Upon entering the White House, Donald Trump’s governing blueprint was clear: to force through conservative priorities on domestic issues—immigration, health care, tax reform, environmental regulation, and so forth—while avoiding major crises abroad. Although Trump had made no secret of his admiration for the US military during the campaign, he insisted that achieving progress (as he saw it) on domestic issues took precedence over confronting Russia over Ukraine, or China over the South China Sea. But now, with his domestic program a shambles and the White House under investigation by federal prosecutors, it appears that Trump and his allies are shifting the pendulum in the opposite direction, away from an exclusive focus on domestic issues and toward a more bellicose stance abroad. Such a shift is sure to win favor among Congressional hawks of both parties, while distracting the media and the public from Trump’s domestic woes. It also entails enormous risk, as Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are also flexing their military muscles—making any confrontation in Europe or Asia the possible spark for a major conflict.
The administration’s aggressive new stance has been brewing for some time, but became blatantly evident on August 8, when President Trump blurted out his apocalyptic warning to Kim Jong-un of North Korea, saying his regime had best cease its nuclear and missile threats against the United State or “they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Although Trump left unsaid what he meant by those remarks, he clearly envisioned military action on a very large scale, possibly including the use of nuclear weapons.
While other administration officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, insist that a negotiated resolution to the Korea crisis is still conceivable, Trump’s military aides report that preparations for military action against the North are well advanced. Asked by reporters on August 5 if the administration was preparing for a “preventative war” against North Korea, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster responded, “The president has been very clear that he’s not going to tolerate North Korea being able to threaten the US…. So of course we have to provide all options to do that, and that includes a military option.”
No doubt discussion of North Korea and possible US military “options” will dominate the airwaves in the coming days and weeks. But it is important to recognize that the Trump administration is also turning up the heat in its relations with other potential adversaries, including Russia, China, and Iran.
Regarding Russia, this increased belligerency was most evident during Vice President Mike Pence’s recent visit to Estonia, Montenegro, and the Republic of Georgia. Although not well covered by the US media, Pence’s trip to these three small states on Russia’s periphery marked a turning point in the administration’s stance on Russia, NATO, and the role of military force. Whereas Trump had dismissed NATO as “obsolete” during the campaign and expressed doubts as to whether the United States would defend Estonia and the other Baltic states in the event of attack by Russia, Pence denounced Russia in unusually harsh terms and endorsed efforts undertaken by the Obama administration to bolster NATO defenses in the region.
“No threat looms larger in the Baltic States than the specter of aggression from your unpredictable neighbor to the east,” he declared in Tallinn, Estonia, on July 31. “At this very moment, Russia continues to seek to redraw international borders by force, undermine the democracies of sovereign nations, and divide the free nations of Europe one against another.” In response, he asserted, the Trump administration will do whatever is necessary to protect the Baltics and other threatened nations against Russian aggression. “The United States rejects any attempt to use force, threats, intimidation, or malign influence in the Baltic States or against any of our treaty allies.”