During Donald Trump’s first full year in power, many asked themselves whether the US President’s often grandiose threats on issues ranging from trade to military action were genuine or whether they were merely attempts at calling another side’s bluff. With Trump halfway through his current term in power, the answers to these questions are no longer too mysterious.
One pattern has emerged which makes it clear that when Trump is making a threat he will follow through. This is especially true in matters pertaining to tariffs against a combination of traditional allies, important trading partners and developing economies whose trading impact on US industry had been largely overlooked by most of Trump’s predecessors.
In domestic affairs, Trump has been just as forceful whether in respect of pushing forward with a question on the forthcoming US census that will ask the status of an individual’s citizenship. Previously, Trump called the bluff of his domestic opponents on issues relating to immigration whilst his outspoken criticisms of Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell have clearly got Powell hot under the collar.
One area where to an untrained observer Trump’s approach may seem contradictory is in the field of military engagement. Although Trump made good on promises in 2017 and 2018 to attack Syria, these small and strategically ineffective strikes are exceptions which prove the rule. Trump’s threats to the DPRK were never tested as prior to any such military action, Kim Jong-un instigated in a peace process with Seoul and later with Washington. In Venezuela, the Bolton/Abrams coup has amounted to nought and in respect of Iran, Trump admittedly called of a last minute airstrike strike.
Does this mean that under Trump the United States has gone “soft” on the military front? The clear answer is “no”. Prior to Trump and especially since the end of the Cold War, US military policy tended to be highly reckless whilst attaining no security or even economic benefit to the vast majority of the American people. Because war is bad for business, Trump naturally does not want to fight wasteful wars but at the same time, he does not want to fight embarrassing wars either. Interestingly, the most profoundly embarrassing war since America’s decision to enter Vietnam was the comparatively recent (and in many ways ongoing) war in Iraq.
Because the Iraq war is universally acknowledged as a failure by everyone except the most fanatically minded, Trump has decided that rather than attempt to fight traditional wars with little purpose, that it is instead far better to either ignore small issues and non-issues abroad or otherwise threaten total annihilation against a country with which the US has a dispute. As such, Trump’s threats of “fire and fury” have prevented the breakout of Iraq style wars in the same way that during the cold war, the supreme nuclear firepower of both the US and USSR prevented direct military engagement between the two military superpowers.
Thus, it would be wrong to say that Trump is bluffing when it comes to his threats of war against countries like Iran. The difference is that Trump seems generally content to frighten countries into negotiation rather than risking an immediate war that could potentially take hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives.
Beyond this, Trump’s acknowledgement of a military-industrial complex in his country (the first president to do so since Eisenhower coined the term) and his opposition to its extreme penchant for endless wars does appear to be a genuine stance on his part. This is why many serving personnel and ordinary people alike feel that Trump’s ability to threaten nations with America’s heavy fire power is assuring whilst his unwillingness to use this firepower in capricious situations is wise.
But apart from military situations, Trump is certainly not afraid to push the proverbial red button. Whilst trade wars, sanction wars and domestic political wars aren’t particularly relaxing, unless innocent people are going to die, Trump is not one to show mercy but he is likewise one who is willing to negotiate in situations that many of his predecessors might have dismissed as “useless” or “impossible”.
By contrast, Trump is the kind of person to take chances on a two way street. He’ll be the first to threaten and more often than not he will make good on his threats. However, he’s also the first person to be willing to make the phone calls that his predecessors felt were perversely more difficult to make than a decision to start a war.