President Donald Trump’s impact on the world at large has been much the same. As he hands power to Joe Biden on Wednesday – however reluctantly – he also hands his successor a far more dangerous world than it was four years ago.
At the start of 2020, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists behind the symbolic Doomsday Clock moved the time to 100 seconds to midnight, indicating that the world was closer to annihilation than it had been at any time since World War II.
In their assessment, they considered the threat of nuclear confrontation, climate change and disruptive technologies. Of course, not every threat they point to is the result of a Trump policy. But those that are have been enormously consequential.
A more nuclearized world
One of the most significant of these policies was Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. The pact – brokered by the Obama administration and five other nations – was widely welcomed as a breakthrough in a decades-long security challenge.
In return for an easing of economic sanctions, Tehran agreed to limit its enriched uranium stockpiles to 300 kilograms, a 98% reduction, and capped enrichment levels to 3.67%. Until Trump withdrew, Iran was complying.
But without the US in the deal, Iran has returned to its old ways. It now has more than 2.4 tons of enriched uranium stockpiled – 12 times the deal allowed for. It is now enriching uranium by 20%, closer to the level needed to produce an atomic weapon. And last week, it said it was researching the production of uranium metal, a component that can be used in nuclear weapons.
Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran, involving yet more sanctions, has mostly caused suffering among everyday Iranians and done little to deter Tehran’s nuclear ambitions or its missile program.
Iran’s violations of the deal give the country more leverage in talks with Biden’s incoming administration. Both parties want to preserve the agreement, but Biden is under pressure to simultaneously address the country’s ballistic missile program. Iran says it won’t renegotiate terms of the deal and will only start complying once the US eases sanctions.
“It’s going to be difficult to put that genie back into the bottle,” International Crisis Group’s Middle East Program Director, Joost Hiltermann, told CNN.
“All of this has triggered a response from Iran that led to an escalation of violence in the Middle East, broadly speaking, to the point that we saw a few incidents where things could have come to blows in a major way. They didn’t, so we were lucky. But basically, this was luck,” he said.
In 2019, Iran shot down a US drone in international airspace in the Strait of Hormuz. An attack the same year on Aramco oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, a key US ally, was widely blamed on Iran. The US assassinated top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani on Iraqi soil in January 2020 in a drone strike, bringing the two foes to the brink of war.
“Any of these incidents could have sparked a wider escalation that could have led to a broader confrontation. It did in some cases, like where the Iranians fired back at the Iraqi military camps where American soldiers were co-located, after the Soleimani killing,” Hiltermann said.
The missile attack, just days after the Soleimani assassination, left more than 100 soldiers with traumatic brain injuries. An Iranian rocket attack at another base in March killed two Americans and one British soldier.
Just as Tehran has used the Trump years to strengthen its position for negotiations, so too has Pyongyang. In a ruling party congress last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un rattled off an ambitious list of new nuclear weapons and missiles his country is pursuing.
After a saber-rattling start to North Korea’s relationship with the US under Trump – in which the President memorably threatened Pyongyang with his “big button” and called Kim “Little Rocket Man” – the young North Korean leader managed to get what his father had dreamed of for years: a sit-down meeting with a US president.
Trump’s talks with Kim did result in a pause in missile testing, but his dalliance with the North Korean leader has broadly failed. Three meetings between the two men didn’t amount to much in terms of actual denuclearization. Instead, they provided Kim with the all-important prize of time.
Since relations broke down between Pyongyang and both Washington and Seoul, weapons experts believe North Korea has increased its nuclear and missile arsenal. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), North Korea had an estimated 10 nuclear warheads in 2016, before Trump’s election. It now has between 30 and 40, according to SIPRI.
That leaves two of Washington’s foremost Asian allies, South Korea and Japan, within range of Pyongyang’s missiles, including potential nuclear weapons. The US territory of Guam is, in theory, in striking distance too.
There’s little clue as to what Biden might do on North Korea. He and President Barack Obama made no progress with the pariah state during their eight years in office, continuing a long-held US policy of largely ignoring the country and its threats. They focused their nuclear arms control efforts on Iran.
But it’s not a threat that can be ignored. In its dire verdict on the nuclear threat level in 2020, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists said that world was “sleepwalking its way through a newly unstable nuclear landscape.”
“The arms control boundaries that have helped prevent nuclear catastrophe for the last half century are being steadily dismantled,” it wrote.
In terms of Russia, all but one Cold War-era agreement with the US on nuclear arms control remains intact. Trump pulled the US out of the bilateral Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty after Russia tested a missile with a range of 2,500 kilometers (around 1,550 miles).
The treaty banned ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Washington and its NATO allies agreed Russia had violated the deal. Moscow accused the US of breaking the agreement as well.
The only nuclear deal left between the two countries is New START, an agreement due to expire on February 5, just 16 days after Biden takes office.
Both sides have indicated a willingness to extend the treaty, but for how long and under what terms is still up in the air. Getting to a place of consensus could chew up a chunk of the new administration’s time as it deals with the pandemic, a staggering economy and political violence at home.
Russia said Friday it was also beginning the six-month process of withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty, a 1992 agreement that allowed reconnaissance flights over the airspace of its members’ airspace to gain information on military activities. The idea was to build trust and transparency among members, and to prevent conflict between them.
The US officially withdrew from the 34-member agreement in November. Russia now says that without the US, the treaty is flawed. It is concerned its members could share information with the US.
A more dangerous world of disinformation
The end of the INF treaty and erosion of Open Skies might make for a more dangerous world militarily, but Russia’s foreign policy and defense strategies don’t suggest the country is actually looking for more conflict, Emily Ferris from the Royal United Services Institute told CNN.
A greater threat may be Russia’s strength in disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks to spread its influence abroad, a problem hammered home when US intelligence agencies confirmed that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election.
The nature of the cyber world also gives Russia plenty of cover, as tracing attacks back to the Russian state can be difficult.
Several US agencies said last month they had been hit by a massive data breach after downloading what they thought was an upgrade to their IT platforms provided by Texas-based company SolarWinds.
Some 18,000 of SolarWinds’ clients inadvertently downloaded malware that was then used to hack into their systems, in a stunning cyberattack that US intelligence agencies say was “likely Russian in origin.” Officials still don’t fully understand the extent of the hack, which penetrated dozens of government networks.
“In Russia, the idea of information warfare is very well established, even from early Soviet times. The idea of black PR and propaganda, and finding out information on your adversary is an absolutely well-established concept. And the cyber warfare you’re seeing now is just a modernization of that. It is something the Russians have perfected and are quite good at,” Ferris said.
This widespread dissemination of false information and skepticism of facts have proven dangerous throughout Trump’s presidency. Trump’s earlier claims that Covid-19 was less dangerous than the flu no doubt contributed to the country’s devastating health crisis. His baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen motivated thousands to march in the Capitol, at a protest that turned quickly into a violent and deadly riot.
Russia takes a more subtle approach. It uses fake news articles, social media trolls and a growing English language news service to push its influence in places like eastern Europe, or even the UK during its debate on Brexit.
The world loses its leader
America’s foes have seized on events like the violence at the Capitol to justify their own repressive actions at home and to frame the US’ moralistic finger wagging as hypocritical.
Hu Xijin, the editor of China’s state-owned Global Times, asked Americans in a Twitter post if they still recognized their country: “How can the Chinese people continue to worship the US?” he wrote after the riot.
The Trump years have done little to slow China’s aggressions in the region or its rise, widely seen by American officials as a threat to their own country’s dominance.
China fought its bloodiest conflict in decades with India over a shared – and hotly disputed – border in the Himalayas. It repeatedly threatened Taiwan’s sovereignty. It buzzed Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea. It massively denuded Hong Kong in the past year with its National Security Law, depriving Hong Kongers of long enjoyed civil freedoms.
Despite its sanctions and tough talk on China, the Trump administration has been unable to reel the country in on issues like human rights. In Xinjiang, millions of Uyghurs have been interred in so-called “reeducation” camps. Trump has ended his term with relations at an all-time low.
And pushing issues like human rights and the sovereignty of China’s neighbors aside to do business with the rising world power is becoming a new normal. A preliminary investment agreement between the European Union and China, over the objections of Biden’s team, is one example. It also shows how concern over Washington’s interests, once top of mind in Brussels, has been diminished by four years of Trump.
Biden himself appeared to recognize this in a speech late last month, remarking that the US would have to “regain the trust and confidence of a world that has begun to find ways to work around us or without us.”
If Biden or Beijing is looking for a reset, there is considerable room for one, but it is likely to be on China’s terms.
Sharon Squassoni, of George Washington University’s Institute for International Science and Technology Policy, said the way forward for Biden is reengaging in diplomacy, and using his foreign policy expertise to work with countries like Russia and China, rather than positioning the US as perennially against them.
“We have Biden coming in with decades of experience in foreign policy and a deep, deep bench of connections, people who have spent their entire lives worrying about these issues,” said Squassoni, who worked in the Bush Sr. and Clinton administrations.
What he must do, Squassoni recently wrote, is scrap Trump’s focus on the “great power competition narrative”– the struggle for dominance between the US, Russia and China – a term used repeatedly in the Trump administration’s strategy documents, including a 2018 nuclear review.
“The one thing I’ve learned over many, many decades is that the US might be a superpower, but it cannot accomplish these tasks – like reducing nuclear proliferation – it can’t do it on its own,” Squassoni said.
“It really needs the cooperation of Russia and China and a whole host of countries that can make a real difference.”