Donald Trump Stumbles Into a Foreign-Policy Triumph
The president, however inadvertently, may be reminding the world of the reality of international relations.
A year and a half into Donald Trump’s presidency, Henry Kissinger set out a theory. “I think Trump may be one of those figures in history who appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretences,” he told the Financial Times. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that he knows this, or that he is considering any great alternative. It could just be an accident.”
A term has been coined to describe this notion: Ryan Evans of War on the Rocks calls them “Trumportunities.” It is the idea that, whether by accident or design, Trump creates chances to solve long-running international problems that a conventional leader would not. His bellicose isolationist agenda, for instance, might already be forcing Europe to confront its geopolitical weakness; China, its need for a lasting economic settlement with the U.S.; and countries throughout the Middle East, the limits of their power.
The president’s erratic behavior might be doing something else as well, something even more fundamental. Through a combination of instinct, temperament, and capriciousness, Trump may be reminding the world of the reality of international relations: Raw military and economic power still matter more than anything else—so long as those who hold them are prepared to use them. The air strike that killed Qassem Soleimani was a reminder that the U.S. remains the one indispensable global superpower. Iran, or indeed anyone else, simply cannot respond in kind.
While it is clearly too early to judge the long-term ramifications of the president’s decision to order the killing (my colleague Uri Friedman has set out the dangers of accidental escalation), the initial assessment among many in the foreign-policy establishment here in London is not quite what you might expect. The attack—in the view of analysts and British officials I spoke with (the latter of whom requested anonymity to discuss government discussions)—has, at a stroke, reasserted American military dominance and revealed the constraints of Iranian power.
Although Trump’s foreign-policy strategy (if one even accepts that there is such a thing) has many limits, his unpredictability and, most crucially, his willingness to escalate a crisis using the United States’ military and economic strength have turned the tables on Iran in a way few thought possible. What is more, the strike has exposed the gaping irrelevance of Europe’s leading powers—Britain, France, and Germany—in this whole crisis. The “E3,” which have long sought to keep the Iranian nuclear deal alive by undermining the U.S. policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran, have so far failed to do so. This week, they were finally forced to admit the apparently terminal collapse of the Obama-era nuclear deal, releasing a joint statement to announce that they were triggering its “dispute resolution” clause because of Tehran’s failure to abide by the terms of the agreement. The reality of the situation is startling: Europe’s attempts to keep the deal alive have achieved little in Tehran because of the Continent’s powerlessness. And European opposition to Trump’s Iran policy has achieved even less in Washington. In an interview, Boris Johnson all but admitted defeat in keeping the nuclear deal alive, calling instead for a new “Trump deal.”
To some extent, one British diplomat told me, the air strike that killed Soleimani was an extreme snapback to the hyperrealist, Kissingerian principles that largely guided American foreign policy after the Second World War. In this view, Barack Obama and his cautious multilateralism were the break with the norm, not Trump.
While Obama showed the possibilities of this approach—the Paris climate accord and Iran nuclear deal being prime examples (both of which have since been dumped by Trump)—he failed to adequately address its weaknesses, those who spoke with me said. Principal among them, according to a British government official, was that under Obama, the West had forgotten the power of escalatory dominance. In other words, he who carries the biggest stick retains his dominance, so long as he is prepared to use it.
The argument for escalation is simple: If the response to any aggressive act by a foreign adversary is always to de-escalate in order to avoid a spiral of violence, then the advantage borne by military and economic dominance is lost, creating more chaos, not less. A logic has been allowed to develop among countries such as Iran and Russia, the British diplomat said, that the West will not escalate a crisis and will remain boxed into its cautious, multilateralist view. Trump has changed this.
Take Russia, for instance. The Western response to its incursion into Ukrainian territory was always proportionate and almost entirely economic. While there were very good reasons for this, that response meant that Moscow could escalate the crisis by moving more assets into territory it sought to control, safe in the knowledge that, having tested Western resolve, it would not be challenged militarily. In effect, the United States’ failure to enforce red lines empowered its adversaries.
With Iran, according to analysts at the Royal United Services Institute, Britain’s leading military think tank, Trump’s seemingly disproportionate response to Tehran’s aggression has left the Iranian regime shocked and unsure how to respond. At a briefing in London on Monday, I asked a panel of RUSI staffers whether, given that assessment, they considered the air strike a triumph for the president. No one on the panel demurred. Michael Stephens, a former British diplomat who is now a research fellow at RUSI, told me later that it was clear how badly the Iranians had been hurt, both in practical military terms and in pure national pride. “This has fundamentally changed the game and opens up the space for de-escalation,” he said. “It was a sucker punch which has scrambled their understanding of how the Americans might react in future. In the short term, it’s a triumph for Trump.”
Every option available to Iran now comes with huge risks, and the lack of serious response—so far—has damaged the Iranian regime’s reputation. The recent accidental downing of Ukrainian International Airlines Flight PS752 has also hit it hard, revealing a frightening incompetence as well as a limited retaliatory power.
But while the air strike itself might be a limited foreign-policy success for Trump now, the geopolitical gains he has won through escalatory tactics might yet dissipate if the killing turns out to be little more than an isolated incident, signaling nothing but the president’s capacity for shock. He has history in this area, after all. In 2017, Trump dropped the “mother of all bombs,” the largest conventional bomb the U.S. has ever deployed, to kill more than 90 militants in eastern Afghanistan, and the following year, he authorized, alongside France and Britain, air strikes on Syria in response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. On neither occasion was the action followed up in any long-term fashion.
The lessons of the Soleimani killing also do not fit neatly into Trump’s worldview, suggesting the need for clear and consistent red lines, as well as the willingness to commit U.S. military resources to enforce them. It’s America back as global policeman.
At the moment, in the assessment of the British diplomat I spoke with, the only clear strength of Trump’s foreign policy is his unpredictability, which has the power to unsettle the United States’ adversaries. The diplomat said that Trump appears to understand American strength more instinctively than Obama but, unlike his predecessor, doesn’t seem to have anything close to a strategy to go alongside this insight.
So while there are “Trumportunities,” there are also “Trumptastrophes,” as Evans also noted. The president, accidentally or otherwise, has identified real problems, including Iran’s ability to act with relative impunity and China’s disrespect for the rules of global trade. With regard to Iran, Trump appears to have stumbled upon an effective mechanism to advance U.S. interests. But he has yet to show himself to be any better than his forerunners at solving the long-term problems he has identified—and may yet make them worse.