‘Anything goes’ Trump Doctrine unsettles not just US foes, but also its allies
Ehsan Ahrari says the strikes on Syria and sabre-rattling in Korean peninsula underline the seemingly impulsive nature of Trump’s foreign policies, which worries its allies and greatly increases the risk of its intent being misconstrued
Peter Baker of The New York Times seems to have adopted his own version of the “Seinfeld rule”. Jerry Seinfeld’s highly popular 1990s TV sitcom was about “nothing”. And that nothingness – lack of a specific topic in an episode – to the surprise of all conventional thinkers, caught on. Following that principle, Baker had this to say about the so-called “Trump Doctrine”: “To the extent that a Trump Doctrine is emerging, it seems to be this: don’t get roped in by doctrine.” In other words, this doctrine has no rules, and it does not describe the circumstances under which the United States would use its military tool of national power. So, without setting preconditions, the Trump Doctrine means anything that President Donald Trump decides it to mean.
In this instance, writes Baker, Trump “demonstrated a highly improvisational and situational approach that could inject a risky unpredictability into relations with potential antagonists, but he also opened the door to a more traditional American engagement with the world that eases allies’ fears”.
However, this risky unpredictability makes it hard for America’s allies to plan or even to contemplate how the United States would react, especially in the aftermath of its decision to take limited action against Syria. For instance, Trump dispatched an aircraft carrier group near to Korea waters, in response to Kim Jong-un’s own dangerous unpredictability related to his missile programme and his mounting nuclear weapons arsenal. If you are Japan and South Korea, what would you assume? Should they assume that the United States is getting ready to take some pre-emptive action against North Korea, or is it merely a part of Trump’s empty sabre-rattling?
After all, North Korea is not Syria. The former possesses nuclear weapons and a large missile arsenal. North Korea conducted five nuclear tests – in 2006, 2009, 2013 and two in 2016. There are questions about whether it has tested an atomic bomb or a more powerful hydrogen bomb. A 2015 report published in The Wall Street Journal cited Chinese sources that North Korea “could have 20 warheads today and 40 by 2016”. There is still no consensus about the capability of North Korea to miniaturise a nuclear device “so that it can be delivered via a missile”.
Since North Korea does not have a slew of experts on US foreign policy to fully understand or to interpret Trump’s actions, chances are that it might misconstrue that ostensible sabre-rattling and overreact. Then what? We may then be facing a major military conflict between the United States and North Korea, a conflict in which China may not be a neutral party. That is just one possible consequence of the current Trump Doctrine.
President Trump’s seemingly quick reaction to Basher al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons also underscores the likelihood that, under his presidency, the United States will become an impetuous superpower: reacting to events without a strategy or a detailed post-conflict plan. That type of feeling does not make anyone – especially America’s allies in the Middle East and East Asia – either secure or confident.
Another related ironic and uncomfortable variable is that, during the Obama presidency, the United States became an overly cautious superpower. One palpable result of that was the emergence of Russia as a major player in the Middle East. Under Trump, the United States seems to have made an about-face by quickly taking limited military action against Syria.
Consequently, it seems to have transformed itself into a reactive and even a mercurial superpower. That impulsiveness is likely to make the world an unsafe and unstable place, simply because no one knows how Russia and China will respond to the next crisis involving their own strategic interests.
Ehsan Ahrari is an adjunct research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and the CEO of Strategic Paradigms, a Virginia-based foreign and defence policy consultancy. Views contained in this essay are strictly his own