Americans have reason to be impressed by the U.S. State Department’s formal denunciation of the Russian crackdown on the March 26th demonstrations. Although there was nothing inspiring in the wording of the official condemnation – indeed it de-mothballed the long exhausted ‘marketplace of ideas’ trope – it was nonetheless perfectly adequate to the task. Given the incompetence performance of this most aberrant of presidential administrations, achieving mere adequacy is noteworthy.
If most of the statement seemed cut and paste, some of the language was specific to the event:
“Detaining peaceful protesters, human rights observers, and journalists is an affront to core democratic values. We were troubled to hear of the arrest of opposition figure Alexei Navalny upon arrival at the demonstration, as well as the police raids on the anti-corruption organization he heads.”
Alas the wording then immediately signaled weakness with a statement that the administration would “monitor the situation.” That must have the Kremlin fretting.
Superficially, this seems little different from the previous administration’s tepid responses to the repression of other pro-democracy movements. Barack Obama refused to do anything of consequence in response in repression in Iran and Bahrain to pursue other geopolitical goals. Negotiating a nuclear arms agreement with Iran was deemed more important than encouraging the Green Revolution. Keeping the U.S. Fifth Fleet at Manama was deemed more important than supporting the Arab Spring in Bahrain. Strategy in international relations often involves difficult and morally repugnant trade-offs.
The difference between the calculations made by the current and previous administration is that while we knew what Barack Obama was sacrificing human rights advocacy to achieve, we can only guess about Donald Trump’s thinking. Was it to reward Russia for its part in fighting ISIS? Or is it payment for not revealing the nasty kompromat on Trump and associates? Perhaps it is both.
That foreign policy making is even more opaque now than in the previous administration matters because this administration has already shot its wad in domestic policy. The spectacular failure to repeal Obamacare (Affordable Care Act) means that the White House is likely to look for success, or anything remotely resembling success, to claim in foreign policy. Presidents usually begin doing that two years into their term in office after a major domestic policy defeat. Our braggart in chief has managed to race through that part of the presidential policy making cycle in under three months.
However opaque the foreign policy making process, we can make decent guesses about where our military will be sent into action. Eastern Europe is not on the list. A Russian tank column could roll into Talinn and Trump would probably tell the U.S. Army units there to lay down their weapons and send Prime Minister Jüri Ratas a bill for having defended Estonia. Nor is Iran on the list. Trump is not going to order an attack on an important Russian client state. Trump might try to claim success in Iraq or Yemen but Americans have long sense learned that there is no lasting victory anywhere in the region. He is also likely to be wary after the debacle of his January 29th raid in Yemen.
That leaves East Asia as the region where a new war might be launched. An old fashioned eyeball to eyeball crisis with China in the South China Sea that fails to turn into a shooting war would serve nicely. An actual shooting war would be an economic disaster with few parallels but one can imagine the foreign policy amateur Trump playing at brinksmanship. The problem with that scenario is that China is capable of impressive strategic surprise. Trump desperately needs a success and not a failure. Backing down in an international crisis would be seen as devastating failure.
All of this makes North Korea the most tempting target. Pyongyang is always ready to provide the pretext for war without prompting. Noam Chomsky and company would no doubt descend into ‘America is always in the wrong’ false flag conspiracism to explain a Korean War Two but all the White House needs to do is exploit the next opportunity presented. The February 13th assassination of Kim Jong-name in Kuala Lumpur Airport was a yet another reminder of how risk acceptant is the government of North Korea. Trump is almost certainly going to be presented with a perfect pretext for going to war.