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Will Trump go to war in 2019?

The president may seek a showdown he can win at a time when a conflict between great powers seems more likely than it has for a generation. 

In early December, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, used a speech in Brussels to suggest that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Donald Trump was “building a new liberal order”. Reflecting on the career of the recently deceased George HW Bush, who oversaw the end of the Cold War, Pompeo suggested that this was “the type of leadership that President Trump is boldly reasserting” today.

It took Trump less than a fortnight to make a mockery of Pompeo’s claims, and to plunge his administration into yet another foreign policy crisis. Without consulting his cabinet, or any of America’s allies, Trump announced via Twitter that he would withdraw the 2,000 US troops that had been deployed in Syria as part of the mission to tackle Islamic State. Trump’s rationale was clear. In his view, IS had been defeated. But this was not the opinion of key allies, from the UK to the Kurds – who have borne the brunt of the fighting for months.

The announcement was news to the defence secretary, James Mattis, who resigned shortly afterwards. In direct contrast to Pompeo’s spin, Mattis’s resignation letter made clear that his belief in the vital importance of America’s “unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships” was inconsistent with the president’s views. Thus departed the last of the so-called “adults in the room”, whose presence was supposed to keep Trump’s behaviour within certain bounds.

At one level, we should not be surprised. If Trump believes anything, it is that America’s long-standing commitment to upholding international order has been too costly, allowing its allies an easy ride. He arrived in office promising to end misbegotten efforts at “nation-building in Afghanistan” and began by slashing US aid and shrinking the size of the diplomatic establishment. Despite the abrasive rhetoric that has poured from the White House in the past two years, there is little evidence that Trump desires a major war. Nevertheless, his penchant for drama, brinkmanship and confrontation – habits exacerbated by a growing siege mentality – continue to cause unease. Trump is not the sole aggravating factor, but in the vacuum of American leadership, a conflict between great powers seems more likely than it has for a generation.

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In 2015, Graham Allison, the Douglas Dillon professor of government at Harvard’s Kennedy School, put forward the idea of a “Thucydides trap” in which an established power cannot help but see a rising power as a threat, leading inexorably to war.

Allison’s historical model described the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in the fifth century BC, but the Thucydides trap has become ubiquitous in discussions about 21st-century international affairs, from student common rooms to international summits. It is increasingly used as a cautionary tale for how the US should approach the rise of China, so that it can carefully navigate the minefield ahead. Yet the broader popularity of the Thucydides trap reflects a general sense that we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of history. It has been repurposed to cover potential geopolitical flashpoints ranging from the Sea of Azov, where Russia recently captured Ukrainian artillery boats, to the Strait of Hormuz, where Iranian threats to close the shipping lanes risk incurring the wrath of the United States.

Just as cool heads are needed, the fate of the West has been to fall victim to a series of domestic political convulsions – the time-lagged effects of the 2008 financial crisis – across Europe and the US, leaving very few nations unscathed. Under President Trump, whose anxiety about the rise of China is long-established, the prospects of a sophisticated diplomatic triangulation in Sino-American relations – a new “Nixon goes to China” – is highly implausible.

At the same time, however, blaming all the West’s woes on Trump risks becoming an act of displacement, belying a tendency in some European capitals to presume that the world will revert to its previous equilibrium once he leaves office. It is easy to be swept up in talk of a return to a “bipolar” world dominated by two superpowers, while failing to respond to more pressing challenges, from migration flows to increasing Russian aggression against Ukraine.

The tension between Washington and Beijing is being called a “new Cold War”. And yet, at December’s G20 Summit in Buenos Aires, Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, toned down the rhetoric over the tit-for-tat tariff dispute of 2018. Trump delayed the threatened imposition of new 25 per cent tariffs on a range of Chinese imports, while Xi made some concessions on the trade imbalance (by committing to buy more American goods). In a strange echo of the Opium Wars of the 19th century, when Britain insisted on its right to trade poppy seeds despite it being banned by Chinese authorities, Beijing agreed to criminalise the export of fentanyl – an opioid that can be ordered online and which has become America’s most lethal drug.

Trump does not want a war with China. He pays far more attention to the economic relationship than the broader strategic picture, and he is not particularly exercised on the most likely potential military flashpoint, in the South China Sea.

What he wants is to be able to claim credit for a “great deal” on trade by the time of the next presidential election in November 2020, and he remains convinced that he can get it when the Chinese are ready. So the wrestling with Xi will resume in 2019, with Trump’s overall aim being to get the Chinese to drop what he sees as unfair trade practices, including widespread intellectual property theft and potential government mining of data through firms such as telecoms giant Huawei (which in August last year was banned by Australia from supplying its 5G network due to fears over Chinese state interference).

Domestic political factors will also impose themselves on the president’s calculations. Some of the economic good weather for which he has taken credit, such as record stock market highs and employment rates, is beginning to pass, as the bounce from his tax cuts diminishes and growth projections fall. On the one hand, he is under mounting pressure from big business and the agricultural sector (where his base is strong) to end the disruption caused by the tariff war. If his own tariffs increase the living costs of middle-class Americans, this will become more serious. On the other hand, he will be anxious to preserve the support of the “Rust Belt” states that gave him victory in 2016 and which the Democrats are targeting. In these areas – where the “American carnage” of industrial decline, cited in Trump’s inauguration speech, has been so great – the tough line on China is at its most popular.

But China is not the only offender in the president’s eyes. If his trade war becomes mutually harmful, he may turn to easier targets. Car imports are next on the agenda. Just as he did with steel and aluminium, Trump has ordered a national security investigation into America’s trade in foreign automobiles, which he believes is damaging domestic industry. A tariff hike on cars imported from Europe and Japan is being mooted.

As the two behemoths square up, more medium-sized powers – including American allies – are likely to get caught in the crossfire. Canada is currently bearing the brunt of Chinese fury after Huawei’s chief finance officer, Meng Wanzhou, was arrested in Vancouver following a US extradition request, with a number of its citizens detained in China. The US initiated punitive measures against the tech firm over alleged breaches of sanctions, and Trump has hinted that Meng might be a bargaining chip in his trade negotiations with China, despite her being in Canadian custody.

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Second-guessing the president’s next foreign policy move is difficult because he can be two things at once: surprisingly pragmatic, in his increasingly desperate attempts to cling on to political power; and temperamental and erratic, when confronted with unwelcome surprises. In September last year, an anonymous senior official in the administration wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that revealed deep concerns about the commander-in-chief. “Meetings with him veer off topic and off the rails, he engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back,” it claimed, suggesting there was an internal resistance within the administration to prevent the president from going wildly off course.

This matches the picture painted in Bob Woodward’s book, Fear: Trump in the White House, of an administration characterised by a “nervous breakdown of executive power”. In it, Woodward reveals the story of Trump’s wild reaction to news that Bashar al-Assad had launched another chemical attack on civilians in April 2017. “Let’s fucking kill him! Let’s go in. Let’s kill the fucking lot of them,” was the president’s reported response. On that occasion, it was Mattis who resisted Trump’s whim and circumvented the order. That check is now gone.

At another meeting of the National Security Council, Trump is reported to have questioned the point of the large US military presence in the Korean Peninsula, including an early detection system for North Korean missile launches. He was rebuked by Mattis, who told him it was necessary to “prevent World War Three”. Another senior Republican, Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate’s committee on foreign relations, has also expressed concern that Trump’s erratic behaviour would put the US “on the path to World War Three”.

And yet, when it comes to getting tough with China, there is probably more consensus between those inside and outside the administration than on nearly any other foreign policy issue. Ash Carter, formerly Barack Obama’s defence secretary, recently wrote a report that urged making Asia-Pacific the greatest geopolitical priority, by deepening relations with allies and better aligning military and economic strategy. Many of those who once hoped to incorporate China into the rules-based order have become latter-day China hawks.


Iranians protest after Trump pulls the US out of the JCPOA nuclear deal, May 2018

On other contentious issues such as American strategy towards Iran, there is not only more division but a greater prospect of military confrontation in the short term. Once again, it is worth reiterating that Trump is clearly allergic to any kind of major ground invasion. But – as seen twice in Syria – he is not averse to the symbolic use of US air power. And when it comes to Iran, he clearly relishes the idea of a showdown. In November, for example, he took to Twitter to announce that “sanctions are coming”, with a Game of Thrones meme.

So far, the effectiveness of those sanctions in squeezing the Iranian regime – and curtailing its activities in Syria and Yemen – is up for debate. To the irritation of some hardliners, the administration agreed a waiver that allowed several of Iran’s existing oil customers (including China), to continue some trading without sanction. This does not qualify as the “maximum pressure” advertised by John Bolton, the hawkish national security adviser.

Having junked his predecessor’s policy on dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat, the multilateral Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Trump will be eager to claim some success in 2019. One area of undoubted consistency in his foreign policy is the firming up of alliances with Iran’s foremost enemies. This applies particularly to Israel but also to Saudi Arabia, and explains why the latter has avoided major censure from Trump after the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in October.

And yet Trump’s unilateral decision to order the withdrawal from Syria has also thrown his administration’s Iran strategy into chaos. In September, Bolton claimed that American forces now had another mission. They would remain in Syria “as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias”. In one fell swoop, the president pulled the rug from under both Mattis and from Bolton – who had been eyeing a bigger prize than defeating IS.

Iran’s footprint in Syria now includes the command of at least 10,000 proxy fighters, the supply of thousands of rockets to Hezbollah and – as revealed in the past few months – an attempt to build tunnels into Israel from which to launch attacks. The building of those tunnels has raised fears that a regional war is in the offing. It has become a major concern for hawks in the administration, such as Brian Hook, the top official on Iran, and those outside it, such as Senator Ted Cruz, who is trying to burnish his foreign policy credentials. Another potential flashpoint is the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 per cent of the world’s oil and almost all of Qatar’s liquefied natural gas is shipped – and which Iran is threatening to close if there are further hostilities.

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It has been claimed that there is an appetite within the Trump administration for American-led regime change in Iran; but this seems less likely than before. There is certainly no serious constituency for an attempt at democratic transformation, such as that associated with the catastrophe in Iraq in 2003. Nonetheless, the willingness to disturb and destabilise the Iranian government has led to a major shift in rhetoric from the “live and let live” rationale behind the 2015 JCPOA. In July last year, Pompeo gave a speech on “supporting Iranian voices” in which he reached out to those suffering at the hands of the regime, promising that the US stood in solidarity with them. One can expect more of this in 2019.

Insofar as Donald Trump’s foreign policy follows any pattern, it has been to engineer disputes, to claim victory on the basis of little of substance and then focus on something else. If the same calculus holds in 2019 – and if the wrestling with China fails to yield any tangible benefit – his appetite for a showdown with Tehran may increase.

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer and professor of history and foreign policy at King’s College London

Read all the pieces in our “2019 – the big questions” series: 

Felix Martin: Will there be another crash?

George Eaton: Will Brexit actually happen?

Anna Leszkiewicz: Are TV channels irrelevant?

Will Dunn: Could Facebook be broken up?

Paul Mason: Will the far right triumph in Europe?

John Bew is Professor of History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London and is leading a project looking at Britain’s place in the world for Policy Exchange. He is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of Citizen Clem, an Orwell Prize-winning biography of Clement Attlee. 

This article appears in the 04 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, 2019: The big questions