Trump and the Consequences of Radical Uncertainty

Donald Trump and Mike Pence. By Ali Shaker/VOA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On Tuesday night, the unthinkable happened. The most urgent task now is to think about what other previously unthinkable things might follow from Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States. There has already been much discussion about whether Trump will turn out to be a less radical president than he suggested during the election campaign — either because he never actually believed all the things he said, or because he will appoint and listen to more sensible advisers, or because he will be constrained by the bureaucracy or the checks and balances in the U.S. political system. In reality, just as we still don’t know whether we will get a “hard” or “soft” Brexit, we don’t yet know whether we will get a “hard” or “soft” Trump presidency.

However, regardless of how radical President Trump turns out in reality to be, the uncertainty created by his election will have consequences of its own that could itself lead to the unraveling of the liberal international order that has evolved over the last 70 years. Given the tendency towards complacency among Western elites, even after the shock of the British vote to leave the European Union in June, it seems to me that we should no longer take for granted almost anything about the world we live in. Is it possible, as the Indian analyst Ashok Malik recently suggested, that international politics may now be returning to “normality” — that is, the way it was for centuries — after what will turn out to be an exceptional period of cooperation after 1945?

In order to answer this question, we should put aside our assumptions about the way the world is (as opposed to the way we want it to be) and think as objectively as is possible about what dangers it might now face. It seems to me there are three levels of danger that we should distinguish. It’s not yet clear to me which of the three are real — or even, given our inability to predict recent shocks, how we should think about which of them are real. But perhaps distinguishing and describing them, even at the risk of being accused of being hyperbolic, will help us to understand where we now are – and what is now at stake.

First, there is a real danger of trade wars. Trump’s thinking on trade breaks with 200 years of economic orthodoxy. He has promised to repeal the North American Free Trade Agreement and to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership and even threatened to leave the World Trade Organization altogether. He has said that, on day one of his presidency, he would declare China a currency manipulator and impose tariffs. It may be that Trump does not go through with much of this. For example, Dani Rodrik has argued that while Trump may erect some trade barriers, he will not “engage in indiscriminate protectionism.” “He will understand soon, if he does not now, the senselessness of blanket protectionism.” We will see whether this turns out to be correct — or simply another example of complacency.

Second, there is a danger of conventional military conflicts. Trump has threatened to respond aggressively to challengesto American power - such as those from Iran naval vessels in the Gulf. As Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution put it, “If you literally implement his [campaign’s] security policy, you’re probably risking war in multiple theaters simultaneously.” Again, some analysts say that Trump will not follow through on his campaign rhetoric. Some say his limited attention will be on domestic issues and he will delegate foreign policy to others in his cabinet. We simply don’t yet know. But we should not make the mistake of assuming that the United States is the only actor in international politics that matters. Instead — and unlike on trade policy — it is likely is that other actors will respond to the radical uncertainty created by Trump’s election.

In particular, China and Russia are likely to test the new U.S. president. Even before his election, against the background of a widespread perception of American decline and retrenchment, they were “probing the peripheries” of American power. Now, they are likely to go much further — and perhaps rather quickly. In short, the demands on the United States to demonstrate “credibility” will increase at a moment at which the ability and willingness of the United States to do so is dramatically reduced. Trump has called NATO “obsolete” and refused to commit to defending U.S allies. Given this uncertainty, countries that have depended on U.S. power for their security and to balance against perceived threats from regional powers are also likely to take action. This could itself lead to military conflicts.

This brings us to the third and scariest danger: nuclear proliferation. Trump has promised to tear up the Iran deal negotiated by President Barack Obama (“the worst deal ever negotiated” in Trump’s words), which could lead immediately to proliferation in the Middle East. Moreover, it is no longer clear that the U.S. nuclear deterrent is credible elsewhere in the world. In particular Japan — which, as Tom Wright has shown, Trump has been particularly critical of — will wonder whether it can still rely on the U.S. nuclear deterrent. This new danger of proliferation takes place at a time when Russia has made nuclear blackmail a part of their strategy. In short, we should perhaps even think about whether there is now, suddenly, a real risk of a nuclear conflict.

This article was originally published on November 10, 2016 as part of the German Marshall Fund's Transatlantic Take Series.