Trump probably won’t start a diversionary war
Many observers are wondering whether Trump might try to distract the public from his domestic troubles — particularly the impeachment inquiry — by starting a diversionary war in Iran, North Korea or even Venezuela. In such a war, leaders in trouble at home create foreign policy crises to shift the public’s attention.
Trump’s rhetoric can certainly be aggressive. He would not rule out using nuclear weapons against the Islamic State; threatened North Korea with “fire and fury;” and warned Iran it would face “overwhelming force” if it attacked “anything American.”
More importantly, Trump has repeatedly made clear he opposes starting a conflict. He campaigned on ending the United States’ “endless wars,” a theme that has still shot through his rhetoric on Syria and Afghanistan, and he has put that into practice this past week when he pulled the United States out of northern Syria.
What’s more, Trump’s bark tends to be bigger than his bite. In 2017, Trump said Syria’s use of sarin gas against civilians crossed “many lines, beyond a red line, many many lines,” but his response was limited to airstrikes on a single Syrian air base. Then again in 2018, Trump warned that Syria and its allies would “pay a price” with “nice and new and ‘smart’ ” missiles for using chlorine gas — but the administration only ordered limited airstrikes.
There’s another option: Trump might seek a diversionary peace with North Korea, the sort of foreign policy coup that could bolster his domestic support. Trump has made clear he covets a Nobel Peace Prize, and apparently he even asked Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to nominate him.
But his foreign policy may get more chaotic
We are, however, likely to see Trump’s foreign policy become increasingly chaotic, for three reasons.
1. Trump is narrowing his inner circle.
The president has clearly expressed his distrust of advisers who disagree with him, instead stacking his Cabinet with like-minded and loyal individuals.
This can result in a dangerous phenomenon called groupthink, in which a desire for in-group consensus encourages members to reject information contradicting a preconceived worldview, discourages careful deliberation and increases their tendency to over-optimistically evaluate their policies’ chances of success.
Other research shows that in times of heightened stress, leaders are less willing to consider alternate courses of action. When they think they’re already in a bad situation, they become more willing to tolerate risk.
Without dissenting voices in the White House, Trump may be more willing to act on his own foreign policy whims without considering broader consequences. Hunkering down will probably further limit Trump’s access to or willingness to hear advice that might temper his intuitions and stabilize U.S. foreign policy.
2. Trump believes the “madman strategy” is a good tactic.
During the Vietnam War, President Richard M. Nixon believed that acting like a “madman” would convince the Soviets and North Vietnamese of his resolve, producing a settlement more favorable to the United States.
Trump seems to buy this logic. During his 2016 campaign, he explicitly argued that the United States needs to be more “unpredictable.” In February 2019, Trump argued that his bombastic rhetoric helped bring North Korea to the bargaining table.
His tweets further reveal he believes the “element of surprise” is essential for catching opponents off guard, making them more susceptible to pressure. Trump may try to justify future foreign policy whiplash in these terms.
But this strategy can backfire badly. New research in Danielle Lupton’s forthcoming book shows that bombastic leaders must follow up by acting firmly and decisively — or they’ll acquire international reputations for lacking resolve.
Furthermore, Trump’s “madman” logic assumes he is still building his international reputation. But Lupton shows leaders acquire reputations early during their tenures that are difficult to change later on. It might be too late for Trump to change his reputation for using harsh rhetoric with little follow-through.
3. Trump needs foreign policy wins — real or apparent — to bolster public support.
But few real “wins” are in sight. North Korea is unwilling to discuss denuclearization unless the United States first abandons what its negotiators call the Americans’ “hostile policy.” Trump’s abandonment of the United States’ Kurdish partners is plunging Syria into “chaos.” And the sanctions on Iran and China don’t seem to be accomplishing the administration’s goals.
But Trump supporters appreciate his reputation for being unpredictable and his bold pronouncements as much as actual results. His base expects him to “shoot from the hip” and values the resulting chaos. That may well encourage more of the same.
As the temperature of the impeachment inquiry and the 2020 election heats up, Trump is likely to play even more to his base, doubling down on his erratic foreign policy behavior.
Danielle Lupton (@proflupton) is an assistant professor of political science at Colgate University, and the author of “Reputation for Resolve: How Leaders Signal Determination in International Politics” (Cornell University Press, 2020).