President Donald Trump should heed Theodore Roosevelt’s advice to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Belligerent rhetoric and threats of wars are not always useful or effective means of guaranteeing peaceful outcomes. Complicating matters, since the Kennedy administration, the word “war” has taken on expanded political meaning.
These were not wars in the classic sense, which Carl von Clausewitz defined as violent clashes of will between armies of opposing states. Wars on poverty, illiteracy, drugs, crime, sexual harassment and terror were all declared and waged against inanimate enemies. But with the Trump administration, uses of the word war are reverting back to mean clashes between and among states.
Trump’s threat to impose steel and aluminum tariffs raises the specter of a trade war ironically pitting America against its allies. None of this is helped by his promises that “trade wars are good and can be won.” Unfortunately, the White House has selective amnesia in forgetting the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 exacerbated the Great Depression and George W. Bush’s imposition of steel tariffs in 2002 for purely domestic political reasons failed and was cancelled. History may not be rhyming but repeating.
Meanwhile, the White House’s National Security and Defense Strategy have specified five major adversaries to be deterred or, if war comes to be, defeated: Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and radical Islamism. Russia responded in kind. The second half of Vladimir Putin’s State of the Federation speech last week was blunt and even hostile. Putin claimed Russia now possesses nuclear weapons invulnerable to American defenses, not that America has many even though the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was revoked by George W. Bush in 2001. The talk of a new “cold war” with Russia is more than just idle chatter.
China’s rearmament with the most advanced technological systems, including fourth and fifth generation aircraft and militarization of tiny islets in the various China Seas, are viewed as real threats along with the DF-21 “aircraft carrier killer missile” designed to destroy surface warships at very long ranges. Likewise, China’s geographic reach is extending to a base in Djibouti and possibly in the Pakistani port of Gwadar. And if there is a trade war, China would not stand aloof from it.
If a vote were taken in Congress, probably all its members would classify Russia as an enemy, which is one reason for the proposed increases in defense spending. Annexation of Crimea; support of Syria’s Bashar al Assad’s murderous regime; and, most blatantly, continuing interference in American politics and elections are other powerful reasons underlying congressional animosity toward Russia. Robert Mueller’s indictments of 13 Russian citizens and three “businesses” for illegal acts and penetration of America’s political process reinforce these perceptions and the need for more painful sanctions against Moscow.
China is not yet defined as an enemy by Congress, but it is fast approaching that point. Theft of intellectual property, dumping of products to increase market share, and unfair government subsidies to make Chinese goods more competitive—not to mention its military’s ever growing capabilities—underscore the building adversarial perceptions toward China.
The president threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” should Kim Jung Un move aggressively against the United States or South Korea. Hints of a “bloody nose” punitive strike against Kim were finally abandoned. How would North Korea know that such an attack was limited? And in any event, it would not retaliate. But war on the peninsula can never be fully discounted, even though it would make little sense and prove catastrophically destructive to both sides of the 38th parallel.
Whether the president decides to void the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or not, Iran’s engagement in the Middle East and the completion of a “Shia belt” running from Iran to Lebanon have greatly increased Tehran’s influence in the region. Supporting the Houthis in Yemen has been a counterbalance to Iran’s arch enemy Saudi Arabia. Further, U.S. military engagement will continue in the region in the battle against the Islamic State (IS).
For many years, the notion of war between super and major powers was inconceivable. But given the harsh rhetoric and war of words with Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, are these harbingers of things to come? Is war between major powers still inconceivable?
Winston Churchill said, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” But we are not jawing. The danger is that words today can become far more damaging than sticks and stones that only break our bones. If the original meaning of war is allowed to dominate policy choices, more than just trade wars are no longer unimaginable.
Harlan Ullman served as Senior Advisor for Supreme Allied Commander Europe for 12 years.