Notice how similar are the Trump administration’s interactions with Iran and North Korea? The pattern in both cases is dangerous, ill-informed, and bound to fail. US adversaries by now understand the pattern; Trump is predictable. Here is the pattern:
- Trump disparages US policy in the Obama administration, determines to reverse it.
- Trump authorizes a program of escalating sanctions designed to destabilize the adversary’s government.
- Trump advisers make demands of the adversary that it quickly denounces.
- Trump threatens the adversary with total destruction unless US demands are met, and deploys US forces to the conflict area. The adversary responds with threats of its own.
- Trump ignores concerns about war powers expressed by members of Congress. Says he doesn’t want war, (falsely) claiming humanitarian concerns.
- Trump shifts gears, now says he is willing to talk directly with the adversary’s leader. Tells about the prosperous life his country will have if it gives in to US demands.
- Trump plays good cop: positions himself as a dove and his top national security advisers as bad cops whom he must restrain. (“These people want to push us into war, and it’s so disgusting” he recently said, referring to his “inner circle.”) He shifts again, asserts sanctions designed to create pressure for regime change will remain until the adversary yields.
- The adversary declares it will not yield under threat, says negotiations must include easing of sanctions. The two sides trade personal insults.
- Trump, with advisers concurring, escalates sanctions and threats, says he will talk “without preconditions.” In fact, he has a major precondition: the adversary’s agreement to surrender in advance its main bargaining asset (such as its actual or potential nuclear weapons). The adversary responds with taunts and further acts of defiance.
Thus do crises persist, with Trump alternating between stoking war talk and playing the anti-war leader. Truth is, he doesn’t want full-out war but doesn’t want to make concessions in negotiations either. He wants to win, on the cheap—the same ambition he had in his business life. It’s called brinkmanship: the “art” of getting to the brink without going over. We see it being practiced not only in the trade war with China, the tariffs on Mexico, the rift with Venezuela, and the threat to withdraw from alliances. He plays the same game with the deportation of migrant families and even the payouts to keep women silent.
Brinkmanship, Trump style, is always accompanied by bullying: threats of terrible things to come, punishing sanctions (aka economic warfare), and the coordinated pressure of willing partners. Problem is, what happens when the adversary doesn’t cave, and in fact resists even more strongly?
Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.