It’s 2020, and America is embroiled in not one but two catastrophic wars: one with Iran that has sucked in the entire Middle East, and another halfway across the world in North Korea sparked by Kim Jong Un test-firing nuclear-capable missiles that could hit the United States. It’s all the worse since the U.S. is waging both wars without allies, all of which have abandoned Donald Trump because of his incessant bullying.
Fortunately, this isn’t where we find ourselves today, but it’s what the president’s critics have been warning could occur if he carries on with policies that have shattered decades of conventional U.S. policy making. It’s not as if their concerns have no factual basis. The Trump administration really did come to the brink of war with Iran and North Korea. In neither case are the underlying tensions that got them there anywhere near resolved. America’s alliances are indeed in flux. But the fact that this is not our reality in 2020 is just as instructive as the fact that it could have been.
This pattern has recurred on several occasions during the Trump era: The president’s detractors foretell doom caused by one of his decisions, only to be proved wrong, and then nobody acknowledges that they got it wrong or admits that Trump’s policies have had some advantages.
Of course, just because some of these doomsday scenarios haven’t yet materialized doesn’t mean that they won’t eventually. A number of Trump’s actions have already inflicted serious damage and could have corrosive consequences that will only become evident over time. In some cases, Trump seems to have simply been lucky. A number of warnings, moreover, have proved right.
Nevertheless, as American foreign policy comes under greater scrutiny as part of this year’s presidential campaign, the Democratic candidates risk losing credibility with voters and undermining their policy prescriptions if they don’t reckon with the moments when they said the sky was falling and it wasn’t. Why should a voter be convinced that returning to aspects of the pre-Trump status quo is necessarily a good thing when the people advocating for that inaccurately diagnosed the results of Trump’s defiance of convention? The episodes in which critics’ predictions weren't borne out offer valuable lessons for Trump’s challengers, even if they still vigorously disagree with the moves the president has made.
As Charles Dunlap Jr., the head of Duke University’s Center on Law, Ethics, and National Security, wrote for Just Security early in the Trump administration, Americans “need balance in our national security and foreign policy discussions before we don sackcloth and ashes and hoist our ‘The End is Near’ signs. True, we are in an era of change, which is what happens in democracies when a candidate runs on a platform of change and wins, and change can be disquieting to those who prefer the status quo. But how good was the status quo?”
Consider three emblematic episodes:
The War With Iran That Wasn’t
In the wee hours of January 2, shortly after news broke that Trump had killed the Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike, Twitter pulsed with anxiety about #WWIII.
Enter the Democratic candidates: Bernie Sanders warned that Trump had just placed the United States “on the path to another” endless war, one that could again “cost countless lives and trillions more dollars.” Joe Biden declared that Trump had “just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox,” potentially bringing America to “the brink of a major conflict across the Middle East.” The U.S. was perched precariously on that brink, Elizabeth Warren argued, “because a reckless president, his allies, and his administration have spent years pushing us here.”
The calamitous war they envisioned, however, has not come to pass. They were right, though, that there would be devastating consequences. Iran retaliated by firing missiles at a U.S. base in Iraq, leaving at least 109 American troops with traumatic brain injuries. The Iranians mistakenly downed a civilian airliner, killing its 176 passengers, and hostilities between Iran and the U.S. remain dangerously high. Tehran has cast off restrictions under the 2015 deal brokered by the Obama administration to constrain Iran’s nuclear program, though it hasn’t yet raced to build a bomb, as many of Trump’s critics predicted would happen when the president withdrew from the agreement in 2018. Had Trump stuck with the accord in the first place, Iran and the U.S. might never have found themselves on the precipice of war over Soleimani’s demise.
Nevertheless, Iran’s missile barrage was a relatively restrained response when measured against the blow of losing its most powerful military leader and the predictions made by Sanders, Biden, and Warren. Iranian officials thought “that after a series of escalatory [Iranian] military operations—the tanker attacks, the shooting down of an American drone, the Saudi oil strikes, rocket attacks on bases in Iraq by Iranian-backed militias—Mr. Trump would refrain from responding consequentially,” only to be shocked by Trump taking out Soleimani, The New York Times reported last week in a postmortem of the crisis. Trump’s decision, the paper noted, “might ultimately deter future Iranian aggression.” A former British diplomat similarly told my London colleague Tom McTague that the Soleimani strike opened up “the space for de-escalation” by scrambling the Iranian government’s “understanding of how the Americans might react in [the] future.”
Setting aside the vital question of whether Trump’s killing of Soleimani was legally justified or strategically wise (for candidates such as Sanders and Warren, the answer is unequivocally no), it’s worthwhile to investigate why Iran didn’t react the way so many assumed it would and what insights that yields for how the United States deals with adversaries. Trump, “accidentally or otherwise, has identified real problems, including Iran’s ability to act with relative impunity,” McTague concluded. The Soleimani incident also suggests that viewing every U.S. military action in the Middle East through the trauma of the Iraq War can distort our understanding of those events.
The War With North Korea That Wasn’t
Trump’s critics argued that war would break out as a result of the president’s assorted threats (unleashing “fire and fury,” totally destroying “Rocket Man”) to attack North Korea during his first year in office. After Trump engaged in a nuclear-button measuring contest with North Korea’s leader on Twitter, Biden argued that the United States was closer to a nuclear war with North Korea than it had ever been. Sanders and Warren helped introduce legislation to restrain Trump from going to war with North Korea. These critiques weren’t confined to the left. Republican Senator Bob Corker cautioned that Trump doesn’t realize that “we could be heading towards World War III with the kinds of comments that he’s making.”
North Korean officials probably didn’t interpret Trump’s remarks as a signal that war was imminent. But the bellicosity of the president and his advisers put the U.S. military on high alert, alarmed America’s ally South Korea, and increased the risk that the parties could stumble into conflict, just as the president’s critics had warned.
That bellicosity, though, was also productive in ways that Trump’s detractors rarely acknowledge. Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, told me that she leveraged her boss’s rhetoric and volatility to persuade China and Russia to support UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea, which helped pressure Kim into (thus far mostly fruitless) nuclear negotiations with the United States. Vincent Brooks, who commanded U.S. forces in South Korea from 2016 to 2018, told me that the president’s unpredictability, paired with new military maneuvers on the Korean peninsula, helped Brooks reestablish deterrence against North Korean provocations and create space for diplomacy. "Trying to bait a dictator who has nuclear weapons is not a way to advance diplomacy," Warren argued in 2017. According to two former Trump administration officials who were at the forefront of its North Korea policy during this period, however, it was one way to do so.
The lesson here isn’t exactly that future American presidents should bait nuclear-armed dictators, but rather that, in certain situations, unconventional behavior can unlock opportunities to achieve breakthroughs with enemies. Thae Yong Ho, one of the highest-ranking officials ever to defect from North Korea, told me that he thought Trump’s sharp break with the “very gentle” posture of past American presidents helped dissuade North Korea from escalating the nuclear crisis with the United States in late 2017.
The Very Anxious Allies That Remain Allies
Trump’s critics have likewise divined doom each time the president has raised questions about his commitment to defending U.S. allies and demanded huge hikes in their financial contributions to collective security. Biden, for example, has warned that if Trump is reelected, “NATO will fall apart.” Similar predictions have been made as Trump pushes for new arrangements in which Japan and South Korea would cover most of the costs of stationing U.S. troops in each country.
These alliances are indeed being tested more than they have been in decades, and all these partners are now engaged in more contingency planning for a world in which they can no longer depend on U.S. protection. But the fact that the alliances haven’t yet shattered—and by some measures, certain alliances have actually grown stronger during the Trump era—reveals two realities of America’s network of alliances that the next commander in chief will confront.
First, Trump’s tenure has underscored that the United States never really figured out its role in the world and national-security interests once the Cold War ended and its clout began to decline relative to that of rising powers. That debate is now under way in earnest, and U.S. allies are gradually grasping this and processing what it means for them.
Second, for all the upheaval of the Trump years, these partners have come to recognize that they ultimately don’t have attractive alternatives—teaming up with authoritarian powers such as China and Russia? Staking their security on a weak European Union?—to their alliance with the United States. Some allied leaders may not be especially enthused about collaborating with the U.S. these days, and their publics may be with them, but their national interests still dictate that they do. That means there’s more room to tackle sensitive issues such as burden-sharing and more resilience in the relationships than previous American presidents suspected. Kersti Kaljulaid, the president of Estonia, a NATO member bordering Russia and thus on the front line of fears about America’s wavering fidelity to the bloc, told me and my colleague Yara Bayoumy that it took Trump’s crass transactionalism (rather than Barack Obama and his predecessors asking “nicely”) to impress upon NATO members that they had to get serious about ramping up their own defense spending.
As Robert Blackwill of the Council on Foreign Relations noted in a 2019 assessment of Trump’s foreign policy—in which he memorably likened the president’s policies to “a large bowl of spaghetti bolognese dumped and spread on a white canvas”—many criticisms of the president’s conduct in the world are related to the manner in which he makes, announces, and explains decisions and to the policy incoherence within his administration. Rarely, however, is it acknowledged that “the president has disrupted a whole series of conventions in the international system, some of them undoubtedly needed.”
“Not a single U.S. politician,” Blackwill observed, “has a coherent and convincing set of policies to cope with this eroding world order, but Trump receives nearly all the slings and arrows.”