Trump has reversed his pre-election non-interventionism and seemingly embraced Republican foreign policy hawkishness.
Is this a good thing? No.
Even before the missile strikes in Syria, Trump’s unknowledgeable, unpredictable and combative approach to foreign relations raised alarm amongst foreign policy experts about the possibility of armed conflict with Iran, China or North Korea. After the Syria missile strikes and the unleashing of the unprecedented use of the MOAB weapon in Afghanistan, those worst fears are now nearer to being realized.
From 1945, but especially since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, interstate conflicts have been limited by the general (if somewhat selective) implementation of the UN Charter, particularly the prohibition on the use of force except in self-defense or as authorized by the UN Security Council. But the UN international system only works when states and their leaders agree to abide by those rules, particularly the most powerful states who were given a privileged place (with a veto) on the Security Council when the UN was founded in 1945: the USA, Russia, China, Britain and France.
Trump’s lobbing of Tomahawks at an airbase in Syria, ostensibly as a punitive measure based on humanitarian outrage, may put significant stress on the UN Charter-based international legal system regulating the use of force in international and national disputes. Certainly the 1999 NATO bombing of Kosovo for humanitarian purposes violated Article 2(4) of the UN Charter. US State Department spokesman James Rubin identified a variety of factors on which the United States and the NATO alliance more generally relied to justify the intervention, but these amounted to arguing that action was legitimate, not that it was lawful, which it clearly was not. Yet Trump’s Syrian strikes, which involved the US acting entirely alone and without even exploring other the avenues for peaceful resolution of the issue, represents a significant expansion of the Kosovo precedent.
This is dangerous. First, it will further embolden the considerable territorial aspirations of Russia and China. After the bombing campaign and with the strong support of NATO, the European Union and the United States, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. Serbia and its allies, especially Russia, condemned the declaration of independence and continue today to refuse to recognize Kosovo. Russia then used the Kosovo precedent to support its own use of force in both Georgia and Ukraine. And Crimea, which was part of Ukraine, is now in Russian hands. Besides Syria, the core threat to peace with Russia is probably is the increasingly militarized borders between NATO (or NATO-allied) countries and Russia. Similarly, the fact that China has shown uncharacteristic reluctance to criticize U.S. airstrikes in Syria, may well be due to its need to get tacit acceptance of its aggressive moves in the South China Sea.
The UN Security Council is also an essential forum for resolving other threats to interstate peace, such as Iran and North Korea. China remains key to containing North Korea, as was recently demonstrated in its participation in the UN Security Council Resolutions aimed at thwarting North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. International law has been the basis for imposing sanctions on North Korea; international law protects North Korea from Western military intervention. Now North Korea’s leaders will look at the Syrian strikes and worry that the US will launch a preemptive strike on them regardless of the Chinese veto in the Security Council. Trump sending a carrier strike force to the waters off Korea does little to reduce that anxiety, nor did the NBC News report on 13 April that “The U.S. is prepared to launch a preemptive strike with conventional weapons against North Korea should officials become convinced that North Korea is about to follow through with a nuclear weapons test.”
Similarly, international law aids US objectives of preventing the development of nuclear weapons in Iran. It has been the Security Council and its Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which relaxed sanctions in return for Iranian concessions on its nuclear program. The US ignoring the UN Security Council on the Iran file makes progress (and peace) there more difficult there too.
Trump has now tasted using US military power, and he received plenty of plaudits from the pundits for doing so. This fact, and Trump’s inclination to tear-up the rule book and dismiss multilateralism is not a sign of strength, as he clearly sees it. It is terrifying. Why? Well we know that Trump has no policy experience, but now we know he has no learning curve. For as Jeet Heer in the New Republic astutely notes of Trump:
His approach to knowledge is not cumulative – to gather new information, have a better understand the world, and make more informed decisions – but rather situational. Trump is at heart a salesman, so the only knowledge he’s truly interested in retaining is that which he needs to know to close a deal. Trump’s real skill is figuring out what people want to hear so he can get them to do what he wants, whether it’s buying his products or voting for him. That is how he became a successful businessman and entertainer.
He’s meeting with world leaders like Xi, former Boeing CEO Jim McNerney, and military generals like Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Trump listens to them and, again, echoes back what he hears. He does so because his attitude towards truth is situational. He’ll say whatever the moment requires. Right now, the moment doesn’t require winning over more white working class voters, but working with fellow members of the elite.
What this means is that when the situation changes, Trump will unlearn all he has claimed to learn. Currently, his position on health care reform is based on what he’s been told by House Speaker Paul Ryan, whom he has to work with. But if these efforts fail, Trump will find a new, completely different political ally to echo. The same goes with China. Right now, Trump sees an advantage in having good relations, but if that changes he’ll forget everything Xi taught him. This is what Trump really means when he says, as he did before last week’s bombing of a Syrian airfield, “I like to think of myself as a very flexible person. I don’t have to have one specific way, and if the world changes, I go the same way, I don’t change, well, I do change, and I am flexible, and I’m proud of that flexibility.”
There is no learning curve with Trump, no gradual accrual of knowledge. He’s a remarkably consistent actor who only seems like he’s capable of growth because he alters his language in new situations. What Trump calls “flexibility,” and the media calls “unpredictability,” is in fact a sign of his rhetorical opportunism. “Mr. Trump sometimes cloaks his evolving positions by declaring victory before retreating,” notes Baker, of the Times. Baker is wrong that Trump is “evolving”—we’re witnessing the same old Trump, as uninterested in knowledge and unprincipled as ever—but right about one thing: It’s all about winning.
But can the world face the kind of winning a world of trigger-happy, truth-challenged leaders like Trump will bring?