump must not view Iran through rose-colored glasses or through a black-and-white lens. The absence of nuance and strategic thinking can result in dangerous consequences and ill-conceived decisions unsupported by the facts—many of these decisions can impact the balance-of-power to America’s disadvantage (overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s regime, the one Arab bulwark against Iranian expansion further west, wasn’t exactly a policy that kept Tehran in its box). How to keep Washington’s sanctions relief obligations mandated under the Iran nuclear accord—one that according to the IAEA is largely keeping Tehran approximately a year away from the nuclear threshold—vigorously police its terms, and at the same time check Iran’s regional ambitions will be a delicate balancing act and a constant action item for the National Security Council staff.

3. Realpolitik on Russia: In a political climate that is so often divisive between the major parties, sounding tough on Putin’s Russia is one thing upon which all lawmakers agree. The intelligence community’s report on Kremlin activities during the 2016 U.S. elections have consumed many members of Congress—the Russians are dangerous subversives and adversaries of the United States that are to be contained, not coddled.

Trump, however, will need to buy into a much more practical view of the challenges Moscow poses to U.S. interests. Russia may be an authoritarian country where democracy activists are beaten, journalists are threatened, and opposition candidates are killed or imprisoned, but Russia is also a great power that has an interest in re-asserting itself after falling off the world stage at the end of the Cold War. They also maintain a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, which means Russian cooperation is required for recently-confirmed Nikki Haley to accomplish any of President Trump’s goals at the United Nations.

Putting an end to the North Korean nuclear saga for good, policing the Iranian nuclear agreement, and approaching Russia with pragmatism will soon be on President Trump’s daily agenda — if they haven’t been already.  Whether one voted for Donald Trump or not, he is now the President of the United States.  We should all wish him success in navigating a messy world with messy problems..

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on January 25, 2017. Read more HERE.