Trump's Game of Musical Chairs Is Taking a Risky Turn

The appointments of Pompeo and Bolton and the removal of McMaster and Tillerson suggest greater military belligerency and war risks but little substantial change.

The appointments of Mike Pompeo and John Bolton to replace less hawkish members of the White House team comes at the same time as threatened new trade tariffs on China’s alleged theft of American intellectual property, a problem recognised within China, on top of tariffs on steel and aluminium, and the strengthening of US-Taiwan relations.

Those moves appear to be classic Trumpian ‘transactionalism’ – a big rhetorical roar designed to open negotiations and force concessions, or the ‘art of the deal’. This was clearly seen with steel and aluminium tariffs, initially on all states yet from which the European Union, Canada, Mexico, Australia, and Argentina, are now exempt pending talks on trade and military spending. The difference, however, is that the latter are US allies while China has been declared a strategic competitor and revisionist power.

The aim seems to be to leverage US market access and military power against other states to shore up the US’ position, to reverse widely perceived ‘decline’ through America First ‘principled realism’ which US President Donald Trump claims will ‘make America great again’.

A risky strategy

After 14 months in office, it is becoming clearer that President Trump operates at three levels: actually renegotiating great power relations; via transactionalist ‘give and take’ tactics; and simultaneously managing the media optics for parties to negotiation and to his political voter base.

The results may well yield a slight elevation of the US position within the international order in the short to medium terms as there is no alternative pole of global power of sufficient strength, at least for next few decades. China has yet to approach credibility as a rival model to the US-led liberal order per se.

Nevertheless, this is a risky strategy from a seemingly risk-taking stylistically-unorthodox administration. At worst, Trump’s approach risks damaging the rules-based order itself due to selective engagement with its core rules and institutions, testing the loyalty of allies, and presenting opportunities for ‘rising’ powers like China to promote at least the possibility of an alternative axis.

Unsurprisingly, this worries the US foreign policy establishment which, since Pearl Harbor, has worked tirelessly to build the international architecture of US-led order – the United Nations system, US-European and US-East Asian security systems, as well as a string of alliances in the western hemisphere and the Middle East. Establishmentarians worry how far President Trump may go; he’s not ‘one of us’. 

But the Trump strategy is politically-convenient, distracting attention from basic domestic sources of the political legitimacy crisis laid bare in the historic election campaigns of 2016. By blaming the foreigner, the outsider, the immigrant, Trump sends a loud and clear message to his political base – ‘America First’ and ‘Make America Great Again’!

Thus far, his core support remains solid – at around 80% favourability among his GOP 2016 voters – but as this base erodes, however slowly, we should expect more xenophobic rhetoric and policies as we approach November 2018.

Likely result? In the end, I doubt the damage that Trump inflicts on the international order will bring about its demise – the order is deeply-embedded and has powerful support among global elites. Yet, the crisis of that liberal order, which predates Trump, will continue to deepen for the simple reason that at a very basic level, the order is not serving well an increasingly larger proportion of the world’s people, including in the West. The political crisis is probably more acute inside the US than elsewhere at this time, though the symptoms are evident in the rise of populist right-wing nationalism and the erosion or near-collapse of the political centre across Europe.

But in the US, the rise of the Left is actually the bigger story, launched by the Bernie Sanders campaign, galvanised into mass opposition since Trump’s inauguration by women’s marches, teachers’ strikes, and since the recent Florida school shooting, among school children more generally. Millennials are on the march, in particular, and they have swung left, and passionately anti-Trump.

The North Korea meet

Pompeo and Bolton might be just the kind of men to advise President Trump as he prepares the optics for upcoming talks with Kim Jong-un. They are Trump loyalists; Bolton was a fervent proponent and facilitator of the Iraq war, as President Bush’s arms control under-secretary. They’re hardliners on Iran, Syria, Russia, China, unafraid to counsel pre-emptive military strikes, as Bolton so disastrously did over non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Yet, if President Trump is serious about an agreement to denuclearise North Korea, how he and his team handle diplomacy and optics with Iran may be key. The renegotiation of the Iran nuclear agreement, for example, is likely to involve its (non-nuclear) ballistic missile programme, as well as guarantees on regime change, which Iran’s leaders fear drives US policy in their region.

But if the aim is rhetorical fire and fury, and a military build-up to boot, to put Iran and North Korea ‘in their place’ then the likelihood of conflict, especially over Iran, increases. China, which is invested in a friendly regime in North Korea, would not accept a pro-American Korean peninsula.

Shifting power balances

With the sacking of Rex Tillerson, the removal of General H.R. McMaster from the National Security Council and the appointment of John Bolton, even the veneer of diplomacy appears to be giving way to military power and the credible threat of the use of massive force, the consequences of which would be catastrophic. Trump, however, appears to be assembling a war cabinet.

As in other regards, however, Trump is hardly the architect of the broader shift from diplomacy to military force in America’s power projection. Since 9/11 in particular, the power balance in US strategy has decisively shifted towards the military and war, towards the Pentagon and CIA, and selective commitment to international law.

With the rise of Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, backed by President Trump’s favourite think tank, the Heritage Foundation – which backs robust US leadership vis a vis Russia, Iran, China, North Korea, Isis, Trump would now appear to have embraced a mix of neo-conservative and right-wing conservative nationalism – the very tendencies he attacked and who attacked him as unfit for office during the 2016 election campaign.

President Trump, for all his claims of radical ‘America First-ism’ in foreign and national security policy is now pretty much in the establishment fold. His rhetorical style differs markedly, to be sure, worrying establishment stalwarts, but the substance of President Trump’s policies differs little from theirs.

Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City, University of London, and the author of Foundations of the American CenturyHis twitter handle is @USEmpire