Trump and Escalation

Much ink has been spilt on how the bulk of Donald Trumps policy positions are built around his over-the-top personality. From his signature promise to building a wall to combating illegal immigration to deterring Russia in Europe, his series of policy proposals have little substance beyond having the “Trump brand” to back them up. This is typical of a narcissist running during a time ripe for populism. But because Trumps positions are largely based on his personality, criticism is often personal, or at least perceived by Trump as personal. Combine critiques of his temperament with his sensitivity and you have an unusually entertaining political season. But the entertainment value wears thin and the gravity of the situation becomes concerning once one attempts to anticipate how Donald would perform on the international stage. Trumps inability to self control gives me two concerns, one regarding political rhetoric, the other regarding the theatrics of international terrorism. Both are, in the context of grand strategy, relatively minor but both have the potential to lead to escalation of something meaningful.

Foreign state leadership is often critical of the United States. This is partially a result of state leaders, regardless of their regime style, having to earn some level of political legitimacy among the wider public. Democratic leadership earn it through elections, dictatorship do so through a combination of the security state and a cult of personality. Many democratically elected leaders critique the United States unique political and economic culture because it is good domestic politics. Think the Labor Party under Corbyn or the Parti Socialiste of France. Many authoritarian leaders foster the image of the strong man protecting the populace from foreign encroachment, most often the United States. Think the ruling clergy of Iran or the Chavism of Venezuela. But what is good politics back home can have international repercussions. Recently, President Obama was forced to cancel a visit with Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, over the leaders claim that President Obama was the “son of a whore.” The comments were largely a reaction to western criticism of aggressive policing in the Philippine drug war. Despite the incendiary language, President Obama still met with the leader informally. This was because the involved leaders understood that both countries have a shared interest in working together on issues related to China and that diplomatic spats shouldn’t hinder them from cooperating on their shared regional strategy. In typical fashion, President Obama demonstrated that he is capable of being serious on the international stage. Does anyone seriously think that Trump is adult enough not to take such matters personally? His campaign is the most petty and vindictive in modern history and his personal history of holding grudges over the minor of slights is well documented. He cut the tops off of roses and sent back the stems to Connie Chung in response to what he considered an unfair interview. In response to a critical article, he sent Gail Collins a copy of her column with the note “face of a dog” next to her picture. You cannot make this stuff up. It is inevitable that an American president will encounter critical language abroad and we shouldn’t elect one who is capable of being “baited with a tweet.”

In addition to how Trump would respond to critical political rhetoric, I’m also concerned with the issue of international terrorism. Recruitment tactics of Islamic terror groups usually include large-scale attacks (as in France and the Bataclan) or gruesome spectacles like public beheadings. The motivation of these tactics is to provoke the west into overreacting and thereby pushing those on the margins towards their terrorist group ranks. This is part of the broader strategy to reframe the conflict from civilized versus uncivilized and instead as Islam versus infidel. I imagine that even the most detached state leader would find it difficult not to overreach in such a situation. Innocent women and children are usually killed and the bias of the general public is to demand some sort of reaction, either against the terror group abroad (bombing their members) or curtailing the civil liberties of local Muslims through increased scrutiny (like at an airport). If how the west reacts is not tempered with a view of the long-term goal of assimilation of Islam with modern values, the short-term conflict with terrorism becomes less winnable as a narrative of Islam being under attack emerges. Donald Trump already lends himself into such a narrative with his unapologetic chauvinism and crass showmanship. One of his promoted policies in the war on terror is to ban Muslim immigration. He as also suggested he will start surveilling all American mosques, and to “‘bomb the shit out of extremists.” This is exactly what terrorist groups want.

Presidential contests are not just choosing between different menus of policy options. Temperament and personality matter, as they would in any managerial position. Trump campaigns on a foreign policy of disengaging with the international society and focusing more on domestic issues. But which president hasn’t made this a focus of his or her campaign? Trump may not have a great deal of interest in international affairs but international affairs has a great deal of interest in the United States. And it only takes one event to spiral out of control and become a crisis. Someone who openingly brags about his love for revenge could easily be lured into escalating routine anti-US rhetoric or a small scaled terrorist attack into something much grander than it should be.