April 14, 2017

Trump’s high stakes foreign policy bluff

Trump’s high stakes foreign policy bluff

Trump’s reticence may afford him short-term political advantage over his opponents, but uncertainty surrounding his long-term foreign policy objectives only hamper relations, writes Evgeny Pudovkin.

Donald Trump’s decision to retaliate against the Syrian regime by launching a cruise missile strike against the Syrian dictator’s forces caught the international community off guard with its decisiveness. The missile attack was quickly proceeded by the American President’s announcement that he had dispatched a carrier strike group to the Korean Peninsula in a bid to apply pressure to the North Korean regime. The bold move has done nothing to abate the feeling of uncertainty among members of the international community, not least in China, who would undoubtedly have to pay a heavy price in the event of nuclear apocalypse breaking out on its Eastern border.

Set against his predecessor, Barack Obama, with his xen, even Spock-like demeanour – Trump looks like a pantomime of the Martin Amis character from Money, John Self (minus the booze). He may seem rather obtuse. But boy, you don’t want to mess with the Donald.

And yet, can this boldness really help the US administration achieve success where its predecessor failed? At the end of the day, as Margaret Thatcher once observed, “sometimes… the free democracies of the West seem to be suffering from a failure of nerve than from anything else”. Or will the President’s opponents call his bluff, with hitherto relatively managed crises taking turn for the worse?

In the Syrian case, Trump’s ostensibly “no-nonsense” approach to dealing with the suspected chemical attack has its advantages. First, Trump, unlike Obama, has drawn the ‘red lines’ clearly enough for everyone involved to understand. This alone provides for a welcome development. But, conversely, if Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians is confirmed it will serve for all time as a stain on Obama’s tenure in the White House.

Having demonstrated its readiness to back its words up with action, the US administration now looks more credible in the eyes of the Kremlin, where Rex Tillerson conversed with his counterpart Sergei Lavrov and Vladimir Putin. Although, the discussions that took place can hardly be described as productive. There is, however, still some light at the end of the tunnel, as both sides may eventually prefer to “jaw-jaw” rather than “war-war”.

Putin went in Syria with a plan to engage on a limited basis, propping Assad only to the extent that it made sure the Kremlin was at the negotiating table when the region’s fate is decided. To sabotage a political solution for Russia doesn’t make much sense.

But not all things can be explained by utilitarian inclinations. Back Moscow into a corner and it may indeed consider the option of playing hardball. Acting out of wounded pride is an essential part of the Russian beast’s nature when it comes to its decision on foreign policy.

However, what remains unclear is what happens if the talks fail, which is a strong possibility. One possible scenario is that the situation in Syria will proceed in the same way it did under Obama, with neither side making sudden moves. Whether this can go on for much longer, given how heated the situation has become, is hard to envisage.

Another option is regime change, the course of action that may be favoured by the Gulf States. “Saudis and Qatar are ready for more strident engagement. Saudi Arabia was actually one of the first states to support the strike against the regime”, said one Gulf diplomat. “And judging by the atmosphere, things may no doubt lead up to a direct confrontation with Assad”.

Should Trump opt for this scenario, he may find himself in a rather precarious position. First, this presents a substantial possibility of having to confront the Russians – most likely in a proxy war. One should also not forget about Iran, who has an even larger stake in supporting the Syrian regime than Moscow does.

Secondly, as Patrick Cockburn recently pointed out, ousting Assad will not necessarily put an end to the civil war. Infighting will continue and there will be fewer political levers to resolve the situation. The removal of Colonel Gaddafi, which has prompted a new phase of civil war between the three power centres, is a case in point.

And while the voters in the US have supported Trump’s attack on the Syrian regime, a dose of magnanimity should not be taken for granted when it comes to a long-term US involvement in the region. 61 per cent say Trump lacks a clear plan to deal with the civil war. Whether the president can rally the country to his cause remains to be seen.

The conundrum of North Korea and its growing nuclear ambitions bears at least some resemblance to the Syrian one. By increasing its military presence near the peninsula, Washington has strengthened its hand in political negotiations. If China knows Trump is prepared to solve the problem by himself, it imposes on Beijing a greater burden to cooperate by forcing Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear programme. The US President’s disavowal of earlier claims, where he labelled China a currency manipulator, may further lubricate this process.

If talks do derail, the US will be left with an option to deal with the North Korean problem on a unilateral basis and, if Trump is to be taken seriously, through means of military engagement. “The problem is that, unlike Syria, North Korea can actually strike back at the US”, noted Andrei Lankov, professor at Kumkin University in South Korea. “The targets for such strikes, in all likelihood, will be the American military bases in South Korea and also Seoul, the country’s capital”. According to Lankov, such confrontation is almost certainly bound to escalate into a new Korean war, with the US being drawn “into the most large-scale conflict of this kind since Vietnam”.

What we have learned of Trump over the first months of his presidency is that the man is a gambler, a risk taker. And while his games of chicken have clearly not worked on the domestic front, his foreign affairs may proceed largely uninhibited by the checks and balances he faces at home.

As things currently stand, the President’s manoeuvres seem largely impressive. If additional pressure on political decision-makers, Russia and China, will indeed yield greater responsiveness from them, the current administration has serious chances of making advances on matters where the Obama team vacillated.

At the same time, however, Trump risks, perhaps inadvertently, setting in motion a complex set of dynamics in international relations that his administration will struggle to untangle. Hot conflicts in the Korean Peninsula or the Middle East may be a bit too much of a deflection from his promised agenda of “America First”.

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Evgeny Pudovkin
Evgeny Pudovkin
Evgeny Pudovkin is a foreign affairs correspondent for Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a daily newspaper based in Moscow. His main interests include UK foreign and domestic policy and Russia's relationship with the West. Evgeny is also a researcher for the Global Millennial Network, a startup devoted to identifying policies that have been successful in helping young people in various (mainly OECD) countries and seeing these policy solutions adopted by other governments across the world.
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