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President Trump's global juggling act puts China, Iran, Venezuela and North Korea all in play

Fred Kempe
The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln transits the Indian Ocean in this U.S. Navy handout photo dated January 18, 2012. The carrier sailed through the Strait of Hormuz and into the Gulf without incident on Sunday, a day after Iran backed away from an earlier threat to take action if an American carrier returned to the strategic waterway.

The Trump administration is engaged in a global juggling act involving so many strategically significant balls that it would confound the capabilities of the most skilled circus performer.

President Trump's allies praise him for his willingness to take on issues long neglected by U.S. policy makers: confronting China's unfair trade practices, taking on Iran's malign regional behavior, working to replace Venezuela's dictator with democracy, and deploying carrots and sticks to denuclearize North Korea, to name just a few.

Succeeding at any one of those challenges would be a major win. Score them all and President Trump's name would be written large in history books. By the same token, dropping any of those balls – and any juggler knows that likelihood grows with the volume of what must be managed – would have long-lasting consequences, for the regions involved and for U.S. credibility globally.

Even so, Juggler-in-Chief Trump keeps adding complexity to this high-risk, uncertain-return show. Whether by increasing tariffs further on China and further restricting Huawei's access to U.S. markets, or by sending a carrier strike group to the Middle East, President Trump ratchets up pressures in the hope of leveraging that into success.

What unifies the four issues listed above are both their significance and the fact that President Trump has personally identified them as defining issues. Yet a great many other issues complicate the picture further, ranging from escalating violence in Afghanistan alongside Taliban negotiations and managing relations with an increasingly empowered and assertive Russia.

Mercifully, what the Trump administration hasn't yet suffered is the unanticipated crises or shocks of the sort faced by previous presidents – such as the 9-11 attacks for President George W. Bush or the global financial crisis for President Barack Obama. Should such a surprise occur, the already limited national security bandwidth of the administration – particularly with so many key jobs open or filled by "acting" officials – will be further strained.

China's President Xi Jinping (L) and US President Donald Trump review Chinese honour guards during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 9, 2017.

What's unsettling financial markets, allies and adversaries most is an inability to properly calculate and thus "bake in" this degree of geopolitical risk from a U.S. president who prides himself on his disruptive tactics. No one quite knows what unifying strategy binds these situations – nor what President Trump's end game might be on each.

Still, there seem to be three options for how this plays out.

First, Trump doesn't get what he wants on all these key issues (no deal with China; Iran remains unchanged; Maduro remains in power and North Korea keeps its nukes) and America's interests suffer across the board. Second, he moves off the maximalist positions he's taken and settles for compromise – and there are some signs of that regarding Venezuela with talks in Norway and with his recent remark that he was open to a phone call from Tehran.

On trade, U.S. stock markets closed somewhat lower for the week with concerns growing about hardening U.S. and Chinese positions (see last week's column on the end of illusions regarding U.S.-China trade). At the same time, however, market concerns were softened Friday by the Trump administration's decision to delay a decision on car tariffs by six months and through President Trump's announcement that he had reached an agreement to lift steel and aluminum tariffs on Mexico and Canada.

Third, President Trump escalates even further – through an even tougher trade war with China or military action against Iran's mullahs or Venezuela's dictator. Yet that would require him to abandon his reluctance to start new wars, one of the most striking consistencies of the Trump presidency and embrace the more hawkish approach of John Bolton. That's unlikely.

What doesn't seem to be guiding Trump's thinking and actions is a clearly articulated strategy of the sort that has driven previous administrations. Instead, he seems guided by "America First" instincts and hunches that put the interests of the nation-state first, to be advanced globally through the leverage of maximum demands and pressures short of military action.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro attends a rally in support of his government and to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the end of the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez next to his wife Cilia Flores in Caracas, Venezuela January 23, 2019.

President Trump's national security strategy, produced by General H.R. McMaster, his former national security advisor, provided a coherent and prioritized view of the global challenges the United States faces. However, the president hasn't ever spoken about it as his own. McMaster's successor John Bolton told Graeme Wood of The Atlantic that it had been filed away and was consulted by no one.

The three national security advisors and two secretaries of state who have served President Trump thus far have spent a fair amount of time trying to wrap President Trump's actions and tweets into a more discernible and sustainable doctrine.

Secretary Pompeo probably came closest to hitting the mark in a significant but underreported speech last Saturday at the Claremont Institute in Southern California, describing what analysts have come to call "conservative internationalism."

The Wall Street Journal columnist Walter Russell Mead described it this way: "Where liberal internationalists believe the goal of American global engagement should be to promote the emergence of a world order in which international institutions increasingly supplant nation-states as the chief actors in global politics, conservative internationals believe American engagement should be guided by a narrower focus on specific U.S. interests."

Secretary Pompeo said, "This new pride in taking America's interests seriously is not just an American phenomenon."

"Countries all over the world are rediscovering their national identities, and we are supporting them… The wave of electoral surprises has swept from Britain to the United States and all the way to Brazil …Our focus is that, 'What's good for the United States – a foreign policy animated by the love of our unique way of life – is good for the world."

Whatever intellectual context one wraps around President Trump's global juggling act, one thing is clear. All presidents have learned that if they don't match their goals with the means to achieve them, the result is failure. And more than a few dropped balls.

Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States' most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper's European edition. His latest book – "Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth" – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week's top stories and trends.

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