Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council from 2009 to 2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
If President Donald Trump gets it right, the G20 meeting – which begins Friday in Japan – could resolve the planet’s biggest trade war, strengthen America’s hand in its standoff with Iran and make progress against the climate crisis.
But that would take the kind of leadership and diplomacy we haven’t seen yet from Trump. More likely, the meeting will be punctuated by Trump lashing out at US allies, cozying up to despots and attacking his perceived enemies at home.
In short, Trump’s trips have become a national security liability, and if he stays true to form while in Osaka, Japan, he’ll be missing key opportunities to advance our national agenda. At a time when the stakes couldn’t be higher, there’s a lot that Trump can’t afford to get wrong.
Iran: Strength in numbers
The war of words between Trump and Iranian officials is heating up – especially after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that the White House is suffering from a “mental disability” and Trump threatened Iran with “obliteration.”
But the G20 is an opportunity for Trump to share information with his peers about ongoing Iranian threat streams and to try to build coalitions to neutralize them.
If Trump can take a break from Twitter tirades long enough, there are multiple threats to address: an uptick in Iranian cyberattacks against the US, conventional threats to our personnel and military assets in the region, and a resurgent Iranian nuclear threat.
We’re not the only ones at risk here; other countries have personnel in the region, too. Trump should use the G20 to coordinate on what additional resources may be needed. For example, we may need additional security at our respective embassies. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been on the road this week trying to drum up resources and calling on our friends to participate in a coalition.
Our sanctions on Iran – including the most recent round targeting the Supreme Leader – would benefit greatly from getting more G20 countries to mirror them. Iranian officials don’t have a lot of assets in the US and didn’t do a lot of trade with us to begin with, but if countries with whom Iran has a deeper financial relationship – including China, the United Arab Emirates and European Union countries – mirror our sanctions, they would have even more of an impact.
Additionally, several G20 leaders have leverage with the regime. Since American credibility is in question, particularly after we withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, finding a G20 leader to vouch for us would go a long way. China is Iran’s largest oil customer and President Xi Jinping will be at the G20. Getting someone like Xi to convince the Iranians to sit down with us again may be the best bet.
Working with friends and forming coalitions to confront Iran would have benefits, but if Trump keeps irresponsibly tweeting and escalating tensions, it will make it harder for his team – and any potential coalition partners – to keep up.
Putin: Lead with intelligence
Trump has said that he’ll see Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20, and that’s probably a cause for celebration in Moscow. Trump’s past meetings with Putin have arguably done more harm than good to US national security.
In light of Trump’s comments condoning listening to potential dirt from foreign governments – and his decision to authorize Attorney General William Barr to investigate the US intelligence community – Putin is likely excited for this next encounter, which he may view as yet another opportunity to advance his mission to undermine our democracy. Trump will only make Putin happier if he repeats past missteps, like not bringing a notetaker to this meeting.
The agenda for any bilateral meeting with Putin is stacked – from arms control to the Syrian civil war, all the way to North Korea and Iran. But the single most important issue that Trump should raise is what we plan to do if Russia keeps attacking the US. While Trump waffled on whether he’s planning to raise election interference with Putin, leading with intelligence on what we know about Putin’s ongoing attacks is the only way to reset the power dynamic. Failing to do so will just signal to Putin that Trump doesn’t mind his attacks – perhaps because they could prove helpful to his 2020 reelection campaign.
We need to find common ground with Russia on key near-term threats like Iran and North Korea, but if Putin feels like he’s in charge of Trump, we will not be able to negotiate with Russia on these other issues.
China: Tread carefully
With Trump expected to see Xi at the G20, there’s an opportunity to call off one war – a trade war with China – while we may be on the brink of others. With tariffs starting to bite here at home and in other markets, Trump is under pressure to make peace. But he likely won’t be willing to go home empty handed and may focus on getting Xi to announce something that he views as a political win, such as increased Chinese purchases of US goods. Of course, Xi will want something in return, like an agreement to hold off on additional US tariffs.
While the trade war talk is likely to dominate, the real risk of other wars is looming. Xi just got back from North Korea and could be positioning himself as an intermediary between the US and North Korea. Notably, China remains a rival power, and it has had a very different strategy toward North Korea – pushing for phased sanctions relief for Kim Jong Un. Trump will have to tread carefully when it comes to trusting what Xi says on North Korea.
Odd man out
On some key G20 agenda items, the US is the odd man out. The G20 agenda includes climate change and the need to address the immediate challenges it poses, but just last weekend Vice President Mike Pence wouldn’t say whether man-made climate change is real.
Development is another key theme for the G20, but other leaders are likely aware that Trump has wielded foreign assistance as a stick, cutting off funding to countries like Honduras,Guatemala and El Salvador when they don’t measure up to his demands – and lowering our levels of foreign assistance in general.
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Similarly, on trade, Trump’s use of tariffs, including when he threatened to implement them against Mexico because he was upset about immigration, has accelerated the breakdown in the rule-based multilateral trading system.
Because the US is isolated from other G20 countries on these issues, we should expect some tough love toward Trump if these topics are raised in front of or away from the cameras. Our peers are trying to lead on issues where we used to, and Trump should just sit this one out if he’s still unwilling to participate in serious discussion of climate change and trade.
The G20 countries carry a lot of weight – and getting these leaders on board with our strategies could be a determining factor when it comes to confronting Iran and Korea, stabilizing markets and establishing trade war truces. But that would necessitate Trump focusing his time in Japan on neutralizing threats to American security rather than trying to neutralize his own insecurities.