- Experts say President Donald Trump’s recent Cabinet moves reveal that he’s more confident, sick of conventional wisdom, and will now go with his gut.
- Trump’s instincts seem to call for outright war or trade war with multiple countries.
- With Trump’s Cabinet now stocked with hawks, the US doesn’t lack for credibility when it comes to threats of military action.
President Donald Trump announced on Thursday that he would replace his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, a noted hawk, with the even more hawkish former US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton.
Just one week earlier, he replaced Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
“With Pompeo and Bolton, Trump will have two new members of his team who share his hawkish take on foreign policy,” the Atlantic Council wrote in response to the recent moves.
Across the board, experts seem to agree that Trump now feels empowered to free himself from the conventional wisdom that tempered his instincts throughout his first year in office – and is ready to shoot from the hip.
Trump is “sick and tired of people who work for him resisting his policy agenda,” Andy Surabian, a former special assistant to Trump and deputy White House strategist, previously told Business Insider.
Trump’s staff moves show he is “increasingly confident in his own judgment, irritated at being corralled for traditional (=sensible) policies by nat sec team,” Institute of International Strategic Studies Deputy Director Kori Schake tweeted. Trump, she continued, now intends “to carry out his campaign promises.”
“Buckle up,” she said, “it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
Kelly Magsamen, the vice president of the National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress, tweeted that combining Pompeo and Bolton would be like “putting gasoline on the Trump dumpster fire.” She added: “Make no mistake: this is the makings of a war cabinet.”
Trade war, outright war now a real possibility with China
While confrontations stemming from nuclear tensions with North Korea and Iran have loomed for some time, Trump’s personal instinct drives him toward picking a fight with the world’s most populous nation and second-largest economy: China.
Trump’s recent moves on tariffs, which helped cause his top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, to leave the White House, has strengthened fears of a trade war.
But another Trump instinct, reaching out to Taiwan, the most sensitive issue for Beijing, just got another major boost. Trump recently signed the Taiwan Travel Act, legislation to permit high-level talks between US and Taiwanese officials, something China called a “red line.”
“We must strike back against Washington’s implementation of the Taiwan Travel Act,” an editorial in the Chinese state-run media said of the bill.
And, unlike advisers past, don’t expect Bolton to hold Trump back from going after China.
“Bolton has long supported regime change in North Korea and closer ties with Taiwan. Fasten your seat belts,” Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the South China Morning Post.
Pressuring China had been a central pillar of Trump’s campaign and platform for years. Before even taking office, Trump accepted a phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ying Wen, breaking with decades of tradition and outraging China.
Experts seem to think Trump’s instinct to rile China will remain – and could bring about conflicts that were previously unimaginable.
“We should also expect an even more confrontational approach to China – a trade war may just be the beginning of a broader geopolitical competition,” Abraham Denmark, a deputy assistant secretary of defence for East Asia under President Barack Obama, told SCMP.
Iran, North Korea hawks to the forefront
Among Trump’s campaign promises was reworking the Iran nuclear deal, something his new adviser Bolton not only supports but actually exceeds in hawkishness by advocating military strikes on the country.
“President Trump made this move to bring on a more like-minded adviser. This means the constraints keeping US foreign policy toward the mainstream are now greatly loosened. Buckle up: US foreign and national security policy are about to get far more assertive,” wrote Barry Pavel, the senior vice president, Arnold Kanter chair, and director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council.
Similarly, Trump is set to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by May, but Bolton has already said such talks will be “fruitless” and has written an article making a legal case for bombing North Korea.
Peace through strength?
One of McMaster’s core beliefs, as expressed through his writing and speeches, was that the US had lost credibility in the world stage because hostile actors like Iran and North Korea no longer believed the US would initiate military action unless it was struck first.
Iran has funded terrorist groups and anti-US and anti-Israeli militias across the Middle East. It has harassed the US Navy and sought to undermine US foreign policy at every pass. North Korea is accused of exporting goods to bolster Syria’s chemical and nascent nuclear weapons programs while imprisoning US citizens and killing South Koreans. China has contravened international law by building and militarizing islands in the South China Sea – all without a strong US response.
It’s worthwhile to note that McMaster himself wasn’t short on hawkishness, as he was often reported to be pushing for some kind of limited military strike on North Korea.
“With a national security team of Trump, Bolton, Pompeo, and Mattis, America will not have a credibility problem when it comes to threats to use military force,” said Matthew Kroenig, the deputy director in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. (James Mattis, the US defence secretary, is a retired Marine Corps general.)
With the US’s uppermost professionals of foreign and military policy all seemingly in line with Trump’s hawkish thinking, it looks as if his instincts will now take center stage.