Violent rhetoric doesn’t always bring violence itself, but Donald Trump’s presidency is putting that relationship to the test. At home this month, white supremacists and neo-Nazis have brought street violence and murder to the quiet enclave of Charlottesville, Virginia. Abroad, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has been exchanging threats with Trump, who, without consulting regional allies or even his own top advisers, has promised to unleash “fire and fury” and announced that America’s weapons are “locked and loaded.”
In an earlier article, I described Trump’s approach to foreign policy as “belligerent deterrence.” It sounds tough but reflects a stunningly simplistic understanding of policy: If my threats are more terrifying than the adversary’s, he will back down. Trump hopes to get his way by bullying foreign leaders he disdains, just as he has tried to bully other leaders at home, including, oddly enough, members of his own party such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The use of escalating threats comes intuitively to a man who overestimates his ability to control people around him. In international relations, however, the historical record shows that this kind of overconfident behavior rarely works. Instead of cowing foreign leaders, it usually eggs them on. Strongmen like Kim relish the attention of the American bully as confirmation of their own importance and justification for their repressive regimes.
The cascade of Trump threats with inconsistent action also inspires doubts about the president’s intentions. On North Korea he has already promised repeatedly to force the regime to end its nuclear missile program, with no result.
Trump and his core group of “America First” supporters cannot tolerate the impression that he is weak-willed. Although Trump probably intends to avoid military conflict, his words have placed his personal prestige—especially his image as a tough guy who gets things done—on the line. He has said he will respond with overwhelming force so many times that at some point he may find it difficult to back off.
Despite America’s overwhelming military advantage, Trump has maneuvered himself into a position where the North Korean leader, not the president, determines the path forward. Kim can choose when and where to challenge the American president’s threats, but Trump is constrained in his responses because he has committed to the use of overwhelming military force.
This dangerous situation is currently paired with a U.S. government uniquely lacking in diplomatic personnel to manage the sources of conflict in the region. Trump has failed to appoint an ambassador to South Korea or an assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs. His secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, appears uninformed about White House goals and unconnected with day-to-day operations on the National Security Council or in the State Department. Every time Tillerson or another official tries to encourage calm, Trump tweets a renewed threat, insult, and provocation—often against multiple parties. There is little effective American diplomacy to speak of. All the pressures from the White House point to conflict, not cooperation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is one of the few major figures that Trump has refrained from attacking. He continues to lavish the Russian leader with praise, despite the evidence of Putin’s interference in American politics and the stiff new sanctions imposed on Russia by a Republican-dominated Congress. Trump went so far as to thank Putin for expelling more than 70 American diplomatic personnel from Russia. Trump’s devotion to Putin undermines the confidence of our allies in our security commitments and nurtures uncertainty about American interests and goals. If the president is unclear about America’s interests and alliances, how can we expect other countries to respect them?
What makes this August so worrisome as a portent of things to come is that by fomenting crises abroad, Trump does get a real political benefit—distracting public attention from the chaos in his administration. As Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigations hit closer to the Oval Office, Trump may use his role as commander-in-chief to show he is in control. “Enough is enough,” he may say to himself. “I will show them!” Let’s hope there’s someone to stop him before he starts firing off missiles instead of firing off tweets.