Why Trump’s America First Policy Increases the Likelihood of War
The idea that war is a central plank in Trump's America First policy does not rest on his belligerent rhetoric says Carol Turner
One of the clearest aspects of Trump’s policy to emerge in 2018 has been the increased use of military threats as an instrument of US foreign policy. That’s one of the strong reasons why Stop the War is at the forefront of organising the protests which will mark Donald Trump’s visit to the UK.
The arrival of John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, National Ssecurity Adviser and Secretary of State respectively – both hawks – appears to confirm this, and also to indicate that chaos in the White House during Trump’s first year in office is starting to settle.
Trump is not the first presidential cave man to think a bigger gun and louder voice will win the day. But the idea that war is a central plank in Trump's America First policy does not rest on his belligerent rhetoric – which is almost always designed to please his electoral base.
The growing danger of war, including the possibility of nuclear confrontation, is not mere speculation. It is borne out by the publication of the US National Security Strategy (NSS) in December 2017, and confirmed by the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) published in February this year.
Trump has made clear he's willing to adopt a nuclear first strike policy. This represents continuity with US policy. Successive presidents before him, Republican and Democrat alike, have signed up to it, and so has NATO.
But what is new this time round is the expansion of the circumstances under which the US would consider using nuclear weapons. The NSS suggests that the use of US nuclear weapons might be threatened to prevent ‘non-nuclear strategic attacks and large-scale conventional aggression’.
Technological developments have opened the way to producing ‘smaller’ and more precisely targeted weapons of all sorts. In the case of nuclear weapons, these developments reintroduce notions of conducting a ‘winnable’ nuclear war fought across a restricted ‘theatre’ battleground. Korea springs to mind; indeed there are multiple references to Korea in both documents.
The NPR elaborates on this theme. It reiterates that the circumstances in which the use of nuclear weapons will be contemplated include conventional conflicts. It also affirms plans to develop new types of nuclear weapons. One of these is a so-called ‘low-yeild’ version of the Trident D5 warhead, which is part of Britain’s nuclear weapons system.
It should be borne firmly in mind that the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 fall into the misleading category of low-yield nuclear weapons. At a conservative estimate they killed around 250,000 people.
Trump’s decision unilaterally to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), together with the on-going crisis on the Korean Peninsula are real time illustrations of this more belligerent approach to foreign policy by the US.
It will take some time for the dust to settle on the Korean denuclearisation talks that have just taken place and for the content of back-channel discussions to emerge. In my view, however, the apparent success of the talks so far does not contradict the line of US march described above.
And by the way, a strong case can be made that Trump’s return to the negotiating table was the result of the impressive Winter Olympics initiative by President Moon of South Korea and the equally adept response of President Kim’s sister during the games. This pushed Trump onto the back foot, and has helped break North Korea’s international isolation.
Throughout his campaign and during his presidency, Trump has stressed the centrality of an America First policy. The term was first used in the 1990s.
In March 1992, three months after the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union, the International Herald Tribune carried a detailed report of a leaked Pentagon strategy document which asserted that ‘the US political and military mission in the post-cold war era will be to ensure that no rival superpower is allowed to emerge in Western Europe, Asia, or the territory of the former Soviet Union.’
America’s mission would be, in the words of the Pentagon: ‘convincing potential competitors that they need not aspire to a greater role or pursue a more aggressive posture to protect their legitimate interests’. The document made the case for a world dominated by one superpower with sufficient military might to deter any nation or group of nations from challenging US primacy.
This is the meaning of Trump’s America First policy. It is why war plays a central role in US foreign policy today, and why nuclear weapons are at the heart of Pentagon policy.