Whenever President Donald Trump does something insane in the realm of foreign policy, which is to say whenever he does anything at all in that realm, his defenders attempt to construct some rational explanation.
Sometimes, this is funny — like when the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump wanted to buy Greenland and his supporters had to pretend that attempting to buy the autonomous territory from Denmark was some stroke of genius.
But mostly, the frantic search for reason amid a sea of nonsense is driven by cognitive dissonance: Americans handed the sole and unfettered authority to use thousands of nuclear weapons to a man who is super interested in nuking the hell out of hurricanes.
When one thinks about it that way, it isn’t really funny at all — unless you are really into Tom Lehrer.
When Trump’s defenders attempt to package his erratic and impulsive nature as some sort of strategy, they more often than not appeal to the memory of Richard Nixon. Walking on a beach in California before his election in 1968, Nixon outlined a novel approach to ending the Vietnam War favorably.
He told his aide H.R. Haldeman that the best way to elicit concessions from the Vietnamese would be to act like he was reckless enough to start a nuclear war. “I call it the Madman Theory, Bob,” Nixon told Haldeman. “I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button,’ and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”
The notion is comforting. What if all this — the effort to buy Greenland, the frequent threats to somehow seize oil beneath the Middle East, Trump’s bizarre letter to the Turkish president — is just an act, all designed to elicit a better deal for America?
For Trump’s defenders, this is as far as they need to take the argument. It is merely enough to suggest the possibility that there is some secret genius. They don’t have to prove it. After all, who wants to believe that there is no plan at all and that the fate of human civilization might depend on whether the president gets one or two scoops of ice cream for dessert?
The problem with being unpredictable
The “madman theory” is a nice rhetorical gambit, but it leaves us with an awkward historical fact: Nixon did, in fact, act like a madman, ordering the secret bombing of Cambodia and placing US nuclear forces on alert just to scare the Soviets.
Of course, Nixon was wrong. Ho Chi Minh didn’t end up in Paris two days later, pleading for peace. The ailing Ho Chi Minh wasn’t even running the show in Hanoi anymore. Le Duan was. And he kept fighting until the US withdrew and then until the North Vietnamese overran the country. Nixon was left to marinate in booze and self-loathing.
The madman strategy was a monumental failure in Vietnam, but apparently Trump still believes in it. Or, at least, he believes in the core idea that if other world leaders are afraid of him, then he is more likely to get what he wants.
Here, I think, we have the core of Trump’s foreign policy. It’s not a strategy, in the sense of a plan that matches resources to objectives, or even a philosophical outlook. It’s ultimately a pose — one that can be struck at a rally with thousands of screaming fans or posted on an Instagram account for the Department of Swagger.
Trump himself has argued that it was his threats that brought Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table. “And it was a very tough dialogue at the beginning,” Trump bragged in the Rose Garden. “Fire and fury. Total annihilation. My button is bigger than yours and my button works. Remember that? You don’t remember that. And people said, ‘Trump is crazy.’ And you know what it ended up being? A very good relationship. I like him a lot and he likes me a lot. Nobody else would have done that.”
That was a few days before Trump flew to Hanoi and then returned empty-handed.
Kim Jong Un didn’t give up his nuclear weapons. Negotiations stalled. North Korea resumed testing with 22 missile launches and counting, including a new submarine-launched missile with a range of about 2,500 km. And North Korea, in December, resumed engine testing at a test facility near Tongchang-ri. Kim ended the year with a speech in which he announced that he would no longer abide by the moratorium on nuclear and missile testing, that North Korea would “shift to shocking actual actions to make [the US] fully pay,” and would soon reveal a “new strategic weapon.”
Yet US officials are still arguing that these threats are little more than bluster and that Kim will soon enough yield to pressure. On January 7, a State Department official asserted that there had been a “significant reduction through the year of North Korean activity, missiles, tests, and all the rest of that stuff” and that “will continue … because the US has taken a solid stand and demonstrated strength and insistence that the agreements be adhered to.”
US officials, of course, said the same thing about Iran. When a State Department official was asked if he thought Iran would retaliate after the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the official said, “No, I don’t.” When reporters pressed the issue, he said: “I’m just saying that weakness invites more aggression. Timidity will invite more aggression,” and “we’re speaking in a language the regime understands.” That was on January 3. Less than a week later, Iran fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles at US targets in Iraq.
US officials were also skeptical that Iran would respond to Trump withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, arguing that Tehran would simply agree to a “tougher” deal. Under the agreement reached by President Obama, the world lifted sanctions in exchange for Iran agreeing to limits on its civilian nuclear energy program that would help reassure the world that Tehran was not building a nuclear weapon.
When Trump reimposed those sanctions, Iran responded by abandoning those limits one by one. Iran has not completely abandoned the agreement: It is still allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor its nuclear programs, remains a non-nuclear member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and has offered to return to compliance if the US removes the sanctions again.
But what Iran has not agreed to is the better deal that Trump’s supporters promised was just around the corner.
Trump has created a nuclear arms race
And then there are Russia and China. While much of our attention has focused on Iran and North Korea, Russia and China are both modernizing their nuclear arsenals. Trump has walked away from the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, accused Russia of conducting covert nuclear explosions, and threatened to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty.
All of this has been in service of what Trump claims is a big deal he wants to strike on nuclear weapons — not just with Russia, but with China too. But neither Moscow nor Beijing seems terribly interested in talking, although both showed off a wide variety of new nuclear weapons over the course of 2019 to target the United States.
If bullying doesn’t work, why does Trump believe in it so fervently? I suspect Trump believes in bullying less because he’s had much success as a bully and more because bullying works so well on him.
Trump claims he bullied Kim Jong Un into those summit meetings, but that inverts what happened. It was Trump who wanted a meeting with Kim, reversing the longstanding dynamic in which North Korean leaders sought recognition from the US in the form of a presidential summit.
North Korean officials have been absolutely clear that they believe Trump’s desire to meet with Kim was driven by Trump’s domestic political situation. Kim thinks his ICBMs created a political problem for Trump, one that forced Trump to meet with him.
Kim thinks — and North Korean officials have said — they were doing Trump a political favor, which is why they expected to be rewarded with sanctions relief. They have a point.
Consider Trump’s anger toward Iran. Iranian proxies have lobbed missiles at Riyadh, shot down a US reconnaissance drone, and attacked oil production facilities. Trump did nothing. But I suspect what really sticks in Trump’s craw is that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has refused to meet with him, despite public offers of a meeting in July 2018 and September 2019. The Iranians even went out of their way to humiliate Trump in 2018, claiming the administration had made eight separate requests for a meeting at the United Nations.
It is remarkable that, across the board, Trump’s strategies of pressure and bullying have resulted in no tangible agreements — no deal with Kim Jong Un, no meeting with Iran’s leaders, and no arms control deals with either the Russians or the Chinese.
Trump will undoubtedly claim that all is going well — he is a master of creating a crisis and then claiming victory when he cleans up his own mess. He has already claimed to have solved the North Korean nuclear problem, and, no doubt, he will crow over the killing of Iran’s Soleimani.
But each of these situations has gotten worse while he has been in office, not better. His supporters can rationalize his methods, but they can’t invent results that don’t exist.
Jeffrey Lewis is the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Follow him on Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk.