US presidential handovers are often times of uncertainty. But President Trump’s accession has been especially bumpy, and governments around the world, from Iran to Russia, are seizing their chance to probe his administration, send it signals, and perhaps steer events in their interest while Washington is in disarray.
This might be a standard rite of passage, except that so few of the key players in the Trump administration have any foreign policy experience. And with 900 career State Department officials protesting the president’s immigration executive order in a dissenting memo, newly installed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has his hands full.
Last Sunday, for example, Iran launched a medium-range missile that US officials said violated United Nations resolutions. The test might be seen “as a way of seeing the limits they could push America to until Washington has made a more visible policy on Iran, says Ellie Geranmayeh, an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London.
Mr. Trump said on the campaign trail he would tear up the year-old international deal with Iran limiting its nuclear activities, but that does not seem to be a priority at the moment.
The rocket launch came as US, British, and French naval vessels began maneuvers in the Persian Gulf, something that Tehran sees as a Western warning not to throw its weight around in the Gulf region. The missile test “puts Iran at the top of the agenda,” says Ms. Geranmayeh. “It was intentionally designed to draw attention.”
On the other side of the world, rogue nuclear power North Korea has broken with tradition and been quiet so far. Andrei Lankov, an expert on North Korean affairs, expects it to stay that way for a while.
"They are uncertain what to do," says Dr. Lankov. "They see Donald Trump as unpredictable and dangerous.”
That has traditionally been Pyongyang’s image in American eyes. But now, says Lankov, “the situation is diametrically opposed to what we are used to: it is the Americans who are irrational and difficult to predict, and the North Koreans who are unwilling to take risks.”
“They have decided to behave themselves for a while,” Lankov believes, abandoning the habit Pyongyang has made of welcoming new US presidents with provocations; four months after Barack Obama took office in 2009 the North Koreans tested a nuclear device, and they did the same just one month after his second inauguration in 2013.
Though North Korean leader Kim Jong-un declared last month his country had reached “last stage preparation of tests” for an intercontinental ballistic missile (banned under UN resolutions), there has been no sign of it yet.
The Chinese government too has been quiet since Trump took office, and not just because it is celebrating Chinese New Year this week. Beijing made its threatening moves earlier, in a clear signal to the incoming US administration that it is prepared to push back if Washington tries to be assertive in the South China Sea.
In mid-December, satellite images showed that the Chinese military had recently installed antiaircraft and anti-missile systems on all seven of the artificial islands it has created there. That is a breach of China's President Xi Jinping's promise to former President Obama last year that China did "not intend to pursue militarization" of the strategically key trade route.
Days later, Chinese sailors snatched a US underwater surveillance drone that the USNS Bowditch was trying to retrieve from South China Sea waters. They later returned it.
In eastern Ukraine, this week has seen a sudden and unexpected upsurge of fighting between Russian backed rebels and Ukrainian government forces, just after Trump spoke to Russian president Vladimir Putin. The war in Ukraine, one of the reasons for which the West has imposed sanctions on Moscow, was apparently mentioned only in passing.
On the ground, each side blames the other for starting the fighting, and both Russia and Ukraine have signals they want the clashes to send.
If Trump seemed unconcerned by Ukraine when he spoke to Mr. Putin, suggests Nicu Popescu, an analyst at the European Union’s foreign policy think tank in Paris, “that might have given the Russians the sense they have greater freedom of maneuver now … to consolidate their territorial control.” In that reading, the new fighting is testing how far Trump’s tolerance stretches.
Moscow could also be signaling to Kiev that “all options are on the table” if the Ukrainian government drags its feet on devolving some authority to the Russian-speaking eastern region of Donbass as required by the Minsk peace accord, Dr. Popescu says.
The Ukrainian government, meanwhile, is keen to show how far from fulfilling the Minsk accords both sides are, and thus how important it is for the West to maintain sanctions on Moscow. “Who would dare talk about lifting the sanctions in such circumstances?” asked Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, this week.
In the Middle East, Putin took advantage decisively of the US presidential transition, and of American reluctance to act, to step up Russian bombing of Aleppo and ensure the city’s recapture by Syrian government forces before the end of last year. International outrage at the human cost of the Russian and Syrian bombardments counted for nothing, and Putin was confident that in the dying days of his presidency, lame-duck Mr. Obama would do nothing to stop him.
The timing of the intense assault on Aleppo recalled Israel’s war in Gaza, declared in December 2008 and ended on Jan. 18, 2009, just two days before Obama’s inauguration. That operation too was carried out when US attention was distracted and unfocused; it was also timed to end before Obama – who would likely have opposed it more forcefully than his predecessor, George W. Bush – took office.
This time, however, Israel has taken advantage of the presidential transition in a different way. Since Trump took office, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has launched a major new Jewish settlement drive in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, announcing the construction of more than 6,000 new settler homes.
Obama administration officials routinely criticized Israeli settlement construction. In December, the US abstained on a UN Security Council vote calling for an end to all settlement activities on occupied Palestinian land, allowing the resolution to pass. The Trump White House, by contrast, has been somewhat more indulgent: spokesman Sean Spicer said Thursday only that the new Jewish settlements “may not be helpful in achieving” peace with the Palestinians.
Mr. Spicer added that Trump had not reached an official position on the settlements, and would discuss the issue with Mr. Netanyahu when the two meet on Feb. 15. While the world waits for clarity on that and other issues, don’t be surprised if somebody else decides to tweak Washington with a little mischief.