Donald Trump is approaching the end of his first year as president of the United States. By now, everyone – supporters, opponents, even indifferents – seem to agree on one thing. His pronouncements and his actions are unpredictable. He ignores precedents and behaves in ways that constantly surprise people. Supporters find this refreshing. Opponents find this terrifying.
Yet very few have remarked upon what is I think his most singular achievement. He has managed the trick of being the most unpredictable actor on the U.S. and world scene, and being at the same time the most predictable actor.
He has deliberately surrounded himself with a panoply of advisors who push him in directly opposite directions. He constantly fires some of them and appoints others. No individual seems to last too long. The result is that he makes it clear to all and sundry that the final decision is his and his alone. He may accede for a while to what some advisors suggest, sometimes undoing their advice the very next day. This is what makes him seem unpredictable.
But in the end he always reverts to what is sometimes called his gut feelings, whether the issue is health care or immigration or tax reduction or military action. This is what makes him so predictable. The bottom line is always the same. Anyone who observes him or works with him or opposes him should therefore be able to predict where he will end up. And for most of the world, where Donald Trump will go is not where they would want a U.S. president to go.
Trump and the United States are faced with a large number of issues about which there are strong and divisive opinions on both sides. These divisions seem to many intractable. Not to Donald Trump. He believes in himself and his ability to complete his national and world agendas. For him nothing is intractable.
In September 2017, the two most urgent foreign policy decisions have to do with North Korea and Iran. In both, the conflict with the United States revolves around one crucial issue, nuclear weapons. North Korea has them. Iran does not, but at least some major internal actors think it essential that Iran acquire them.
The U.S. official position is that North Korea should disband its nuclear weapons and that Iran should cease any and all activities that move in the direction of acquiring such weapons. These positions are not new ones invented by Donald Trump. They have been the public position of the United States under all previous presidents for some time now.
What is different with Trump is that he refuses to admit how difficult it is to achieve these U.S. objectives and how dangerous it would be to pursue them by military action. Previous presidents have therefore sought so-called diplomatic solutions. In the case of Iran, diplomacy seemed to work under President Obama with the accord signed by both countries (and other powers). In contrast, diplomacy has thus far achieved very little in the case of North Korea.
In both situations, President Trump’s gut feelings seem clear. He wants to use military action to force North Korea to disband nuclear weapons. He wishes to withdraw from the accord with Iran and use a military threat to obtain their permanent renunciation of nuclear weapon development. There are two questions about Trump’s foreign policy. Can he in fact arrange to start the military actions? And if he can, will the military actions achieve what he hopes they will?
Donald Trump promised his supporters that he would prove a true friend of the U.S. military by giving military men key positions in his administration and by seeking to expand funds for the military. He has done this. In the latest reshuffle of his staff, he placed a military man, John Kelly, in the position of Chief of Staff with broad powers to change the staff and to serve as a filter to access to the president.
Military men of course appreciate more funds. But curiously, most of his military advisors are relative doves. They do favor expanded funds for the military. They all seem to believe that wars are truly a final resort, one with enormous and unavoidable negative consequences. They have an ally in the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. Whenever Trump has followed their advice and eschewed his harshest rhetoric, he seems to find it very uncomfortable to do so for more than a brief moment. He always reverts to his bottom lines.
The first question is whether Trump can in fact launch serious military action. It will be less easy than he imagines. Military bureaucrats have all sorts of ways of slowing down, even stopping, actions with which they disagree. In Trump’s regime, they are actually encouraged to do so by a further personality quirk of Donald Trump. He likes to take credit for successes but to blame failures on others. So just in case the military actions would be a failure, he is outsourcing the actual decisions to the military. If there were to be a failure he could blame them. In case of a success he would be the first to claim exclusive credit. However, outsourcing necessarily means delay and invites sabotage.
The cases of the two countries are different. North Korea does in fact have bombs, ones that can in fact reach U.S. territory. Furthermore, U.S. intelligence seems to be saying that North Korea is improving its military capacity at a very fast pace. The Trump regime is now talking of “preventive war” – the most wonderful oxymoron ever invented. Should the U.S. launch preventive war, one can be certain that North Korea would respond in a major way.
In contrast, Iran does not yet have nuclear weapons. They publicly insist they have no intention of acquiring them. At least half the authorities seem ready to renounce any effort permanently in return for various kinds of economic benefits. It would be far harder to renounce the accord than Donald Trump believes. For one thing, it has co-signers – Germany, France, Italy, the European Union – who have said they would not go along with such a renunciation.
But let us suspend for the moment the question of whether military action would work and ask what would be its consequences. In the case of Iran, it is very likely that the major world allies of the United States in Europe, not to speak of Russia and China, would increase the distance they take not merely from the Trump regime but from the United States as a country in the future. A non-diplomatic pathway would prove to be a diplomatic disaster.
In North Korea, the consequences would be far greater. Suppose the United States bombed all known nuclear weapon locations in North Korea. Some bombs miss their targets. It seems in addition that the United States does not even have a complete list of locations. North Korea may be able to launch a bomb from a submarine. Let us imagine for a moment that after a U.S. preventive war, North Korea had one bomb left. Whom would they bomb with it?
In any case, the U.S. preventive war bombs and the one North Korean response bomb would result in nuclear fallout of incredible magnitude and geographic spread. It could well be that the results of such bombs would waft across the Pacific Ocean to inflict tremendous damage to U.S. lives. The fact is that Trump’s bottom line cannot be a winner. It can only be a worldwide human disaster.
No doubt, the reader will want to know my prediction of what will actually happen. It is, sad to say, unpredictable.
Immanuel Wallerstein, Senior Research Scholar at Yale University, is the author of The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World (New Press).