Two weeks into Donald Trump’s belligerent presidency, one must ask: Where will this administration’s launch its first serious international conflict?
The White House’s announcement Friday of narrow economic sanctions against Iran, in response to its dumb test firing of a missile, came after Trump made it sound like Iran had done something outsized and horrific. It hadn’t. Still, the president tweeted hours before announcing the sanctions, “Iran is playing with fire” and, “They don’t appreciate how ‘kind’ President Obama was to them. Not me!”
Diplomats and foreign policy experts see an emerging pattern of needless spats, provocations and threats coming from Trump, and they’ve already labeled it. “I think we are just facing a normal Trump tantrum,” Graham Richardson, a senior cabinet minister in a previous Australian government, told Sky News, in response to Trump’s telephone tirade with the prime minister of one of the U.S.’ most loyal allies. Apparently, Trump hit the roof when he learned that the Obama administration had promised to take 1,250 war refugees stranded offshore in Australia—if they passed U.S. federal immigration review.
But Australia’s prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, just as Mexico’s president did days earlier, covered for Trump, saying, no, the U.S. president didn’t hang up on him. Mexico’s presidential spokesman said no, Trump didn’t threaten a military invasion—rather he offered troops to combat crime. This is what seasoned diplomats do, when bulls stampede in the china shop.
“None of this is normal,” Dan Nexon, a professor at Georgetown University who studies American global strategy, told Vox. “It’s not just that the president is apparently acting like a petulant bully with these people. It’s also that it’s for no obvious policy purpose.”
Actually, Trump is doing what he pledged to do during his campaign—shake up all the old systems by injecting chaos and instability.
“We must as a nation be more unpredictable,” he said last summer in his major foreign policy address at the Center for the National Interest. Trump’s complaints about foreign policy—then and now—are the same. The U.S. is overextended with allies taking advantage of us, not paying a fair share, think we’re unreliable, and rivals do not respect us, Trump said. “We’re getting out of the nation-building business and instead focusing on creating stability in the world.”
Here’s a list of six countries and major international institutions that Trump and his team have threatened—injecting anything but stability into international affairs. Certainly this behavior is silly, unnecessary, and stupid. The question is, will these provocations and others to likely follow lead to serious new international conflict.
1. Iran. The Iranian decision to test-fire a ballistic missile this week was an example of the dumb provoking the dumb. Trump took the bait and tweeted early Friday, “Iran is playing with fire.” That reply came two days after his administration put Iran “on notice” about its missile tests and its support of terrorism. While Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, tweeted Friday that his country was unmoved by U.S. threats and would never initiate a war, Trump’s martial hardliner, National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn, preposterously claimed that the Islamic Republic was still a major threat to the United States. “Iran’s senior leadership continues to threaten the United Stated and its allies,” his statement released by the White House said. “The days of turning a blind eye to Iran’s hostile and belligerent actions toward the United States and the world community are over.”
2. North Korea. Here, too, the Trump administration is saber rattling with an isolated nuclear-armed regime that likes to flash its teeth, and drawing eye-for-an-eye lines in the sand. The new Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, on his first trip abroad since taking over the Pentagon, visited South Korea and Japan, and as with Iran, said that North Korea was a bad actor continuing to “engage in threatening rhetoric and behavior.” Speaking to the press before meeting South Korea’s defense minister, he said, “Any attack on the United States or our allies will be defeated and any use of nuclear weapons would be met with a response that would be effective and overwhelming.”
3. China. Here, Trump’s administration isn’t just making eye-for-an-eye threats, they are throwing the first punch. During his confirmation hearings for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson called for a more confrontational stance on China’s expansion of military bases off their coast in the South China Sea. “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed,” he said. That came after the president-elect spoke to Taiwan’s president, provoking China, and scuttled the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, which lessens the clout the U.S. has in the region. “By preemptively eliminating tools like economic statecraft from its foreign-policy toolbox, the Trump administration will be leaving itself with only hard power to counteract China’s ambitions,” ForeignPolicy.com wrote. “That would probably mean an attempted military blockade against the Chinese navy in the South China Sea.”
4. Mexico. Trump’s attacks against Mexico and its people are too numerous to recount, starting with his early campaign slurs smearing Mexicans and continuing with recent boasts about forcing the country to pay for a new border wall, which it has consistently dismissed. But last week, this needlessly fraught relationship took a darker turn when Trump threatened Mexican president Peña Nieto with sending U.S. troops over the border to fight crime, according to leaked transcripts of the phone call. “Trump threatened to send U.S. troops into Mexico to stop ‘bad hombres down there’” said the Los Angeles Times. Immediately afterward, the White House and the Mexican president’s office walked that back, saying no such threat was made—the predictable diplomatic and public relations damage control response. On the other hand, the Mexican president canceled his January 30 meeting with Trump, after Trump kept saying the U.S. would build a wall and Mexico would pay for it.
5. Australia. Trump’s executive order ending U.S. commitment to the Trans-Pacific Partnership has left U.S. allies in the region, especially Japan and Australia, reeling as they saw it as a withdrawal of U.S. power from the region. As he did in his conversation with Mexico’s president, Trump went ballistic in a phone call last weekend with Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, apparently because he did not know about Obama’s pledge to resettle 1,250 refugees. Trump called it “the worst deal ever,” according to news reports. Later, he tweeted angrily about it, prompting Turnbull to downplay the incident and a former cabinet member there to label it “a normal Trump tantrum.” Obviously, the U.S. is not going to incite a dispute with Australia, a key military and intelligence ally, especially when it’s picking fights with nearby China. But yet another kneejerk and dumb reaction is hardly going to lower the temperature in the region.
6. Germany. This is another example of Trump’s team needlessly provoking a key ally. Trump, of course, supported Great Britain’s exit from the European Union, which does not help that continent achieve more economic and social stability. But his trade adviser, Peter Navarro, went after Germany and accused it of being a currency manipulator, by gaming the euro’s value to “exploit” the U.S. dollar. This is the diplomatic equivalent of an ambush. Allies don’t expect their longtime partners to wage these fights in public and this has a cost that’s going to hurt the U.S., because, as in the case in the Pacific, the perception is this American administration is withdrawing and cannot be trusted.
Words Have Meaning and Actions Have Consequences.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the world is watching Trump, and apart from Russia—where Trump is portrayed in the press as their new best friend—is not impressed.
On Tuesday this week, the European Council president Donald Tusk sent a letter to the heads of European Union member states with deep misgivings about Trump. Tusk cited Trump questioning NATO’s value, applauding Britain’s exit from the EU, saying other countries might want to leave to reclaim “their own identity,” and that the EU was a “vehicle for Germany” to assert its power.
Trump has also lashed out at the United Nations, threatening to cut U.S. funding there and for other global organizations by 40 percent. However imperfect the U.N. may be, shrinking it would undermine its peacekeeping and international cooperation efforts. Trump’s advisers have also said they want to walk away from international climate change treaties, which will lead to more—not less—global instability.
Two weeks into his administration, Trump is the proverbial bull in the diplomatic china shop. But his provocations and precedents are serious and are likely to lead to a conflict somewhere that cooler heads would avoid. Writing for Foreign Policy, Stephen Martin Walt, an American professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, who describes himself as a realist, said Trump has already blown it, is offending people in every direction, and he doesn’t get it.
“They started to pick several fights with China while undercutting the U.S. position in Asia,” he wrote. “He badgered Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in an acrimonious phone call—and here we are talking about the leader of the country that has fought at America’s side in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan—and he bragged (again) about his electoral win. They picked another pointless fight with Mexico, mostly because Trump can’t admit what is obvious to all: If that stupid wall ever gets built, Americans will have to pay for it. The White House announced an unlawful ban on Muslim immigrants, and rolled the new policy out as ineptly as possible. I mean, seriously: They shut the door on hundreds of extensively vetted refugees on Holocaust Remembrance Day (thereby invoking memories of the country’s callous response to Nazi persecution in the 1930s), and then they doubled-down by deliberately excluding any mention of Jews from the official statement on the day itself.”
The question is not if, but when and where will Trump’s first serious conflict strike?
Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s democracy and voting rights.
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