Donald Trump’s presidency is raising the risk of violent conflict among the world’s great powers
U.S. President Donald Trump has adopted a radically different approach to international diplomacy that’s confounding allies and adversaries alike. Aisha Ahmad, a U of T professor of political science specializing in international security and director of the Islam and Global Affairs Initiative at the Munk School, spoke recently with U of T Magazine editor Scott Anderson on why this should have us all concerned.
What’s the main difference between international security now and three months ago?
Our international system is based on predictability and on patterns of cooperation that have existed for decades. Introducing high levels of uncertainty and unpredictability, as the Trump administration has done, creates danger and increases the potential for violent conflict among the great powers. Trump is deliberately and actively using mixed messages to provoke and confuse both allies and adversaries. Potential international security crises are emerging much more rapidly than anyone predicted because the Trump administration has been so reckless in its international relations.
What is the biggest risk facing the world right now?
Conflict in East Asia – precisely because of these erratic, mixed signals. During his campaign, Trump said that Japan and South Korea may need to acquire their own nuclear weapons. This signalled to America’s allies in East Asia that its commitments to them were weakening. Trump then took a call from the Taiwanese president, which broke from decades of diplomatic protocol, and implicitly threatened Chinese territorial integrity while at the same time undermining the Americans’ strategic position in the region.
This was followed by a dramatic about-face. Within weeks, Trump backed off on Taiwan, showing the Chinese he could be cowed. He switched his tone with Japan, saying the alliance would be honoured. (He also discussed high-level security secrets concerning North Korea with the Japanese Prime Minister over dinner at a golf resort, within earshot of civilian bystanders.) Even more disconcerting, Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, has said he thinks a conflict with China is inevitable, which is an incredibly dangerous attitude to have toward a rising great power. If this unprofessional engagement continues, and if China responds to this erratic policymaking with increasing aggression, these sparks could turn into World War Three.
President Trump’s possible relationship with Russia is one of the most serious national security issues facing the United States. Russia aims to bully NATO and American allies in its regional neighbourhood. The sudden resignation of General Michael Flynn has opened up serious questions about the pervasiveness of a secret and possibly treasonous Russian scandal within the new administration. As evidence of Russian influence over the Trump administration mounts, the Americans are also faltering in their response to the crisis taking place in Eastern Europe.
After Trump’s election, Russia increased its aggressive actions in Ukraine, trusting that the new Trump government would allow this aggression. This weak American response has signalled to Russia that the American position in Eastern Europe is faltering, and that NATO, which has taken a strong stance in Eastern Europe in the past, may not have the same degree of influence in the future. The re-establishment of Russian influence across Eastern Europe and Central Asia remains a dominant goal of the Kremlin. Yet NATO allies are working hard to keep alliance commitments firm. Once again, mixed and confusing signals are incredibly dangerous in international relations, and can lead to a major conflict among the great powers.
What about the Middle East, a long-time hotspot?
The Iran nuclear deal negotiated under the Obama administration was a huge success that successfully contained Iran’s nuclear program and put it on a path to co-operation with the international community. All of this is being undone with Trump’s aggressive action towards Iran. I don’t think Iran is going to be a flashpoint for a world war, but I do think it is a key part of the escalation that is taking place in the Middle East. Iran is a regional giant, and how the U.S. engages with it will have serious repercussions for Iraq, Syria and beyond.
How does the potential for global conflict now compare to what happened in the aftermath of 9/11, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
There are millions of people whose lives have been profoundly affected by these wars and I don’t want to minimize their suffering. I have worked in these troubled places and have deep empathy for people living in civil wars. However, as much as these conflicts might shock our moral sensibility, the threat of a great-power confrontation is astronomically more dangerous to the world.
What role do you see Trump’s tweets playing in international diplomacy?
Can you imagine if Kennedy and Khrushchev had communicated on Twitter during the Cuban Missile Crisis? That we have to analyze the ravings of the President of the United States, who seems to be drunk-texting his policy positions to the world at 3 a.m., is unprecedented. No theory or logic can be applied to this behaviour. In the best-case scenario, other world leaders will learn how to circumvent this, perhaps by engaging with diplomats at the State Department and others within the administration they deem to be rational. We cannot wholly discount the president’s tweets, however, because they come from the commander-in-chief of the world’s largest military.
Besides the Trump presidency, what other developments are raising concerns for international security?
We’re seeing an erosion of the liberal international order and the rise of extreme right-wing, ethnic nationalist parties in Western democracies. These parties reject multilateral institutions, such as the European Union, that have been built in the post Second World War era. These multilateral institutions didn’t just increase global economic cooperation; they helped keep the peace. Obviously, there are still many who believe in freedom, equality, and justice, but we can’t ignore the neo-Nazi ideology emerging in parts of the world that were once defined by their opposition to Nazi ideas.
What should Canada do in response?
Canada has the world’s largest undefended border with the United States, our primary trading partner. So we are in a precarious situation. We cannot disentangle ourselves from this relationship. And yet the values espoused by our current federal government are diametrically opposed to those stated by the Trump administration, especially on immigration, refugees, racial and religious toleration, multilateralism in international affairs and free trade.
Many Canadians may feel that the government has not been strong enough in its opposition to Trump. But Ottawa needs to walk a tightrope to ensure that what has so far been a very aggressive and reckless type of American foreign policy doesn’t turn towards Canada in a way that would harm our national interest. At the same time, I don’t believe that our government should compromise our values. We don’t have to be completely silent on them. Justin Trudeau handled his first meeting in Washington by masterfully walking this tightrope.
When you look around the world right now, do you see any bright spots?
The hope is that people are “woke.” Every single person I know who specializes in East Asian security is working around the clock to make sure that the communications channels are open – so that even if American influence declines, the Japanese and the Chinese can find a way to talk to each other and avoid a crisis that could drag neighbouring countries and the world into a state of war.
Universities are also a place of great hope because we put forth truth in an age of disinformation. We refuse to accept the “Bowling Green Massacre” as an “alternative fact.” We demand that information be held to a higher standard. We educate legions of students to go out into the world and discern truth from falsehood, and who can understand how the international system works.
Finally, there are the people who have marched in the streets, who are giving pro bono legal advice to people caught in the travel ban, and who have showed tremendous intellectual, scholarly and policy leadership at this critical time. These voices are the hope.