I was asked on the radio about whether Trump was a peaceful President--no new wars. Trump did make noises about trying to end US involvement in a number of wars and has reduced troop levels in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. So, there's something to it. But I argued mostly that the "less new wars" was something that happened more by luck. How so?
Remember all the way back to the beginning of .... 2020. Yes, feels like five years ago. Drone-striking Iranian senior leader Qasem Soleimani in Iraq lead to a series of moves which produced an air-strike that was called back at the last minute. Yes, the US was very close to a shooting war with Iran. True, Trump stopped it at the last second, but we got that close because Trump's policy of amping up tensions with Iran. Rather than live by the nuclear deal, the Trump Administration not only pulled out of the deal but engaged in a series of moves-- "Maximum Pressure"-- to push Iran into a corner. None of this worked to cow Iran. This was not the first attempt to bring back ye olde Kaiser Wilhelm's risk theory--be a bully.
Remember all the way back to 2018 and the situation on the Korean peninsula? I do because was planning to go to South Korea to do research, and I wondered if I would be in the middle of a war. Trump was not only escalating the rhetoric with Kim Jong Un but the various exercises and flybys. I don't know if they knew exactly where the line was for the North Koreans between an American exercise and an American first strike, but I felt that things were getting close. Then, Trump had his moment where he offered to have a peace summit. Which did stop the escalation. Did it stop the North Korean nuclear weapons and missile programs? Nope.
Speaking of which, has the effort to corner Iran been more effective at restricting the Iranians from developing nuclear weapons than the JCPOA? Nope.
While Trump did not enlarge the number of countries the US is bombing, he did allow the intensity of those bombing campaigns to increase. Trump didn't like being held responsible for US military activity, learning from a failed raid in Yemen in his first month that he prefers to let the generals make the mistakes and then own them. Well, one of the old maxims of military attitudes is that the US military does not want any new wars but tends to prefer to escalate the ones they are in, and that is what they did.
But at least he has been tougher on China, right? In terms of trade war, sure. In terms of building an alliance of countries to counter Chinese moves? No. Trump's threats to pull out of South Korea and Japan if they don't pay more for American bases in those countries have weakened American credibility. While most of the blame for tensions between South Korea and Japan goes to those two countries, the US has not managed that relationship. Instead, the dalliances with Kim Jong Un and the focus on the costs of bases have done much to exacerbate the always problematic relationship between the two American allies in the region. Oh, and China? Its leaders think that Trump is a paper tiger--that he makes threats that he will not back up. Either they are right, and this encourages them to engage in more aggressive behavior. Or they are wrong and it produces a crisis that might escalate. Either way, not good. I wonder if China's coercion towards Canada would have happened had China been more certain about American support for its ally.
Russia? Yes, the US sent more troops to Poland as part of a reassurance initiative. Yet how reassured was the entire region every time Trump focused on his misunderstanding of how NATO works and how much countries owe the US for back payments rather than how to work together to deter Russia?
I have constantly referred to Trump as an Uncertainty Engine. He raised doubts about American commitments to allies, he blew hot and cold in his relationships with Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping, he pandered to Putin. All of this created uncertainty. And uncertainty is seen by most scholars of international relations as a bad thing. Why? Wars tend to start due to miscalculations about the intent of possible third parties. The US has helped to maintain much peace and stability in Europe and Asia for much of the cold war by providing certainty. When there was doubt about the American commitment to South Korea, North Korea invaded in 1950. The repeated crises over Berlin during the Cold War was all about testing American commitment.
So, was Trump good or lucky? He was very lucky. Plus he sold out US interests without countries having to coerce the US. The adversaries could get what they want without war and without worrying too much about an American response. Did Trump do anything right on foreign policy? A group of friends came up with a list of things Biden should keep doing, but it was a short list. The un-do list is going to be far, far longer, but that is a post for another day.