Sleepless in the Age of Trump

What we know about how great power wars start should make us terrified of President Trump.

I don’t sleep at night, because of Donald Trump. This is unusual. I wasn’t kept awake at night by George W. Bush or Bill Clinton. Nor do I lose sleep over hot-blooded authoritarians such as Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un or Turkey’s Erdogan.

Donald Trump. Pete Linforth / CC 0 Public Domain / Pixabay

Why? The reason I’m being kept awake – for the first time in my life – by, and am terrified of, a democratically elected politician is simple: given that wars between superpowers are often caused by unpredictability and miscalculation, the danger of nuclear war will most likely increase significantly under President Trump.

At this point many, perhaps particularly on the left, will object that Hillary Clinton would have posed a greater threat to world peace than Trump. She would have taken a hard line with Russia; probably boosted NATO forces in Europe; imposed a no-fly zone over Syria; and been hawkish in the Middle East. As Trump’s election campaign, Russian propagandists, and far left-wing critics of Clinton were prone to claim, Clinton’s foreign policy would have started World War III. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t have lost much sleep over a President Hillary Clinton, but Trump’s presidency scares me to death.

The reason is simple, and is based on one of the leading explanations for how wars start, namely what conflict researchers call bargaining theory. The starting point for this theory is the simple fact that no state has a fundamental interest in solving disagreements through the use of armed force. This is because the goods that wars are fought over – for example, territories, forms of government, natural resources or influence – in principle almost always can be distributed through peaceful negotiations that are less costly for both parties than armed conflict. Negotiations do not cost human lives and require only trivial material investment. In contrast, armed conflicts cause huge numbers of deaths, destroy assets, and cause deep scars in the populations they affect. In other words, peaceful negotiations are cheap, while war is extremely expensive.

In short, bargaining theory claims that the outcomes of armed conflict can be achieved through peaceful negotiations, without going down the road of an expensive armed conflict. If each party can communicate in a trustworthy manner its own military strength and how much it is willing to sacrifice in a possible armed conflict, the parties may reach a settlement that reflects both their relative military strengths and the respective intensity of their desires for their objectives without wasting a single bullet.

If armed conflict is expensive and negotiations are cheap, it becomes a mystery why wars actually occur. Why do bloody conflicts nevertheless continue to haunt mankind? In his now legendary research paper “Rationalist Explanations for War” (1995), James Fearon, an American political scientist at Stanford University, presents an elegant answer: wars are caused by uncertainty and miscalculation. Although two parties who are in conflict may as a starting point have an interest in negotiating, it may be difficult for each party to signal – in a trustworthy manner – its own military strength, how much it is willing to sacrifice in a potential military conflict, and the extent to which it is willing in any event to back up its demands with force. We find this kind of war-inducing uncertainty in a number of cases where war has broken out throughout world history. For example, Hitler probably miscalculated the willingness of Great Britain and France to go to war in 1939, while the German Kaiser made the same mistake with regard to Russia and Great Britain in 1914. The Korean War is a particularly acute example: North Korea did not believe that the United States would be willing to go to war to defend South Korea, while the United States miscalculated China’s willingness to get involved in the same conflict.

In addition to explaining such well-known historical examples, bargaining theory is a powerful explanatory tool in peace research. It has been promoted as the explanation for a number of familiar patterns in international politics, including the fact that war is more unusual between democracies; that international organizations contribute to peace; that states devote enormous resources to deterring their enemies; that the longest-lasting and most deadly conflicts are the most difficult to predict; and that alliances very often involve more than mere formal guarantees.

It is precisely in light of this dominant explanation of why wars start that Trump’s presidency is so worrying. If there is one thing that will characterize the relationship of the United States with other world powers under President Trump it will be unpredictability, lack of credible guarantees and general uncertainty: precisely the factors that increase the risk of war breaking out.

Let us take NATO as an example: Trump has not credibly signalled that he would come to the aid of NATO countries in Eastern Europe in the event of Russian aggression, nor has he indicated how he would react to Russian military incursions in general. Nor is it probable that this uncertainty will disappear as the Trump administration settles in. Trump’s opinions seem to shift with the time of day, as is exemplified by his frequent and often contradictory outbursts on Twitter.

The uncertainty surrounding the Trump administration is strengthened by what appears to be a deep internal disagreement about relations with Russia. While Trump himself seems to have a positive attitude to Putin and drops hints about cooperation and a downgrading of the United States’ NATO guarantees, there are powerful forces within the administration that take a diametrically opposite line. For example, Trump’s pick for Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, recently declared that Russia’s goal is to undermine NATO, and that the United States will be unequivocal in guaranteeing the security of NATO members in Eastern Europe. Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, made similar comments in his Senate hearing. Since Trump emits contrary signals, this may create a dangerous state of uncertainty in the relationship between Russia and the United States: uncertainty of precisely the kind that could cause a war between the superpowers.

While a Clinton administration would have indicated unequivocally what interests it would have been willing to defend, and supported those guarantees with credible self-imposed obligations – such as “trip wires” in the form of American troops in vital NATO countries combined with unequivocal rhetoric from the Clinton camp – it is very unclear how Trump would react to a Russian advance. What could happen is the classic war scenario as described in bargaining theory, namely that Russia may miscalculate and believe that the United States will not react militarily to something that in fact does provoke a military response. A not improbable chain of events might be that Russia interprets signals from the Trump administration to mean that America will not respond militarily to a Russian advance in the Baltics, while in fact the Trump administration turn out to be willing to intervene. In such a scenario, it is easy to envisage a course of events that could escalate to total war: the worst imaginable outcome.

In light of bargaining theory, there is good reason to say that Trump’s presidency will be one of the most dangerous in world history. Although American presidents have stood on the edge of the abyss before, like Kennedy during the Cuba crisis, it is not controversial to say that they all saw the value of a keeping a consistent line with Russia, regardless of whether this was in fact justified. There is little to suggest that President Trump shares this crucial insight.

The “folk theories” about why wars start, that so often figure in political debate, put the causes of war in vague concepts such as “provocation” and “enmity”. From these perspectives, it is perhaps true that Hillary Clinton would have posed a greater threat to world peace than Donald Trump. These folk theories however, are not very productive and hold little explanatory force. While words such as “provocation” (see e.g. NATO’s expansion eastwards) are good descriptions of patterns of behaviour that coincide with war, they are seldom form part of good explanations of why wars start. States are not irrational emotional persons, but strategically calculating organizations (even North Korea seems to fit this description). Given one of the most productive explanations for why wars start, namely bargaining theory, we should prefer a consistent hawk like Hillary Clinton to an inconsistent and unpredictable charlatan like Donald Trump, if we want a peaceful world.

In the wake of Trump’s election victory there are several questions that should be high on the agenda: How could the American left lose so much ground to right-wing populism? What is the outlook for democracy under Trump? How can the left reach out to the people who voted for Obama in 2012 and then for Trump in 2016? All these questions, however, are overshadowed by the slightly alarmist, but nonetheless completely realistic, and deeply existential problem that keeps me and several other peace researchers awake at night: Given what we know about how wars start, how confident can we be about peace between the superpowers during the next four years?

  • Tore Wig is a Post-doctoral fellow at the Department of Political Science, University of Oslo
  • This text was first published in Norwegian by Klassekampen 21 January 2017: ‘Søvnløs i Trumps tidsalder’.
  • Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext
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