When a head of state, particularly the leader of a great power, is confronted with the task of rebuilding credibility after having suffered through a historic and humiliating display of weakness at a high-profile Summit meeting, that leader must be careful to avoid words or actions that evince further evidence of weakness or reinforce perceptions of weakness. Instead, that leader must pursue a patient and disciplined course over which his credibility can gradually be restored. In many cases, leaders have sufficient time to repair the damage and reverse damaging perceptions that follow bad Summit outcomes. The passage of time almost always provides fresh opportunities for leaders to demonstrate resolve and strength.
In contrast, efforts to overcompensate for global displays of weakness with wild, unrealistic threats only underscore a leader’s weakness. Late Sunday night, President Trump responded in just such a fashion to an almost garden-variety Iranian threat.
To Iranian President Rouhani: NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 23, 2018
The language, “consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before,” is stark. Its implication is unmistakable. The examples of Hiroshima and Nagasaki fit that definition. Nothing else seems to quite measure up to the President’s definition.
Both atomic bombs were dropped near the end of World War II, likely to avoid the brutal American casualties that would result from an invasion of the Japanese Mainland starting with Kyushu (National Security Archive). Even then, Japan was given an “opportunity to end” the war in the Potsdam Declaration that was issued on July 26, 1945 (National Diet Library of Japan). That opportunity was not taken. An August 4, 1945 Intelligence summary of intercepted Japanese communications revealed preparations for an all-out effort to try to repel an American invasion (National Security Archive).
An Iranian threat, no matter how exaggerated, would not even begin to measure up to the situation that confronted President Harry Truman in 1945. Therefore, no reasonable actor could accept President Trump’s threat as being credible. None will. Instead, every rational actor will dismiss it as wildly unreasonable, if not wholly irrational. Concerns about President Trump’s capacity to lead the United States will be heightened.
Eventually, when Iran issues another threat, President Trump will find himself boxed in by his tweet. The damage will be wholly self-inflicted and completely avoidable.
Almost certainly, Iran will issue a threat of the kind its leadership has been making on an almost routine basis since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Then, President Trump will face what appears to be a binary choice. His first option would be to follow through in a course of action that the world would rightly find grossly unacceptable and completely disproportionate simply to maintain face. His second option would be to ignore the threat, possibly tweet some angry words in return, but suffer an additional loss of credibility in the process.
In reality, there is no binary choice. There is no meaningful choice whatsoever. The President cannot deliver on his extreme threat.
The entire world, both the nation’s allies and its rivals know this. President Trump’s carrying through with his threat would provoke consequences that would gravely damage America’s world standing for years, decades, or possibly longer. The costs would far exceed any benefits. All of the minimal benefits would be personal for the President, none would serve the national interest. A quick sketch is in order to illustrate the absurdity of the President’s threat.
Trump’s delivering on his tweeted threat would likely erase all of the good will that America has accumulated as a beacon of human liberty throughout its time as a sovereign state based on the inspiring words of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights, and 14th Amendment. It would likely wipe out the good will from such far-sighted actions as helping reconstruct war-ravaged Europe and Asia after World War II and its helping construct a world order that has benefited billions of people worldwide.
His carrying out his threat would immediately transform the United States into among history’s most notable rogue actors. Such a development would likely trigger a dramatic realignment of global relations, largely aimed at isolating and containing the United States. Even the nation’s NATO allies, having tolerated their being frequently maligned, bullied, and disrespected by President Trump, would find it difficult to rationalize support for a nation that engaged in an unnecessary nuclear strike for what would have been exceptionally light reasons. The alliance would likely be shattered, as the America of President Trump would have ceased to stand for the ideals proclaimed by the nation’s Founders back in 1776.
Elements of such a realignment of global relations could include the urgent consolidation of a formal Russia-China military alliance with the specific goal of balancing the United States, an express Russia-China strategy to reduce American influence wherever possible, and Russia’s extension of its nuclear umbrella to Iran and other states that perceive threats from the United States. Hostile states such as Iran and North Korea would suddenly gain the kind of immunity that they cannot gain on their own. In the medium-term and beyond, the post-World War II consensus built on liberal values of human dignity and national sovereignty would erode, if not collapse, as the United States would cease to be an anchor of that world order.
“America First” would truly become “America alone.” The nation would find itself imprisoned in self-inflicted isolation for an extended period of time. Its security and economy would be weakened. Its reputation would be severely damaged.
Those are all extreme outcomes. Therefore, the probability that President Trump would deliver on his extraordinary tweeted threat is near zero. Hence, rather than starting the healing process following his disastrous performance at Helsinki, President Trump’s tweet represents a new and profound expression of weakness. That new expression of weakness won’t go unnoticed.