Despite facing numerous problems on the domestic front, ranging from mass shooting sprees to seemingly innumerable investigations, including impeachment, the Donald Trump administration managed to conduct an active foreign policy in 2019, the influence of which on the world is hard to underestimate. Sputnik has gathered the 10 most important events and trends that determined the US' impact on the global arena this year.
- Withdrawal From INF Treaty and Its Consequences
- Unsuccessful North Korea–US Hanoi Summit and Bolton's Resignation
- Recognition of Israeli Claims to Golan Heights and Partially Released "Deal of the Century"
- First Hard Steps Made Towards Reaching US-China Trade Deal
- Global Crackdown Campaign Against Huawei
- US Drone Shot Down by Iran Amid Growing Tensions in Gulf
- Failure of Peace Talks With Taliban*
- Sort-of-Withdrawal From Syria
- Daesh* Leader Eliminated in US Special Operation
- Overhauled Trade Deal With Mexico and Canada
One of the biggest events in 2019, which delivered a heavy blow to the global security architecture, was US President Donald Trump's decision to pull his country out from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia, a move that was announced on 2 February. The accord, which was signed by the US and USSR at the end of the Cold War in 1987, prohibited the two states from owning or developing ground-based missiles with ranges of between 500 and 5,500 kilometres, and was largely considered to be one of the pillars of global stability and security.
Washington announced its withdrawal from the INF under the pretext of alleged violations by Moscow, although Russia had been adhering to the treaty despite having similar questions about US compliance – without receiving any answers for many years.
The US was officially no longer bound by the accord’s provisions on 2 August, and less than a month later, the Pentagon tested a new missile operating at previously banned ranges. This led Moscow to the conclusion that the withdrawal had been planned in advance and that the US had used made up accusations against Russia not being in compliance simply to find an excuse to do so.
Now, unconstrained by the accord and actively developing new weapons, Washington will be able to deploy ground launchers armed with missiles with operational ranges of between 500 and 5,500 kilometres in Europe and Asia, near Russian and Chinese borders. Moscow has repeatedly cautioned that such deployments could destabilise the regions and foster tensions between the states, proposing mutual non-deployment as a solution. The Pentagon, however, has indicated that it's not planning to accept Russia's offer and will deploy new non-INF compliant missiles, at least in Asia.
Following the initial burst of optimism from the first meeting between the American and North Korean heads of state in 2018, the two countries organised another meeting, this time in Hanoi, Vietnam at the end of February to continue negotiating for a normalisation of ties, the prospect of denuclearising the Korean Peninsula, and lifting sanctions from the DPRK.
The talks were, however, cut short and ended prematurely without a deal on 28 February. Trump stated that this was due to the DPRK demanding that all sanctions be lifted. According to some media reports, the failure was facilitated by the alleged introduction of a denuclearisation roadmap suggested by Trump's then National Security Adviser John Bolton, who was well-known for his hawkish views on North Korea.
Bolton was sacked by Trump seven months later on 10 September. The US president shared that his national security adviser had failed to get along with certain people in his administration and criticised Bolton for some of his decisions, namely for proposing the "Libyan model" for North Korean denuclearisation, without elaborating further.
Since the unsuccessful summit in Hanoi, North Korea has conducted several test launches of its short and medium-range missiles, which it had suspended while it was negotiating with the US. Additionally, the DPRK cautioned Washington against delaying a new round of talks for too long, counting on the good relations between Trump and Kim Jong-un.
Throughout 2019, the US took several steps that significantly impacted the longstanding Israeli-Arab conflict and further strained the relations between local Middle Eastern actors and the Jewish state.
In a second major "gift" to Israel after the recognition of Jerusalem as the Jewish state's capital in 2018, US President Donald Trump also recognised Tel Aviv's claims to the Golan Heights on 25 March 2019, which the country has controlled since capturing it from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. The move was made despite criticism from Middle East states, including Washington's ally Saudi Arabia, as well as from the UN. The recognition also met with vehement protests from Syria, which called the move an act of aggression against its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
In another move in favour of Israel, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on 18 November that the US no longer automatically considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem illegal. The decision faced strong objections from the Arab League, which labelled the new approach to the Israeli settlements "contrary to international law". Previously, under the Obama administration, the US had upheld a 1978 State Department legal opinion that regarded such settlements as being in violation of international norms.
However, one long-anticipated step, the release of the so-called "deal of the century", Trump's plan for ending the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was not taken by the US this year. Instead, Trump's adviser tasked with drafting the deal, Jared Kushner, presented the ambitious economic part of the plan, without providing any indication about its political component.
If it remains unchanged, the deal of the century envisages $50 billion in new investments in the Palestinian Authority's economy over ten years and the introduction of rail and highway links between Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority and Hamas have so far been very sceptical about the deal's prospects, largely due to considering the US an improper mediator due to its recent moves to recognise Israeli territorial claims.
The trade war, initiated by Washington against China back in 2018, continued in 2019 despite the fact that the two countries began engaging in talks late in 2018 and at the beginning of the new year. These discussions eventually stalled, with Trump resuming his strategy of imposing tariffs until a new trade deal is reached between the two states.
Following another round of mutual tariffs being imposed in September, the two economic giants once again entered into talks and on 11 October, Trump announced that Washington and Beijing had reached a so-called "Phase one" agreement, which is set to become the first part of the broader trade deal that Trump has been working to achieve. Under the "phase one" agreement, China agreed to boost its purchases of manufactured goods, agricultural goods, and energy products by at least $200 billion over the coming years. In turn, the US cancelled the planned imposition of new tariffs.
However, the "phase one" deal is yet to be inked, and the US decision to support anti-government protesters in Hong Kong and limit the sale of police equipment to the semi-autonomous territory reportedly stalled the signing process. US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer stated on 15 December, on the other hand, that it's "totally done" and only needs some routine "scrubs" to the text.
Another major development in US-China relations amid the ongoing trade war (although a link between the two matters is strongly denied by Washington), was the start of a crackdown campaign targeting one of the biggest smartphone makers in the world, China’s Huawei. Washington simultaneously banned the company's telecom equipment from the US and prohibited American companies from selling technologies to the Chinese firm without special authorisation on 15 May. The US went even further by starting to pressure its partners and allies worldwide to deny Huawei access to the construction of their 5G networks, threatening to suspend intelligence sharing programmes otherwise.
In addition to this, the US continued in its efforts to ensure the extradition of Huawei's Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou, who was arrested in Canada in December 2018 on a US warrant. Washington claims that Wanzhou was involved in efforts aimed at undermining US sanctions against Iran. The Huawei CFO's extradition hearing is scheduled for 20 January 2020 and the process is likely to last throughout next year.
After the US withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and imposed the first sanctions against the country in 2018, the two states' bilateral ties continued to deteriorate in 2019, with Washington gradually introducing more penalties. In addition to this, the US ramped up its military presence in the Middle East during the first half of 2019, sending more troops, Patriot missiles, strategic bombers, and drones, with the aim to contain and deter Iran locally.
At one point, these moves led to a major incident that brought the entire region to the verge of war, after Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down a US RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drone on 20 June, which it said had violated the Islamic Republic’s airspace and ignored warnings. Tehran stated that it also had a manned P-8 Poseidon aircraft in its sights on the same day, but chose to spare it.
Washington denied that its drone violated Iranian airspace and was preparing a retaliatory strike against the Islamic Republic, but it was called off by President Donald Trump just minutes prior to launch. He argued that the strike, which would likely have claimed numerous Iranian lives, would have been a disproportionate response to the downing of an unmanned aircraft. Instead, the US slapped the inner circle of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and several IRGC generals with harsh economic sanctions.
Tensions between the two countries continued in the maritime sphere, with Washington accusing Iran of attacking six oil tankers on two occasions in May and June in the Persian Gulf. The US used the accusations as a pretext to announce the creation of a US-led naval coalition that would ostensibly be deployed in the Persian Gulf to ensure the safety of shipping.
So far, only a few countries have joined the initiative, with Iran calling on regional actors to ignore it and instead ensure maritime security without resorting to forces "foreign to the Gulf".
In line with President Trump's promise to end US involvement in "endless wars" around the world, including in Afghanistan, Washington initiated talks with the Taliban* at the end of 2018 in order to negotiate the terms of its withdrawal from the country, where American troops have been engaged in military operations for 18 years with little success. Namely, the US tried to get guarantees that Afghanistan won't become a safe haven for terrorist groups, offering to pull out its troops in exchange. The US also believed that the peace agreement with the terrorist movement could serve as a first step towards establishing a dialogue between the Taliban* and Kabul.
These hopes, however, failed to materialise, as following an attack on Kabul by the Taliban on 7 September, which claimed the life of a US serviceman, Trump proclaimed the peace talks "dead" just days prior to a planned meeting with the movement's representatives at Camp David. An AFP report in December, however, suggested that the talks had secretly been resumed after a three-month halt, giving new hope that the lengthy Afghan war might finally be coming to an end.
In October, Donald Trump announced that the US would be pulling its troops out from Syria, citing the need to finish the "endless wars" that the US has been waging. The announcement was well timed, being made right before the start of Turkey's military operation against America’s allies in Syria – the Kurdish fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The move was largely seen as a "betrayal" both by the Kurds and by some American soldiers, former US officials, and the media.
But just like a similar promise that was made in December 2018 on withdrawing from Syria, the new one was only partially fulfilled. US forces did leave Syria for Iraq and stayed there for several days, but eventually some of them returned in an armoured column that headed directly to the Syrian oil fields, which are currently controlled by the Kurdish militia.
US officials stated that Washington intends to prevent terrorists from regaining control over the oil fields, but will use the money earned from selling the crude to finance the Kurdish fighters. Trump, in turn, simply said that the current US goals in Syria are to "keep the oil", having even proposed sending a major US oil company there to do it "properly".
Following the proclamation of the defeat of Daesh* in Syria in April 2019, US President Trump made another major announcement in regards to the shattered terrorist organisation on 27 October, saying that its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been killed in a special operation carried out by the US Delta Force.
Baghdadi was allegedly tracked down to a safe-house in Syria by the US forces and eventually died after detonating his suicide belt after being chased into a dead-end tunnel by the US troops and a brave dog from the K9 unit, who earned a medal for the operation. Trump said that he watched a live feed of the process and claimed that the top terrorist "died whimpering and crying and screaming all the way".
Al-Baghdadi's identity was confirmed by a DNA test on the spot due to his body having been mutilated in the blast and his remains were buried at sea within 24 hours. Daesh* later confirmed the death of al-Baghdadi, who had previously escaped numerous assassination attempts, and named his successor – Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurashi.
Despite signing a new trade deal back in November 2018 that was set to replace the NAFTA agreement, the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) was not ratified by all parties and has since gone through an overhaul via the introduction of several amendments. The refurbished deal, which introduced revised rules for access to the domestic markets of the three countries, tariffs, and some norms of labour legislation, such as minimum wage limits, was signed on 11 December 2019 and is yet to be ratified by the countries' legislatures, including in the US.
The US also removed one of the obstacles for the USMCA's ratification by lifting the harsh tariffs on steel and aluminium from Mexico and Canada on 17 May 2019.
*Terrorist organisations banned in Russia