Foreign policy in the Trump administration. North Korea on Thursday demanded the removal of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo from nuclear negotiations, requesting a replacement who is “more careful and mature in communicating.” On Friday, CNN reported that Kim Jong Un had sent U.S. President Donald Trump another (presumably flattering) letter. Turkey, meanwhile, sent a delegation to Washington this week to appeal directly to the president to protect Ankara from sanctions being pushed by Congress, the Pentagon, the National Security Council and Pompeo over Turkey’s pending purchase of Russian air defense systems. This has been something of a trend over the past two years, with China, Saudi Arabia, Russia and even South Korea and Japan at times zeroing their diplomatic efforts on the president himself in hopes of circumventing critics in the U.S. government. The diffusion of power in the U.S. political system offers plenty of avenues for foreign governments to try to make their case and sway U.S. policy toward their interests – through Congress, the State Department, business lobbies and so forth. Compared to previous administrations, however, Trump is seen by outside powers as more willing to go with his gut and buck the foreign policy establishment. Personalizing diplomacy in this manner may make sense for outside powers on narrow issues, and it can make it hard for the U.S. to act decisively. But it’s unlikely to lead to steadfast U.S. support over the long term.

Tangled allegiances in Libya. On Thursday night, shelling (reportedly by forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army) continued in several Tripoli suburbs, bringing the death toll over the past two weeks to more than 200. Though Haftar’s advance on the capital has stalled, hints of increasing foreign involvement suggest the fighting may not end anytime soon. Officials at the U.N., which officially recognizes the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, said Thursday that military equipment, including aircraft and rocket launchers, is believed to have been pouring into the country since the LNA offensive began. Haftar (a former CIA asset) is believed to have received support from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Russia. The GNA has also accused France of supporting Haftar and suspended security cooperation; an official in President Emmanuel Macron’s office on Thursday insisted Paris is supporting the GNA. Qatar and Turkey, meanwhile, still appear to be backing the GNA, raising the risk of a proxy conflict among Middle Eastern rivals, though the Turkish and Russian foreign ministers discussed the situation in Libya by phone on Thursday. Meanwhile, Moscow blocked a British bid at the U.N. Security Council to demand a cease-fire on grounds that the draft resolution included language criticizing Haftar. The U.S. has largely remained on the sidelines this time around.

Pacts and pledges in the South China Sea. During a visit to Vietnam on Thursday, the chief of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Philip Davidson, praised Hanoi for sounding the alarm about Chinese assertiveness in the region and pledged to boost maritime security and maritime domain awareness assistance. U.S. warships will likely make at least two port calls to Vietnam this year, according to the admiral. Vietnam has perhaps the most to lose from China’s expansion in the South China Sea, and thus among claimant states has been the most vocally critical of Beijing. But Beijing’s success in exploiting divergent interests within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, along with persistent divides within Hanoi over how strongly to oppose China and lingering wariness of the U.S., has left Hanoi somewhat isolated internationally and too prone to paralysis at home to, say, decisively side with the U.S. As a result, there’s ample mutual interest in robust U.S.-Vietnamese defense cooperation and increased U.S. arms sales to the country, but don’t expect much to happen quickly. Meanwhile, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana visited his Japanese counterpart in Tokyo, where the pair reaffirmed the budding bilateral defense partnership that began with the signing of a defense cooperation memorandum in 2015. Japan is a quiet wildcard in the South China Sea; keeping the waters open is a core Japanese imperative, and littoral states see Tokyo potentially as a more certain long-term partner since, unlike the distant U.S., Japan cannot lose interest in the region. But here, too, concrete Japanese action on claimant states’ behalf has been slow coming.

Honorable Mentions