- The nature of US politics, changing geopolitical conditions, and the inherent delay in other countries' response to US actions have blunted the backlash to President Donald Trump's foreign policy.
- But his radical moves overseas shouldn't be expected to go without consequences — not for the US, and certainly not for others who don't have the resources or security of the US.
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These are heady days for US President Donald Trump. Secure in the knowledge he will survive impeachment, Trump is also coming off a string of what he can and does depict as foreign policy successes.
Closer inspection reveals these "successes" to be mixed bags at best and little more than hot air at worst. His trade war with China produced a "phase one" deal that leaves most of the underlying tensions unresolved, with any potential gains remaining hypothetical. And so far, his so-called maximum pressure campaigns against North Korea, Iran and Venezuela are 0-for-3 when it comes to concrete strategic gains.
Much to his critics' chagrin, however, these and Trump's other pseudo-accomplishments, such as the updated NAFTA trade deal, now rebranded the USMCA, will make for useful soundbites on the campaign trail this year. In all likelihood, Trump will weave them into a broader narrative, one that paints him as an iconoclast outsider who was unafraid to grab hold of the various third rails of the US foreign policy consensus—and who lived to tell the tale.
Again, to his critics' chagrin, there is some truth to that spin. For three years Trump's revolving cast of foreign policy and national security advisers have warned him against the dire repercussions of everything from leaving the Paris climate change agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, to moving the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
More recently, he dramatically escalated simmering tensions with Iran by authorizing the killing of its top general, Qassem Soleimani, a step many observers feared would lead to war. He then unveiled a long-awaited Israel-Palestine peace plan that was even more one-sided toward Israel than many informed observers had anticipated, again ignoring warnings about not setting off sparks in an already volatile region.
Each time Trump crosses some consensus red line, however, the predicted catastrophes fail to materialize. According to Axios, Trump and his advisers now feel invincible, perhaps understandably so.
What explains the disconnect between the experts' alarmist predictions and the anti-climactic outcomes when Trump ignores them? Is the foreign policy establishment guilty of drinking its own Kool Aid, painting "High Voltage: Risk of Death" signs on harmless tool sheds?
To some extent, yes, although it has more to do with how political messaging works in Washington than with Kool Aid.
After all, threat inflation makes sense in an information environment where most people don't have the time or the expertise to consume nuanced analysis about the pros and cons of various policy proposals. This can often lead to ill-advised interventions, as in Iraq circa 2003. At times, however, threat inflation can also feed into self-deterring narratives that exaggerate the risks of taking action.
But there are other explanations for why Trump's moves have not had wider and worse repercussions. To begin with, even cataclysmic consequences can take time to emerge, as the Iraq invasion also showed; premature celebrations are now referred to as "Mission Accomplished" moments for a reason. So it might be more accurate to say that Trump's gambits have not catastrophically backfired—yet.
There are also structural reasons for the world's measured response to Trump's provocations. For one, the US continues to wield preponderant power in the international arena. So whether it's slighted allies and partners, as in Europe and Asia, or piqued rivals and adversaries, as with China and Iran, most states have compelling incentives to downplay tensions, postpone confrontation and avoid conflict with the US.
These incentives are further magnified by the uncertainty introduced by American democracy and electoral outcomes. Why rush into war with an iconoclastic incumbent like Trump, when a dash of strategic patience could result in dealing with a more conventional president come January?
Finally, even in cases where states might choose confrontation and conflict, few if any would willingly provoke a conventional war with the US. Instead, weaker states like Iran would likely choose to engage in asymmetric conflict that makes attribution, and as a result US retaliation, more difficult.
These asymmetric operations often take time to put into motion, and they sometimes have unpredictable effects, which is why it is still premature to say that Iran will not seek to further avenge Soleimani's death—and that the Trump administration has somehow definitely avoided the worst-case scenario.
In addition to these structural reasons, several recent contextual shifts have also mitigated the impact of some of Trump's moves.
In the Middle East, the emergence of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry as the organizing logic of regional geopolitics has downgraded the importance of the Israel-Palestine conflict in the Gulf Arab states' strategic calculus. Those states' support for the Palestinian cause was historically often more declarative than substantive. But given the urgency of the perceived threat from Iran as well as the alignment with Israel in terms of confronting Tehran, even that declarative support has become more muted these days.
More broadly, in part but not entirely because of Trump and his presidency, many of the foreign policy community's shibboleths could very well apply to a world that no longer exists. This isn't to say that the classical laws of geopolitical gravity are obsolete, but that they operate in a very changed environment.
Take the international norm against annexation of conquered territory, which Trump's Israel-Palestine peace plan essentially formalizes. It was already eroded by Russia's annexation of Crimea, then further undermined when Trump moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem and recognized Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights.
In putting the US imprimatur on Israel's annexation of significant parts of the West Bank, Trump is now only marginally expanding what has become a new normal.
Similarly, Trump's trade war with China is taking place in a radically different atmosphere compared to the height of globalization's expansion in the early 2000s.
The global financial crisis had already created the beginnings of a backlash to globalization, in terms of both popular opinion and public policy. But the Brexit referendum in 2016 definitively demonstrated that cold calculations of economic cost-to-benefit are no longer sufficient to defeat identity-based grievances and emotional appeals, if they ever were.
So while Trump's use of tariffs, like Brexit, will probably do more harm than good to supporters' pocketbooks, that alone won't necessarily be enough to sway their votes anymore.
It's important to point out that just because Trump's actions haven't resulted in catastrophic outcomes—yet—that doesn't make them advisable. Trump's iconoclastic approach, particularly his unpredictability, would be defensible if it actually achieved meaningful gains. Instead he has done significant and perhaps lasting damage to America's key partnerships, and the uncertainty he has introduced into American policymaking has undermined the stability of relationships with rivals and adversaries.
As for the costs of Trump's iconoclasm, they could eventually be paid by countries other than the US, which is unlikely to find itself facing off against a powerful neighbor seeking to annex its territory anytime soon.
This, as much as anything, is the danger of an American president running roughshod over the norms of an international order the US has historically, if imperfectly, defended. The US is powerful enough to weather almost any storm. The waves it creates for others, on the other hand, can be big enough to cause them lasting damage.
Judah Grunstein is the editor-in-chief of World Politics Review. His WPR column appears every other Wednesday.