This article appears in the Winter 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
America’s wartime presidents have often been elected on promises to avert or to end wars. In 1915, Woodrow Wilson declared, “There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight.” Lyndon Johnson offered “peace without conquest.” George W. Bush pledged to avoid “nation-building” in his one serious statement about foreign policy during the 2000 election. Nonetheless, each of these presidents found himself embroiled in a war that cost thousands of American lives. And each left office deeply unpopular.
Donald Trump is not like any other president in American history, but he will probably fit this pattern. He has claimed, falsely, that he opposed the disastrous war in Iraq, begun by George W. Bush in 2003. He has condemned Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for using military force to support the overthrow of Libyan tyrant Moammar Gadhafi. He has even hinted that he would work with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, ending all American military support for rebel groups in Syria. Trump would clearly prefer to outsource the fight against ISIS and other extremists to regional dictators, minimizing human and financial costs for the United States.
This is the enduring, and deeply mistaken, allure of a widely held American idea about deterrence. Call it belligerent deterrence: If only we build intimidating military capabilities (“second to none”) and maintain a steady stream of threatening rhetoric about bombing our enemies into oblivion (and waterboarding them if we capture them), we expect challengers to cower in their caves. Thanks in part to the twisted logic promoted by Henry Kissinger and other “realists,” we expect that flexing our muscles will increase our “credibility” so that allies will fight on our behalf, and adversaries will back down and give us what we want, with “no concessions” on our part. To hear Trump and mainstream Republicans talk about contemporary Iran, they seem to expect the mullahs to turn over their nuclear capabilities to us, even without negotiations, because we are so strong, so tough, so righteous.
The political logic of belligerent deterrence sells well to American voters who want absolute security at little cost (our allies will pay for it, Trump promises), but the historical record is clear: Tough-guy posturing encourages challenges to American power, especially from adversaries who recognize how presidential claims exceed military capabilities and public support at home for follow-through. Allies have an interest in holding presidents to their rhetoric, using American pledges of strength to justify their own cuts in military spending. When adversaries challenge our toughness and allies call upon it—as inevitably happens—American leaders are stuck taking military action they never intended or prepared for.
Contrary to our bullying expectations, belligerent deterrence traps the United States in unintended wars. During the Cold War, that precise dynamic embroiled the United States in extended, bloody, unsuccessful wars in Korea, Vietnam, Angola, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. After the Cold War, the same logic turned the United States into an occupying power in the Middle East.
Trump’s presidency will bring us more of the same, with even worse consequences. He is not interested in policy detail, expertise, or experience. He bases his personal power on the very kinds of blustering rhetoric and muscular posturing that have caused so many problems for American policy in the past. Although Trump’s positions on various international issues remain uncertain, his attitude toward foreign policy is clear and consistent: He will act unilaterally, using threats to intimidate allies and adversaries, and he will make deals with other tough guys, particularly Putin. Trump believes that by displaying strength he will deter challengers abroad as he has at home, and he expects that he can control the crises he creates to cow opponents and prevent war. He will use bluff, bluster, and even a little “madness” to keep others off balance, to control the international agenda, and, ultimately, to extort maximum benefits for the United States.
Trump does not appreciate complicated multilateral relations, and does not value delicate diplomacy, to say the least.
Everything in Trump’s improbable election to the presidency has validated these behavior patterns in his own eyes. This is his operational code, his self-proclaimed “genius.” We should anticipate that he will act this way as president.
Of course, international affairs do not follow the patterns of electoral politics or domestic policymaking. There are many more powerful actors, and the world is too vast and complex for even the most powerful to dominate for long. The webs of interdependence in the international system make it difficult to foresee the consequences of decisions. Consequently, those who start down a path often find it takes them to places they never intended to go.
Trump will quickly and irretrievably lose control of his threats and commitments, and he will find himself pressured to pursue unwanted wars to preserve the very image of toughness that will get him into trouble in the first place. His belligerent deterrence will induce global war-fighting, as happened repeatedly during the Cold War. This time, the damage will be much greater and perhaps existential. We are witnessing the rapid demise of the American-led world order that for 70 years averted war among the largest states. The next few years, perhaps just the first year of the Trump presidency, will bring us to a dangerous new precipice in multiple parts of the globe. America doesn’t face the risk of war in just one theater of conflict. Under President Trump, the United States faces that risk in at least four separate theaters.
More than any other region, the Middle East has preoccupied American policymakers since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The United States has spent trillions of dollars and deployed millions of soldiers in an effort to limit a series of civil wars between dictators and insurgent movements, different sects of Islam, and brutal paramilitary groups. At times, the United States has relied on strong state actors—in Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt—to enforce order. At other times, the United States has stepped in directly, forcing Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army out of Kuwait, then overthrowing his regime and trying to build a new one.
The United States has been consistently at war in the Middle East for 25 years, but the fighting has been largely contained to the region because American efforts have remained limited. America has not attacked Iran or Syria—two countries with formidable military capabilities and strong allies—and it has restrained other countries (especially Israel) from attacking either. The United States has also kept the Persian Gulf open to sea travel, policed much of the common airspace, and encouraged negotiations during periods of heightened tensions. Washington has worked to protect population centers from terror attacks and to dismantle terrorist networks. Perhaps most important, the United States has consistently sought to keep nuclear weapons, including its own, out of the region. The Iranian nuclear agreement, negotiated by the Obama administration in 2015, was a stopgap against the imminent development of a nuclear weapon by Tehran, perhaps followed by several of its Muslim neighbors. (Israel has maintained an “undisclosed” nuclear weapons capability since the late 1960s.)
These American activities have rarely accomplished all or most of what Washington wanted, but they have kept the considerable violence in the Middle East contained. Although terrorist groups have perpetrated isolated acts outside the region, they have not undermined global stability. The United States has prevented that from happening, but with Trump it will be different.
Trump's promises to tear up the Iran nuclear agreement could lead Tehran to restart its nuclear program, triggering conflict. Here, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the end of negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal in July 2015.
Here is how the danger could unfold. Trump promises at the start of his administration to tear up the Iranian nuclear agreement, possibly leading Tehran to resume its nuclear weapons program and become a nuclear power in a few months. With that prospect in view, Israel will likely do what it has advocated for at least eight years: It will take preventive military action—a combination of air strikes and covert sabotage programs—to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities. At the same time, if not before, Israeli leaders are likely to press the United States to recognize Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv, as their official capital, and initiate a new set of settlements in the occupied territories. Trump will likely approve of all of these belligerent actions.
Nuclear proliferation may well go beyond Iran. Saudi Arabia, and perhaps Egypt and Syria, will have an interest in developing a nuclear arsenal in response to Iranian and Israeli proliferation. Saudi Arabia will act more aggressively in Yemen and other parts of the region to assert its influence and limit Iran. Tehran will retaliate through its allies in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and other areas. Tehran will also retaliate against Israeli civilian areas and trade.
The fighting in the Middle East between these states could rapidly escalate and affect American assets, forcing a response in Washington. President Trump will initially side with Israel and Saudi Arabia, as all presidents have in the recent past, which could bring the United States to the brink of war with Iran and its allies, including Iraq. By the second half of Trump’s first term, if this scenario plays out, we should expect a large American ground presence again in the Middle East, more terrorism sponsored from the region reaching the United States and western Europe, and the possibility of a nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel. We will long for the days of contained conflict in the region and sub-state threats, including al-Qaeda and ISIS. State-to-state conflict in the region will be much worse, and very difficult to resolve.
Despite repeated American efforts to “reset” relations with Russia, Putin’s government has followed a clear path of aggression since at least 2008, when Russian forces invaded the northern part of the independent Georgian republic. In Putin’s boldest move, he annexed Crimea and launched an insurgency in Ukraine in 2014. Putin has subsequently added a large nuclear missile arsenal in Kaliningrad, bordering Poland and Lithuania—both NATO members. Russian jets have challenged NATO aircraft around the Baltics. Russian cyber attacks on the United States, including during the 2016 presidential election, have contributed to a “return to Cold War,” as the political scientist Robert Legvold describes current U.S.-Russian relations. The hopes for what the last Soviet general secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, called a “common European home” have rapidly faded away.
Trump has said on numerous occasions that he seeks to make a “deal” of some sort with Putin. The obvious move in this direction would be a grand bargain that splits Europe again into two halves. Trump has promised to cajole America’s European allies into paying more for NATO, while the United States disengages and reduces its contributions. If the Europeans cannot contribute more, Trump has said, the United States will have to consider leaving NATO altogether. He clearly feels more comfortable dealing with Putin than with America’s democratic allies in Europe—though if Marine Le Pen is elected president of France, Trump will have a pro-Putin populist ally at the top of a major western European state.
As in the Middle East, Trump’s policies could lead to war. Here’s how that could happen. Trump will reach out to Putin while he also affirms American strength in Europe. That combination may initially make Trump look strong, but it will also embolden Russian aggression and undermine European defenses. Putin will see a green light in Trump’s indifference to eastern Europe, as the countries in Russia’s shadow feel abandoned by Washington. The resulting anger and anxieties in Europe will diminish NATO and open internal European divisions for Putin to exploit, which he will.
Like other aggressive dictators, Putin will continue to push until someone stops him. A Russian incursion into a Baltic country or elsewhere in Russia’s “near abroad” will trigger a panic in Europe and a reversal of opinion within the United States. All of a sudden Trump’s posturing will look empty and he will appear weak in comparison with Putin.
In this crisis atmosphere, Trump will be forced to threaten American intervention against Putin, who will retaliate in kind. The two sides will mobilize forces in Europe, particularly in the air and at sea. War will break out when Lithuanian or other eastern European forces fire on Russian soldiers. As Putin responds, Trump will feel his manhood is on the line in defending the European victims. His effort to hit back hard will trigger a wider escalation. By the end of Trump’s first term, we could well have a hot war in Europe, a renewed Russian-American arms race, and increased nuclear tensions. A “return to Cold War” will seem far preferable.
Trump has said nothing of substance about North Korea’s nuclear and missile developments, Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian regime, and its threats to South Korea, Japan, and the United States. North Korea’s leader even exceeds Trump in bluster and unpredictability; the two together are a recipe for chaos. Under present conditions, North Korea’s poorly nourished but militarily sophisticated government is likely to survive and expand its capability for launching a nuclear strike across the Pacific, maybe even to the West Coast of the United States. What is certain is that North Korea has the conventional capability to destroy Seoul in a matter of hours, killing millions of people.
The Bush and Obama administrations relied on a multilateral diplomatic framework—including South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, and the United States—to contain North Korea’s belligerence. This group also helped to manage repeated crises, especially the North Korean shelling of the South Korean–held Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. Through the United Nations, the multilateral framework has imposed tight sanctions on North Korean access to trade, travel, and financial transactions. Pyongyang has evaded some of these sanctions at times, with Chinese and Russian assistance, but the regime has found itself boxed in, unable to exert influence outside its immediate region.
Kim Jong-un has appealed to Trump’s ego through state media that have called Trump a “wise politician”— words never used by the North Koreans for an American president before. Kim has, however, shown no interest in abandoning his nuclear program or curtailing his repeated threats against neighbors. If anything, he has increased the brutality of his hold on power, even executing close advisers and family members in public.
Power Project: This aerial photo taken through a glass window of a military plane shows China's alleged ongoing reclamation of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, May 11, 2015.
There are no good solutions to the North Korean threat because none of the key regional actors wants a war or the humanitarian crisis that would result from the fighting and subsequent refugee avalanche. In addition, the Chinese and Russians oppose any expansion of American power on the Korean peninsula, which would result from a South Korean occupation of the North, placing America’s close military ally on the borders of both China and Russia. The current stalemate, technically in place since the armistice in the Korean War in July 1953, looks better than any of the alternatives.
Trump, however, does not appreciate complicated multilateral relations, and he does not value delicate diplomacy, to say the least. It is hard to imagine him managing all the egos and interests involved in the complicated negotiations around North Korea. He is unlikely to study the issues closely, show the necessary caution in his words and actions, or appoint appropriately qualified people in government. This is a region where area expertise and local credibility are crucial.
As a candidate, Trump suggested that Japan and South Korea need to provide for their own defense, casting doubt on whether as president he would fulfill American treaty commitments in East Asia. We should not anticipate Trump immediately triggering a war against North Korea. If anything, he is likely to try to forget about the issue, perhaps leaving it to the Chinese to manage. We should expect, however, that he will undermine productive working relations with regional partners, sowing divisions that Kim Jong-un will try to exploit. Sensing uncertainty and division among the other countries, North Korea’s leader is likely to become more belligerent and threatening in coming months. He is likely to speed up his nuclear missile program, launch a new series of attacks on South Korean and Japanese assets, and increase his verbal attacks on South Korean and Japanese leaders, though Kim will probably avoid criticizing Trump, in the hope of appealing to his vanity.
Increased division and conflict around North Korea will raise the risks of conflict as Pyongyang is emboldened. Seoul and Tokyo will feel they have to take matters into their own hands, and Beijing will assert its regional dominance. Russia will probably act as a provocateur on all sides, as it does in the Middle East, increasing its own influence through regional divisions. Despite his tough rhetoric and muscular posturing, Trump’s diplomatic ineptitude will quickly diminish America’s role in managing North Korea, forcing us to follow the lead of others. In the event of direct military conflict involving South Korea and Japan, we will have to decide whether to jump into a war to support our allies, or let them fend for themselves, with enormous destruction to two of the world’s largest economies.
The long-term economic and strategic costs to the United States from Trump’s unilateralism in East Asia will be enormous. By the end of Trump’s first term we are likely to see a more militaristic, nuclear-capable Japan, among other things. Postwar East Asian peace and prosperity could come to a quick end.
South China Sea
Conflict in Northeast Asia will contribute to more of the same in the South China Sea, one of the most complicated strategic spaces on the globe. Key waterways and resources are claimed simultaneously by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and, of course, China. During the last decade, an increasingly powerful Chinese navy has pushed into new areas and even created artificial Chinese island bases, while Vietnam and the Philippines have resisted China’s advances, condemning Beijing in international forums and calling in American support. Until recently, Chinese aggression drew other countries closer to Washington, despite deep historical reasons for distrust of the United States in the region. American naval assistance against China, as well as direct aid during recent natural disasters, has raised the region’s reliance on Washington.
Trump’s time in the White House will likely reverse that pattern. His apparent indifference to the region makes American defenses for Vietnamese, Filipino, Malaysian, and Indonesian claims unpersuasive. Just as Trump will embolden Putin and raise anxieties in Europe, he will also embolden the Chinese and raise concerns among the countries that Beijing threatens.
Under Trump, the ability of the United States to moderate the escalating conflict in the South China Sea will be diminished. We will become more dependent on our limited military options as a result of failing to nurture other necessary sources of influence. Chinese power will grow and the United States will have to contemplate direct military conflict in the South China Sea as the only viable response.
Unwanted but Unavoidable War
I am not arguing that all of these four scenarios for war will proceed as described, but there is a high probability that at least one of them will. Even though Trump believes he is tough enough to scare away challengers, his presidency will be defined by war. His efforts to deter will antagonize and provoke. His inattention to details and diplomacy will empower those in other countries with close command of regional complexities.
Trump’s choice of advisers may compound the problem. According to his top national security adviser, General Michael Flynn, “Most of human history has to do with war, and preparations for the next one.” Trump’s nominee for secretary of defense, General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, has said similar things. Trump’s chosen secretary of state will have little ability to resist the administration’s overwhelming favoritism for tough-talk and belligerence, without adequate preparations.
Trump’s tendency toward erratic risk-taking fundamentally undermines the regional relationships and power balances that have precariously kept the general peace for the last 70 years. Maintaining that peace is hard work—harder than making war. Trump’s instinct for shortcuts and issue avoidance will cede on-the-ground influence to others, especially the Chinese and the Russians. Trump’s parading of toughness will provoke more tests, challenges, and ultimately disappointments.
The new president’s unilateralism and posturing will destabilize dangerous regions, empower bad actors, and back the United States into a corner when the choice with Russia or China or another powerful state becomes war or retreat, without anything in between. Like other presidents, Trump is likely to stumble into war, entrapped by his own words and self-constraining actions. Unlike other presidents, Trump is poorly suited to learn from his early mistakes. He is much more likely to compound them, lie about them, and make up alternative “facts.”
In this setting, the American tendency to war will have much longer and more enduring consequences. Trump’s wars will start in regions and spread globally. Small and impulsive presidential actions will drive this process. The United States will be more (self-) isolated than it has been since before World War II. The United States will be more reactive than strategic, and more belligerent than cautious.
Trump believes he can bluff his way out of war, but other countries will call his bluffs repeatedly. America has elected a gambler who thinks he can substitute bluster for brains. This will not end well.