Struggling to Signal: Trump’s Dilemma with Arms Control Diplomacy: 18th April 2017

Some believe the world is a safer place with Trump in the White House. In a recent RUSI brief, Dr Peter Roberts offered the view that Trump’s unpredictability, shown most recently by his Tomahawk cruise missile attack on Syria’s air base, ‘might cause many states to defer more aggressive actions against internationally acceptable normative behaviour.’ But this view is problematic, because the last two weeks have been marked by volatility and two remarkable volte-faces in US diplomacy. More than indicating the strength of any emerging ‘Trump Doctrine’, they have highlighted the danger of misreading a President who values unpredictability.

If Trump was indeed drawing a red line, he should have drawn it pre-emptively not reactively. When President Obama was weighing up the options in response to the far larger and more extensive chemical weapons attack in August 2013 Donald Trump strongly urged restraint. This latest strike has failed to uphold US credibility: it was the antithesis of Trump’s stated policy of the day.

Responding to Chemical Weapons

First, on 6th April, Trump ordered the launch of 59 cruise missiles at the Al Shayrat Air Force Base in Syria in response to a sarin gas attack by the Assad regime. Yet, only days before the White House was indicating that Assad was part of the solution in Syria. As recently as 31st March White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer asserted the US accepted the ‘political reality’ of Assad’s grip on power, echoing US Ambassador to the UN Nicky Haley’s comment that ‘our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out’ and Trump’s justification that at least Assad was fighting ISIS.

Second, Trump announced that NATO was ‘no longer obsolete’ and that relations with Russia were ‘at an all-time low’ in a joint press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. This followed Russia’s condemnation of the US airstrikes, its threats to pull-out of a military hotline and veto of a UN Security Resolution that would allow chemical weapons inspectors access to Syria.

This heightened tension sits upon the crisis in Ukraine, a build-up of NATO and Russian military in Eastern Europe, allegations of Russian meddling in elections. So much for US – Russia strategic cooperation touted by Candidate and President-elect Trump.

Struggling to Signal

This reflects a wider problem within the Trump Administration: an inability to clearly communicate and meaningfully signal policy. Indeed, ahead of last week’s meeting with Secretary of State Tillerson, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov lamented the Trump Administration’s ‘confusing and sometimes openly contradictory ideas on the entire range of bilateral and international issues.’

Many have commented that the problem is a lack of US policy; the United States does not know where its strategic interests lie. Yet this is not strictly the case – at least in the terms of nuclear policy and strategic security with Russia and Europe. As I have previously argued, Trump’s nuclear policy is similar to previous Republican administrations, yet with an amplified focus on Russia and a dangerous approach to nuclear signalling. For two months now the Pentagon, largely driving US foreign policy, has identified Russia as the ‘greatest challenge’ to US security and has praised the importance of NATO.

Yet Trump is continually misread as he continues to act capriciously, an alarming situation given the involvement of nuclear weapons. The purposeful introduction of uncertainty into US-Russian relations is highly dangerous; it undermines a fragile regime built on credibility, mutual trust and reciprocity. As Geoff Wilson has commented, miscommunication over actions in Syria or elsewhere could result in the United States and Russia ‘sleepwalking’ towards nuclear war, in scenes reminiscent of Europe in 1914 when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated.

One sees this miscommunication all through Trump’s foreign policy. Trump has said he will ‘properly deal with North Korea’ and has deployed a strike group to the region. But beyond attempting to deter through a show of force, he has failed to communicate potential diplomatic or realistic military solutions.

Conflict with Russia

In Europe, two conflicts with Russia come to mind.

First, arms control. Trump has publicly decried New START as a ‘bad deal’ and supposedly rebuffed Putin’s attempt to extend the deal to 2026, despite the Pentagon’s positive appraisal. At the same time the United States has accused Russia of violating the INF Treaty while declining to release the information to European allies backing up this claim.

Second, US strategic commitment to NATO. The potential for rapprochement between the United States and Russia as a result of personal connection between Putin and Trump has been continually overstated. Trump’s attempts to force greater defence spending upon allies through veiled threats has only damaged faith in the Alliance, and confidence is its greatest asset. One can easily envisage a scenario in which US commitment to NATO is tested in the context of low level conflict in Ukraine. And because of previous miscommunication, conflict rapidly escalates between Russia and the United States.

The last week has certainly proven that Trump is capable of using military force. Yet it has seriously cast doubt on his ability to successfully integrate this into a diplomatic strategy and meaningfully communicate this to his adversaries and allies.

Dispatches on the Washington Nuclear Front Line are published fortnightly. The last dispatch is available here: US and the INF Treaty: Testing NATO: 3rd April 2017

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