A view on the international environment in 2020, in the context of the presidential elections in the USA, is presented below.
The framework and parameters of the transatlantic relationship remain largely unchanged, as evidenced by the NATO summit hosted in London early December 2019. The stakes of the presidential elections in the USA had an echo on the depth and quality of the political dialogue here. The summit was a success in terms of final declaration and results, but the political dialogue suffered – mainly for the imperative of mantaining unity, but for the reason above as well, with consequences for the political dynamics of the Alliance. Even though the unity will continue to suffer given the continued differences in threat perception and tackling and the changing, even worrisome behavior of some of the member states, NATO remains the strongest military alliance and the key guarantor of the European and international security.
The relevance of the presidential elections in the USA for the American-Russian relations was again brought to the forefront on the occasion of president Donald Trump’s hosting the Russian foreign affairs minister Sergey Lavrov on December 10th, 2019. Held behind closed doors, the meeting took place as the accusations of impeachment against president Trump were announced in the US Congress and one day after the Normandy format (Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France) gathering in Paris – meant to discuss the implementation of the Minsk agreements and a solution to the conflict in the east of Ukraine. While the full content of the talks between the US president and the Russian minister of foreign affairs will likely not be known too soon, some relevant points can be outlined given the context and the post-talks statements of the two sides, as follows:
- Ukraine has not succeeded in obtaining a declaration of support from Washington before the Normandy format summit (the first in three years) and most likely will remain without American support at least for the remainder of the current mandate of president Trump, since the main accusation brought by democrats in their attempt to impeach the US president is related to Ukraine;
- Russia’s involvement in US internal politics remains “hot” and will continue to have effects on both fronts of the battle between democrats and republicans – the impeachment of president Donald Trump and the presidential elections;
- the negotiations on arms control will continue, under the spectre of a possible abandonment of New Start similar to that of INF. Moscow offers an extension of New Start (which expires February 2021 and limits the number of nuclear warheads to 1550 for each Russia and USA) by five years or less, while Washington insists for China to be included in a new arms control treaty.
The USA-China relations will continue under the current parameters, and Washington’s strategic objectives to claim a victory in the ongoing trade war between the two countries similar to the one in the north-American trade agreement (NAFTA). The very same day the accusations of impeachment against president Donald Trump were announced in Congress the USA, Mexico and Canada agreed on the changes to be made to NAFTA. Donald Trump had pledged replacing the agreement, during the presidential campaign in 2016, but the final result of negotiations only brought amendments to it – even if significant ones. And Trump has gotten there based on compromises with the democrats as well, so that each of the two camps would be able to sell the new agreement (USMCA) as a victory to their voters. In China’s case, though, things progress much slower and with results well below Trump’s claims. After repeated failed attempts to conclude a bilateral trade agreement, on December 13th, 2019 Washington announced an intermediary (phase one) agreement that should, in principle, at least put an end to increases in reciprocal tarrifs; at the same time, the Trump administration avoided to predict the timeline for a final (phase two) agreement, given the deep disagreements on aspects such as industrial property and agriculture, as well as the reciprocal lack of trust. Tellingly, and from an electoral perspective too, Donald Trump suggested, mid-December 2019, that a final agreement with China would be preferable after the presidential elections in the USA. In more than two years of trade war between the first two economies in the world we have witnessed a massive decline of the trade and direct investments between China and the USA. To offset this, China has shifted its trade to partners in Asia while the Chinese direct investments are focusing more and more on Europe. We are witnessing a tough confrontation between the two powers here, and the monopoly over the 5G domain is one of the key stakes. Given the above, the relations between Washington and Beijing have entered a spiral of deterioration which will also affect cooperation on major regional and global matters.
On the North Korea track a continuation of the current American policy of sanctions and North-Korean tactics of pressures to elicit concessions is expected. The successful test of a liquid-fuel missile engine on December 7th, 2019 is such an action, and is expected to be followed by new nuclear or missile tests.
Unless a surprizing event takes place, in the Middle East no extraordinary developments are expected, since: firstly, the presidential elections in the USA will be accompanied by an unprecedented third parliamentary election in one year in Israel, where the campaign promises to be at least as intense and all-consuming; secondly, the transatlantic disagreements on Syria and Iran are there to stay for a while.
How will all the above affect the European Union? Given the fact that the USA is retreating from the world scene and becomes more and more unilateralist, and faced with an inevitable Brexit, we should expect more convergence on the continent. EU will be more motivated and emboldened to become more united – especially after the United Kingdom’s exit, stronger in itself and on the global stage, and more determined to defend its own interests. We should see, and are already witnessing this “New Europe” expressing itself when it comes to domains such as trade, industry and technology, environment, and defence – where steps are being taken towards an “European Defence Union”.