Trump shakes up foreign policy one month after losing election

Major policy action could tie Joe Biden’s hands when he takes office in January

US President Donald Trump looks on during a ceremony presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to wrestler Dan Gable in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC on December 7, 2020. / AFP / SAUL LOEB
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President Donald Trump will have to move out of the White House next month, but that has not stopped him from foreign policy shakeups in the month after he lost the election to Joe Biden.

Several of the moves – which involve countries including the UAE, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and China – could limit some of Mr Biden’s options after he takes office on January 20.

China restrictions

Mr Trump signed an executive order on November 12 requiring the Department of Defence to blacklist companies tied to the Chinese military.

The order, which bans Americans from investing in these companies, goes into effect on January 11, days before Mr Biden takes office.

The Department of Defence added several companies to the list on Friday, including the China National Offshore Oil Corporation and the microchip maker SMIC.

The US State Department on Friday ended five cultural exchange programmes with China, deriding them as "soft power propaganda tools."

Troop withdrawals

The Pentagon announced on November 17 that it would reduce US troop levels in Afghanistan from about 4,500 to 2,500, and in Iraq from about 3,000 to 2,500.

The announcement gathered significant opposition from high-profile Republican politicians, many of whom are typically reticent to criticise Mr Trump.

The Pentagon also announced on Friday that Mr Trump had ordered most of the 700 troops stationed in Somalia to withdraw by early 2021.

The withdrawals came after Mr Trump, who has often invoked the need to “end endless wars”, fired defence secretary Mark Esper on November 9.

Iran sanctions

The Trump administration continues to build an Iran "sanctions wall" to complicate Mr Biden’s efforts to re-enter the nuclear deal signed between Tehran and world powers in 2015.

The US Treasury Department on November 18 put sanctions on supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's personal foundation, which includes about 160 holdings across key economic sectors, and on Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi.

The US State Department also imposed sanctions on four Chinese and Russian companies on November 26 for supporting Iran's ballistic missile programme.

UAE F-35 sale

The State Department formally notified Congress of the $23 billion sale of 50 F-35 Lightning II aircraft and other defence systems to the UAE on November 10, three days after major US media outlets called the race for Mr Biden.

The sale had been expected after the UAE signed the Abraham Accord to normalise relations with Israel in September, but some US legislators, especially Democrats, demanded it be put to a vote.

Senate Democrats are expected to force a vote this week, but are unlikely to have enough votes to override Mr Trump’s probable veto.

There are also several bureaucratic hurdles to clear before the sale is finalised.

More to come?

With 44 days left in office, Mr Trump still has enough time to implement drastic foreign policy changes, leaving Mr Biden to deal with the effects.

The Trump administration is debating whether to designate Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels a terrorist organisation.

This would further inhibit humanitarian aid flows to the Houthi-controlled north as the war-torn country tackles famine-like conditions.