Four Potential Foreign Policy Flashpoints Under the Trump Administration

Iran launched ballistic test missiles and the U.S. put the country on notice. Trump had a dissatisfying conversation with the Australian prime minister. What do these and similar events mean for America’s foreign policy?

By Rhonda FanningFebruary 1, 2017 10:53 pm

This week, Iran’s defense minister confirmed the country had tested a new ballistic missile. Iran has said the weapons test did not violate a deal with the United States aimed at keeping nuclear ambitions in check.

In a surprise appearance at a White House Press Briefing, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn offered his response:

The Trump administration condemns such actions by Iran that undermine security, prosperity and stability throughout and beyond the Middle East, which places American lives at risk.

President [Donald] Trump has severely criticized the various agreements reached between Iran, the Obama administration, as well as the United Nations as being weak and ineffective. Instead of being thankful to the United States in these agreements, Iran is now feeling emboldened.

As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.

Reports say Trump abruptly cut off a phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull because the president was unhappy about a pledge the Obama administration made; the U.S. agreed to take in 1,250 refugees from an Australian detention center.

Wednesday night, Trump tweeted his frustration over the deal.

These events hint at a larger issue for a nation divided over internal politics: in the event of a third party making a historic move, how will the U.S. respond?

Jeremi Suri is a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He outlined four regions in a recent article for the American Prospect that would be the most likely to pose an immediate, unexpected challenge to U.S. foreign policy.

He says we should expect serious conflict between the U.S. and other countries in the future.

“We’re going through a very difficult transition – that’s obvious to everyone,” he says. “During other moments of transition like this with almost every other presidency in the last 50 years [foreign leaders] have tried to take advantage of us. They’re smart. They’re seeing what we’re going through and they’re seeing that we’re not very united, not very prepared.”

Other countries don’t know America’s current political direction, Suri says.

“One of the greatest sources of security for the United States in the last 70 years has been that most countries would rather see us succeed than see us fail,” he says. “But right now they’re uncertain and that makes it much more difficult for us to send clear messages to allies and adversaries alike.”


Suri says the ballistic missile test and the Trump administration’s talk about pulling out of the nuclear agreement is also creating uncertainty.

“I think the Iranians are trying to take advantage of the disarray in Washington. They’re also trying to show their strength that they won’t let this new president push them around,” he says. “No one likes to have a foreign leader – particularly a foreign American leader – telling you that you’re weak and bad and that he’s just going to tell you what to do and you’re going to buckle under him.”

Iran is flexing its own muscles, Suri says, and has a great deal of political power in the Middle East.

“We could find ourselves at war with them very quickly, especially if we pull out of the nuclear agreement and they develop a nuclear weapon – which they could do in a matter of months,” he says.


Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and Suri says President Vladimir Putin will most likely use his relationship with Trump to increase his leverage and control over other parts of Europe

“There will come a moment very soon when Donald Trump will have to respond,” Suri says. “This often happens with authoritarians who develop close relations. He will feel betrayed by Putin and is likely to overreact in the opposite direction.”

North Korea

North Korea has some nuclear missile capabilities, Suri says, and the U.S. needs to take the country seriously.

“We have kept them to some extent in a box,” Suri says. “We’ve kept control over this because we’ve had a multilateral framework that’s included ourselves, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Russians and the South Koreans.”

But Trump has said he no longer wants to participate in the same way the Obama administration did.

“If we don’t have this collaborative enterprise it’s going to be much harder to control the North Koreans, short of going to war,” Suri says.

South China Seas

The Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and China have all laid claim to islands and other areas of the South China Seas in what has become a complicated dispute. Suri says these countries have looked to the U.S. to provide stability in the conflict – except for China. But now these countries are uncertain of America’s commitment.

“They’re uncertain whether we will actually come to their defense,” Suri says. “Which encourages them to be more belligerent. It also encourages the Chinese, perhaps, to be more belligerent.”

Suri says we’ve already seen some evidence. In the past two administrations, China tested the U.S. early on in the presidencies. Suri says he would expect the same with the Trump administration.

China could try and seize assets from the other countries in the South China Seas, as it has already done with some U.S. assets, Suri says.

Is There a Remedy?

“It’s really important in a transition to move closer to our allies even if in the long term we want to change those relationships in the short term,” Suri says. “Our allies, especially in these complicated regions, know a lot and can help us a lot.”

The U.S.needs to make sure it is getting the facts on foreign policy, Suri says, which is why U.S. intelligence agencies and experts are important. Many experts don’t lean one way or another politically, he says. Although the Secretary of State is a political appointment, experts working under him or her should be the best in the country.

“We need to make sure that our policy is based on fact, not based on made-up things,” he says. “We need, within our society, to draw expertise to those who are making policy on a day to day basis.”

Written by Beth Cortez-Neavel.