Jan 10, 2020

Trump puts America's superpower status to the test

Trump's White House address on Iran. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Trump has shrunk America's global presence in many ways, but he has also at times placed high-risk bets on its superpower status.

Driving the news: Trump didn't want war with Iran, yet he ordered the killing of Iran's top commander. That requires enormous faith in the shield of American military superiority.

  • Engaging China in a trade war requires a belief that the world’s second-largest economy will blink first in a showdown with the largest.
  • The “maximum pressure” campaigns — first on North Korea and then on Iran — were testaments to American economic might and to Trump’s confidence that countries and companies would fall in line, even when reluctant to do so.

The results of Trump’s geopolitical muscle-flexing are uneven. 

  • China has not made anywhere near the model-shifting concessions Trump has demanded.
  • North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are more formidable than before “fire and fury.” 
  • Crippling sanctions on Iran have led not to a tougher deal, but to a series of escalations. Asymmetric retaliation for Soleimani’s death remains likely. 
  • Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro is still in power after a year of American insistence that his days were numbered.

Closer to home, Trump’s threats yielded significant tweaks to NAFTA and a pledge from Mexico to hold tens of thousands of U.S.-bound asylum-seekers.

  • Holding NATO hostage over defense spending infuriated allies, but budgets have nonetheless increased.
  • And Iran’s military retaliation to Trump’s audacious strike in Baghdad came with an early warning and was clearly designed to avoid a showdown with the world’s most powerful military. 

The bottom line: Trump's America isn't much liked, and it certainly isn't trusted, as new Pew data shows. But it can't be ignored.

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Iran escalation ends in tragedy and outrage

Riot police and demonstrators on Saturday near Tehran's Amir Kabir University. Photo: STR/AFP via Getty Images

Twelve days in which war between the U.S. and Iran seemed to loom ever closer began and ended with apparent Iranian mistakes.

The big picture: Iran is under growing pressure at home and abroad, while President Trump appears emboldened. But Trump is also facing criticism in Washington for failing to substantiate claims of an "imminent" threat, and overseas for his role in driving the escalation.

Go deeperArrowJan 14, 2020

Iran's proxies in the Middle East

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photos: Behrouz Mehri/Getty Staff, Anadolu Agency/Getty Contributor, Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Contributor

Iran has built up a vast network of proxies through which it wields influence across the Middle East, and which could take action to stoke tensions between the U.S. and Iran over the killing of Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

Why it matters: The political parties and militias that are influenced by and act on behalf of Iran likely pose a more direct threat to U.S. targets than Iran itself, the Washington Post writes.

Go deeperArrowJan 18, 2020 - World

Maduro says he is firmly in control and won't be stopped by U.S. sanctions

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on Jan. 14. Photo: Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro claimed in an interview with the Washington Post that he is comfortably in control of his country and open to direct negotiations with the U.S. to resolve their "confrontational relationship."

Why it matters: The Trump administration's bet that Maduro would fall in 2019 in the midst of an economic collapse, a massive refugee crisis and an international push for regime change appears to have failed.

Go deeperArrowJan 19, 2020