Donald Trump promised to shake up U.S. foreign policy. He has certainly done that from the Middle East to Asia. The U.S. is currently engaged in a three-front, maximum-pressure standoff with China, Iran, and North Korea — involving everything from tariffs to possible military action and the strictest sanctions in memory.
At first, Trump critics saw these policy recalibrations as either impotent or counterproductive. Pessimists asserted that China, with a population four times the size of the United States’, was fated for world hegemony. Why antagonize those who might soon control our political and economic future?
Bipartisan experts talked not of the heresy of “stopping” China’s ascendance, but of “managing” America’s relative decline. Translated, the implicit policy conceded that the U.S., in its trade concessions, should overlook systematic Chinese trade surpluses, flagrant violations of world commercial norms, neocolonial provocations throughout Asia, stealing U.S. patents and copyrights, product dumping, currency manipulation, and technological appropriation. Supposedly, the more we appeased China through acts of magnanimity, the more they would reciprocate by becoming like us.
Our classic model for China’s supplanting the U.S. was the prior gradual hand-off of world hegemony from the British Empire to the Americans, as the United Kingdom in the 1940s tutored us on our global responsibilities and tried to play Athenian philosophers to our Roman legions.
The canard was that there was no alternative to appeasement, given China’s more dynamic economy and cold-hearted efficiency — so beloved by progressives when it came to Beijing’s construction by fiat of high-speed rail, shiny airports, and solar and wind farms. Trump, we were told, was a ridiculous Quixote tilting at Chinese windmills, with his 19th-century talk of counterproductive “tariffs” and ossified “trade wars.”
Not now. The U.S. economy is still humming. The stock market is at record highs. Unemployment stays at near-record peacetime lows. Oil and gas production is beyond anyone’s wildest imagination just a few years ago. The Chinese economy, from what we can tell from its state-controlled media and censored state agencies, is slowing down. Human-rights activists are coming out of the shadows to damn China’s reeducation camps. Riots continue in Hong Kong, along with Orwellian surveillance of China’s own citizens at home.
Beijing’s only hesitation in seeking an armistice seems to come from an expectation that Trump will not be reelected and that a Democratic administration will return to the status quo — even as China claims that it sees Trump as an easily manipulated patsy. The bottom line is that China views the present recalibration as intolerable and is desperately seeking some way to nullify it.
So we are entering dangerous territory not because we are losing our trade war with China, but because we are beginning to win it. Xi Jinping not Trump has overplayed his hand. The Chinese know that they cannot end the standoff by returning to the former asymmetrical status quo. Nor can they embrace a new fair relationship — it would be antithetical to the very means by which China obtained its enormous wealth in the first place. Something then has to give.
The Iran deal in 2015 was all that Iran could dream for. Tehran got a blank check to continue its nuclear research under the guise of “peaceful” nuclear development. Sanctions were dropped, sending billions of dollars into the Iranian economy that dampened popular unrest, fueled Iranian terrorist appendages in Syria and Iran, and fed its missile and drone force aimed at Israel and the Arab Gulf states.
Nocturnal cash was sent to free U.S. hostages. Inspection protocols were leaky. The subtext understanding for both sides in the agreement was that Iran would hoard its cash, keep up its nuclear research, stop transparent enrichment, and eventually announce to the world it had the bomb — but only in ten or 15 years, well after the Obama administration had left after enshrining the Deal as “monumental.”
Trump scrapped all that. He not only ramped up the sanctions but also pressured allies to join in on them. The result is that once-oil-exporting Iran now has riots over gasoline prices. Tens of thousands of protestors have hit the streets. Iran is waging a costly proxy war with Israel in Syria, is bogged down in protecting the Assad regime, and keeps seeking ways to send missiles and drones into the Gulf without its overt handprints on them.
Iran wants to goad the U.S. into a confrontation, but it’s also unsure of Trump. For all his tough talk, Trump seems to set a high bar of provocation — perhaps a direct attack on an American vessel or a NATO partner’s warship. So far, Trump has more or less ignored Iran’s bombing of Saudi Arabia, the shooting down of an American drone, and the hijacking of allied commercial ships. Some Iranians believe that Trump is merely a “twitter tiger,” so they want to push him further; others fear that if they do, Trump will retaliate against the entire Iranian military with the full support of the American people.
Still, Iran’s strategy is not complicated. It seeks to stage an “incident” that will embarrass Trump before the 2020 election, demand a response, and thus offend his non-interventionist base. In Iran’s view, shooting in the Gulf would supposedly usher in a compliant Democratic administration analogous to the Obama team that was so eager to grant concessions.
But Iran also wants to limit its aggression and avoid entering into a missile free-for-all with the U.S. that would result in the loss of most of its military bases and nuclear resources.
At first glance, Iran’s brinkmanship seems suicidal, given the overwhelming military strength of the United States. But Iran also is slowly being strangled by sanctions and popular unrest. If things do not change, it will be broke and in total chaos within a year. Of course, the logical solution would be for Tehran to renounce all proliferation agendas, recalibrate the Iran deal with absolute transparency, and seek détente with the West. And yet such a loss-of-face move is apparently about the worst conceivable scenario for the revolutionary Shiite theocracy.
North Korea is relatively quiet but likewise is reaching a point of decision. Its impoverished population is reduced to a pre-civilizational existence as the Trump administration insidiously ratchets up sanctions on both North Korea exports and imports, and wages a trade war with its patron China. Food is scarce, and fuel rarer.
In 1999 the Clinton administration has almost achieved the same level of pressure — before relenting in the face of humanitarian pleas that the North Koreans were starving and eager to denuclearize. So it wrongheadedly lifted sanctions and pronounced the “Agreed Framework” a success leading to the denuclearization of North Korea.
Trump probably will not back off like that. We are therefore headed to an impasse in which North Korea feels that it cannot live with the current sanctions and cannot live without nuclear weapons. Something will have to give.
Yet the solution to that dilemma — North Korea gives up its nukes and receives a guarantee that neither South Korea nor the U.S. will remove the Kim dynasty — is nearly as unlikely as our standoff with Iran. Without nuclear weapons, Pyongyang’s dictatorship would get about as much attention on the world stage as Gabon or Paraguay. And with nuclear weapons, North Korea may drive its people to the point of starvation.
As pressure mounts, and the bursting point nears, we should expect North Korea to launch some missile or provoke Japan, South Korea, or U.S. forces in the area. With this, North Korea would hope to negotiate away sanctions while making its usual accompanying promises that it would finally, at last, absolutely and completely become almost — not fully, but nearly — denuclearized.
The most dangerous moments of a trade war, a political impasse, or an escalating military confrontation are predictable. They follow when one side, arrogant from previously being exempt from any consequences for its aggression, believes it’s starting to lose a conflict that it prompted and cannot afford to lose. At this critical point, it either lashes out to avoid defeat or accepts inevitable loss — but at least hopes to take its victorious adversary down with it.
Think of Japan running wild in China and Asia during the late 1930s, scorning milquetoast criticism from a disarmed Europe and the U.S., and then growing hysterical when Britain and the U.S. finally began rearming and sanctioning Japanese exports and imports — all leading to the cataclysm at Pearl Harbor and Singapore. Or remember Saddam Hussein’s financially exhausted Iraq in 1990, worn out from the disastrous Iran–Iraq war, and its growing indebtedness to the West and Arab world — and then in lunatic and disastrous fashion invading Kuwait.
The lessons are not that wounded animals defeat their stronger adversaries. Rather, when trapped and slowly bleeding to death in their caves, in extremis they sometimes prefer to leap out in a foolhardy and desperate effort to find some solution for their own self-created dilemmas.
In the next few months, we should expect a major provocation from either an increasingly beleaguered Iran or a flummoxed North Korea — and some sort of desperate quid pro quo from China presented as a last chance, a rare and magnanimous offer to stop the tariffs so “we can all just get along.”
Trump should stay the course and not let up until he achieves the original aim of his maximum pressure campaign. Nothing is more dangerous than to enter an existential standoff, feel momentum accruing, and then appease and grant concessions that destroy all prior sacrifice that heretofore had been finally paying off. Instead, he should expect our strapped adversaries at some point to do their worst, and then meet that challenge with our best — and ensure that our adversaries in their decline lack the power to take us down with them.
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