Opinion - Politics

Two 'black swans' could help Trump deliver historic foreign policy wins - if he can make one change

Key Points
  • The coronavirus and the accidental downing of a commercial jet by Iran have given President Donald Trump unforeseen opportunities to advance the two most significant foreign policy issues of his administration – changing China's unfair trading practices and pushing back against Iran's malign behavior
Richard Sharrocks | Getty Images

Question: What does the Chinese coronavirus, thus far killing 638 (and counting), have in common with the Iranian shoot down of a commercial airliner last month, leaving 176 dead?

Answer: Both are "black swan" events that expose the flaws of authoritarian governments in dealing with unanticipated crisis.

More to the point, both provide President Donald Trump unforeseen opportunities to advance the two most significant foreign policy issues of his administration – changing China's unfair trading practices and pushing back against Iran's malign behavior.

By definition, black swan events are rare, unpredicted occurrences that have the potential for far-reaching consequences.

In the case of Beijing, global concerns over the spread of coronavirus provide the chance for Washington to rally a more cohesive set of countries in Asia and Europe to demand full Chinese transparency in the handling and spread of the virus. That, in turn, could be a step toward coalescing like-minded democratic countries to address a host of other Chinese-related concerns.

Regarding Iran, recent events provide Washington a new chance to re-engage its European partners on efforts to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, reign in its development of ballistic missiles and push back on its support for regional proxies and global terrorist activity. Iran's newest moves to break out of its current nuclear constraints, for example, have moved France, Germany and the United Kingdom in Washington's direction.

There's just one problem.

For the United States to seize these openings, irrespective of who is elected president this November, it will have to regain its appetite for – and rediscover its skill at – building the sorts of alliances and like-minded coalitions that have been the bedrock of U.S.-led global leadership for the past 70 years.

For Trump, this would demand a rethinking of how to execute his "America first" approach to global affairs. Yet if there's one matter on which even many of Trump's political allies and current and foreign officials generally agree, it is that the president has hurt American interests by undervaluing and, in some cases, needlessly undermining American alliances and long-time partnerships.

The notion that the United States could address emerging global challenges alone, without making greater effort to galvanize Asian and European partners in common cause, was always short-sighted. With every year of Chinese growth and Iranian aggression, the urgency grows for a change in direction.

Regarding Beijing, apprehensions have grown in lockstep with China's expanding influence. China's share of global GDP has quadrupled to 16.3% in 2019 compared to 4.2% in 2003, when it last wrestled with the SARS pandemic threat. On its current trajectory, China is on track not only to be the world's largest economy but also over time to become the world's dominant political force, technological leader and even military power.

Regarding Iran, the accidental shoot down of the Ukrainian Airlines 752 on January 8, and the regime's initial efforts to conceal its responsibility, have provided a new opportunity in Iran and internationally.

In Iran, public protests that were aimed at the U.S. for its drone-strike killing of Major General Qasem Soleimani on January 3rd have morphed into protests targeted against Iran's corrupt, opaque and authoritarian leadership.

Initial fears among U.S. allies that President Trump had acted recklessly in killing Soleimani have now shifted into conversations about the need for a new initiative with Tehran to avoid escalation risk or nuclear breakout.

The good news is that Trump has at least three immediate opportunities to repair relations with his European allies, and members of his administration are already taking some steps to do so.

Those three fronts include:

  1. Reducing tensions and deepening integration in the Western Balkans. For example, Richard Grenell, President Trump's special envoy for Kosovo and Serbia, this week urged the new Kosovo government to deliver on promises to abolish punitive tariffs on Serbian goods that have blocked negotiations between the two parties, having previously brokered a tentative deal to resume rail and airway links.
  2. Promoting the "Three Seas Initiative," an unfolding effort to more closely link, from north-to-south, the economies of the twelve European Union members of Central Europe. This effort has recently gained new momentum, due to growing interest among senior Trump administration officials, ahead of a head-of-state summit in Estonia this June.
  3. Avoiding the implementation of new tariffs on Europe while seeking a pathway to transatlantic trade and investment talks. Trump's off-hand comment in Davos about the possibility of a "big trade deal," before meeting with President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, reflects a change of tone inside the White House from new tariff threats to new deal opportunities.

Regarding Iran and the Middle East, the prospects are less promising but nevertheless growing.

The muted regional response to the Trump administration's new Mideast peace offering underscores Arab fatigue with the status quo and the promise of their improved relations with Israel in the face of the Iranian threat.

To its credit, the Trump administration began efforts toward greater regional integration by creating the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), a security partnership between Gulf Cooperation Council nations, Jordan and Egypt.

That said, efforts to push it forward have stalled. MESA also neglected the greatest opportunity of all in a more integrated regional economy.

It may seem far-fetched to expect a US administration in the final months of its first term to look for breakthrough opportunities regarding China or Iran. It might seem out of character for President Trump to reach out so assertively to allies on either front.

That said, Trump has never been an orthodox leader, and he might be swayed by the reported advice of Machiavelli: "Never waste the opportunity provided by a good crisis."

Game-changing progress with China and Iran won't be easy or immediate. It also won't be possible without greater common cause of the United States alongside partners and allies around the world.

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.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.