Within months of taking office, President Donald Trump is likely to face one or more major international crises, possibly entailing a risk of nuclear escalation. Not since the end of the Cold War has a new chief executive been confronted with as many potential flashpoints involving such a risk of explosive conflict. This proliferation of crises has been brewing for some time, but the situation appears especially ominous now, given Trump’s pledge to bring American military force swiftly to bear on any threats of foreign transgression. With so much at risk, it’s none too soon to go on a permanent escalation watch, monitoring the major global hot spots for any sign of imminent flare-ups, hoping that early warnings (and the outcry that goes with them) might help avert catastrophe.
Looking at the world today, four areas appear to pose an especially high risk of sudden crisis and conflict: North Korea, the South China Sea, the Baltic Sea region, and the Middle East. Each of them has been the past site of recurring clashes, and all are primed to explode early in the Trump presidency.
Why are we seeing so many potential crises now? Is this period really different from earlier presidential transitions?
It’s true that the changeover from one presidential administration to another can be a time of global uncertainty, given America’s pivotal importance in world affairs and the natural inclination of rival powers to test the mettle of the country’s new leader. There are, however, other factors that make this moment particularly worrisome, including the changing nature of the world order, the personalities of its key leaders, and an ominous shift in military doctrine.
Just as the United States is going through a major political transition, so is the planet at large. The sole-superpower system of the post–Cold War era is finally giving way to a multipolar, if not increasingly fragmented, world in which the United States must share the limelight with other major actors, including China, Russia, India, and Iran. Political scientists remind us that transitional periods can often prove disruptive, as “status quo” powers (in this case, the United States) resist challenges to their dominance from “revisionist” states seeking to alter the global power equation. Typically, this can entail proxy wars and other kinds of sparring over contested areas, as has recently been the case in Syria, the Baltic, and the South China Sea.
This is where the personalities of key leaders enter the equation. Though President Obama oversaw constant warfare, he was temperamentally disinclined to respond with force to every overseas crisis and provocation, fearing involvement in yet more foreign wars like Iraq and Afghanistan. His critics, including Donald Trump, complained bitterly that this stance only encouraged foreign adversaries to up their game, convinced that the United Stateshad lost its will to resist provocation. In a Trump administration, as The Donald indicated on the campaign trail last year, America’s adversaries should expect far tougher responses. Asked in September, for instance, about an incident in the Persian Gulf in which Iranian gunboats approached American warships in a threatening manner, he typically told reporters, “When they circle our beautiful destroyers with their little boats and make gestures that…they shouldn’t be allowed to make, they will be shot out of the water.”