In the 1950s and ‘60s, the term “brinkmanship” was used to describe the Cold War tactic of taking the nation to the brink of war in order to force concessions from the other side. The most famous example of this nuclear game of “chicken” was the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when Kennedy and Khrushchev both threatened to go to war over the Soviet deployment of missiles in Cuba. Brinkmanship was effective, but it was pretty tough on the nation’s nerves.
I grew up in that era, and remember how the nation chewed its fingernails as Russian ships loaded with missiles approached the U.S. naval blockade of Cuba, wondering whether the Cold War was about to turn hot.
I had flashbacks to that era in recent days as a Russian warship sailed to confront the U.S. naval destroyers that had fired tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airbase, and a U.S. armada of warships and submarines sailed towards North Korea, which was expected to do “something big” — like undertake a nuclear test or ICBM launch — to celebrate the birthday of its founder, Kim Il Sung, on April 15.
It all began when President Trump authorized the firing of 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airbase used to launch a chemical attack that killed scores of women and children in a village friendly to rebel forces fighting the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. It is not clear whether this was an impulsive act by Trump, who had been moved by video of dead and dying children who were victims of sarin gas, or a carefully calculated move to intimidate our geopolitical rivals. Perhaps it was a combination of both. But either way, it was a clear proclamation that the U.S. is embarking on a new era in foreign policy.
For the past eight years, we’ve followed a foreign policy that President Obama called “leading from behind.” What this amounted to was that at the first sign of a military conflict, the United States would run to the rear and extoll our allies to fight the bullies, telling them “we’ve got your back.”
The Tomahawk strike authorized by Trump was initially conceived by our military to enforce the now infamous “red line” President Obama drew after Assad used chemical weapons against civilians back in 2013. Obama then refused to enforce the policy out of fear the Iranians would back out of the nuclear limitation talks going on at that time.
Brinkmanship and “red lines” don’t work if the other side doesn’t perceive one’s threats to be credible. Donald Trump doesn’t have that problem: if you read the world press, you see that much of the world, including some of our close allies, consider our new president to be a loose cannon, or worse, a thin-skinned egomaniac. Trump has actually cultivated this image by keeping his military strategy secret while taking no options off the table, saying repeatedly that he does not want our antagonists to know what he will do next. You can add the American public to the list of those kept in the dark.
As our Tomahawk missiles slammed into the Syrian airbase, President Trump was hosting a dinner party for Chinese premier Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago resort. The meeting between the two leaders was to center on trade relations, and it was expected to be testy and difficult as, during his campaign, Trump had accused China of “raping” America, and repeatedly vowed to name Beijing a currency manipulator and impose a 45-percent tariff on Chinese imports.
But that didn’t happen. What started amid fears of “a new Cold War with China” ended with talk of an alliance with China to denuclearize North Korea.
Apparently what brought about this sudden and unexpected shift in U.S.-China relations was that Trump, the consummate deal-maker, offered the Chinese a deal they couldn’t refuse: better trade relations in return for cooperation against North Korea. Or perhaps it was the other way around. The Chinese care far more about economic growth than they do about North Korea’s lunatic dictator Kim Jung-un. Aware of the worsening relations between the U.S. and Russia, they seized the opportunity to get a better trade deal.
Either way, following their meeting, Trump promptly declared that China was not a currency manipulator after all, and China announced that North Korea’s nuclear program cannot be allowed to continue.
The American public, including many Democrats and even anti-Trump Republicans, has been generally very supportive of Trump’s strike against Syria: a poll by the Pew Foundation found that 77 percent of Republicans support the strike along with 45 percent of Democrats. This is a clear rejection of Obama’s “leading from behind” tactics. But what does it mean for our overall foreign policy strategy?
Recently, there was speculation that in the Trump administration, China would be our number one geo-political foe, and there was fear and consternation that Trump was in cahoots with Putin and the Russian oligarchs. Today, everything seems to have turned upside down. Never-Trumpers like Mitt Romney, John McCain and Lindsey Graham are praising Trump for his decisive action and trust in our military leaders.
But it remains to be seen how Trump’s core supporters will react amid rumors of a rift between Trump advisor Steve Bannon and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Did President Trump just trade off his trade protectionist policies towards China for the denuclearizing of North Korea? If so, how will this play in those Trump strongholds where workers have been losing their jobs to cheap Chinese imports?
Stay tuned. The roller coaster ride isn’t over.