The game of bluff and brinkmanship
With 2018 being the first functional year of Donald Trump's foreign policy paradigm, a pattern seems to be emerging: brinkmanship as the starting point, as much to contrast his approach to his predecessor(s) as to reaffirm the relative strength of the United States that even US citizens were beginning to seriously doubt. Why that approach has not yet exploded, as can be deduced from at least four test cases, may be a function of the multiple faces of bluff: either a bluff that the other side has caught and readies itself to call the United States to heel, or a bluff through which a surrogate country executes the deed (shaming the previous administration's policy platform/position on it as a guideline) with the United States aggressively cheerleading.
Identifying those four tests gets the ball rolling: opposing the P5+1 2015 denuclearisation deal with Iran that the Obama administration concluded with Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia; denuclearising North Korea, an objective aggravated by Kim Jong-un's own brinkmanship superseding his US counterpart, for example, by firing its first inter-continental ballistic missiles in 2017; cutting Chinese trade surpluses down to size, not only to expose that Trump is keeping abreast of his campaign pledges but is also revitalising a roaring economy that is just not cutting it anymore; and shifting the US embassy to Jerusalem in Israel in order to feed the Middle East's anti-Iran cordon as a possible surrogate to directly denuclearise Iran.
Of course, not every one of these goes through the same bluff pattern, and indeed bluff may be more a last-resort action than a conscious policy-influencing ploy, given the combative vested interests within the country (Republican factions, for example) and abroad. As the State Department's personnel-shift from Rex Tillerson to Mike Pompeo indicates, bluff may have facilitated the transition from the routine diplomatic approach to a more hawkish stance. If that means this administration's foreign policy positions lack an anchor, so be it: it may be too early to tell for sure, but that they rally around certain "instincts" can certainly be better supported. In short, those instincts have thus far rallied around bashing Obama's record, and with it the Democrat Party posturing; restoring an unassailable US position with the military as the spearhead; placing China in its own subservient slot; cleaning up the US cultural stock by calibrating immigration and cornering US minorities; and punishing US free-riders, mostly in West Europe.
From this perspective, bluffing has helped smoothen the transition from guttural instincts to rational policy-making, without confirming that policies actually executed are indeed rational.
One other trait helps us understand Trump's foreign policy posturing: his innate preference for the dictatorial type, in particular the democratic leader who can easily turn on dictatorial taps over what might be called the "birds of the same feather" or "go with the flow" stripe, that is, other democracies, culturally similar countries, or heavily cultivated diplomats. Perhaps this is because dictatorial patterns resonate better with what he himself does or says, but his intervening business relations or family connections suggest Trump's springboard to be far more personal than organisational: that is, subjective rather than objective. This sets him apart from many of his predecessors, yet draws similarities with Richard M Nixon's.
Iran is among Trump's top priority. He promised to scuttle the P5+1 deal during his campaign, and by following through, he raised the stakes by leaving—through his current Secretary of State, Pompeo—a 12-point ultimatum. Accepting it means capitulating. Israel and Saudi Arabia want nothing less, and through Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, he not only managed to fire up Saudi Arabia with arms sales and Israel with an embassy shift to Jerusalem, he also hopes to nudge his European NATO partners out of the Iranian issue, which they wholeheartedly support. We see a personal, familial, and Israeli accent overriding historical diplomatic bonds with transatlantic partners, regardless of the P5+1 deal.
Brinkmanship here invokes clusters of opposition: Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States against, on the one hand, P5+1 Iran supporters, and on the other, China, Russia, Syria, and possibly Turkey. Whether his policy preference prevails or not, local in-fighting is guaranteed in zones already under combat: right across the Middle East Shi'ite Arc, from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq into Iran, but also within Israel through more compressed Palestinians, the same people Trump wooed with the promises of a two-state solution during his recent Middle East visit. What China and Russia do may help expose the bluff at hand: just as Israel and the United States have no option left but to go on the offensive against Iran militarily, the restraining factors may emerge from outside the area, with China and Russia being those sources.
In fact, Trump stays as far away from Russia as possible, given Robert Mueller's investigation, thus exposing a Russian weakness we need to monitor further. Yet how China quietly silenced the United States in the May 2018 trade negotiations serves as an indicator of what more China can do over the Iranian (and North Korean) issue. China is so deeply inside Iran that any conflict cannot but infringe upon Chinese investments and operations there; and Kim's sudden return to a belligerent tone over the denuclearisation ultimatum from the United States by at least stalling, if not cancelling, the Kim-Trump summit, happened right after Kim's second Beijing visit, ostensibly to get fresh instructions given the then stalemated China-US trade deal. The United States loudly announced how China would buy more farm products, but it was scheduled to do so anyway, negotiations or not. Its exports were not trimmed, but punches were conspicuous by their absence.
Kim inherently seeks normalisation in which denuclearisation results from piecemeal negotiations, an end-point rather than a starting point. After all, he invited foreign journalists to the inactivation of one nuclear site in the north, while he wants to convert another in the south of the country, on a beach, into a major global sea-side resort, obviously with US tourists in mind. How China intervenes here may expose the degree of Trump's bluff: either US Seventh Fleet, or retreat from the denuclearisation ultimatum. It is not an easy choice.
Finally, Jerusalem was the most personal of the four issues, but also where he seeks to mobilise Israel to do the dirty US work in Syria and, if necessary, with Iran. Netanyahu did not fish for words to brand Trump-based US relations the best his country has ever had. He might also have added the unique role of personal familial relations lubricating that relationship: not his with Trump's, but Trump's with various Israeli vested (business) interests and that "chosen people" bondage.
These carry the capacity to dictate patterns characterising the Trump presidency. That they also carry uncertainties demands further scrutiny.
Dr Imtiaz A Hussain is the head of Global Studies & Governance Program at Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).