Open Letter to President Trump
How to use American power, avoid catastrophe, and save the world
Dear President Trump,
Let’s skip the niceties and congratulatory notes, as they have already been overplayed and time is short.
I see two scenarios for your presidency. The first involves you winning a Nobel Peace Prize. The second involves you triggering a nuclear war. Given the extreme caprice that you have brought to bear on your new post, it would not be risible to imagine both scenarios being realized, serially or concurrently, within the same day.
Let’s start with the better scenario. I had long worried that, in the event of a Hillary Clinton presidency, the world would be trending fairly rapidly toward a nuclear conflict – particularly between Russia and the US, with Europe caught in between. North America would not easily survive such a confrontation, and North American cities, from New York to Washington and Toronto, would surely face some description of bombardment.
Your presidency has, happily, for now, decelerated this trending. Indeed, it could, given your considerable energy, creativity and improvisational skills, heroically relieve the world of this growing pressure. This is the Nobel Peace Prize scenario. (Of course, as I note below, your presidency could also, paradoxically, accelerate the skid toward a nuclear collision.)
Notwithstanding the conventional commentary in the English-language media in general, and the ever-depleting quality of journalism and public discourse in your own country in particular, you would be very wise to bring together, in the nearest future, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin for a trilateral summit that would seek to do the following: first, develop an algorithm for a terminal solution to the Ukraine conflict; second, establish rules of the game for interaction among the powers in the South China Sea; third, set the parameters for a new security architecture in the Middle East (see the considerable writing in GB on this topic by my colleague Sam Sasan Shoamanesh); and, fourth, establish specific military and diplomatic confidence-building measures and processes in the trilateral format (on a worldwide basis).
The Ukraine conflict is of the greatest urgency. In my estimation, the Ukrainian state could fail in one form or other within the calendar year. This failure will be less a consequence of Russian intrigue or pressure than of the extremely weak structural legitimacy and effectiveness of the central government – a government that has not been able to consolidate meaningfully across the Ukrainian population and territory since the 2014 revolution. If the Ukrainian state collapses, including through a coup or broader political and social insurrection, then this will radicalize Russia and, in the reverse direction, Europe, the US and Canada. Russia will almost certainly be forced to undertake a muscular intervention, in the military form, in Ukraine (beyond Crimea and the Donbass). Depending on your reaction in Washington and that of leading European capitals, this could set the basis for a direct military clash between Russia and NATO countries – a dynamic that could escalate with considerable velocity to a nuclear exchange, or indeed a logic that could, through anticipatory ‘gaming’ by Moscow, be preceded by a nuclear assault.
In any event, even short of a nuclear conflict, the collapse of Ukraine and the shockwaves that this would send both eastward and westward would likely place irresistible, eventually fatal pressure on the EU and the already-fragile European project. Germany would, within a decade, be let loose into its erstwhile strategic orbit and would spend the rest of this century struggling with the two-border security dilemma with Russia and France that caused both world wars in the century last.
How to prevent this degradation? You will need to work directly and quickly with President Putin, in the first instance, as the Ukrainian political class, for all of that society’s intellectual brilliance and cultural charisma, is simply not capable, at the time of this writing, of the requisite strategic reflection and delivery in their current governmental-administrative disposition.
The only way to stop, with finality, the bloodshed in southeastern Ukraine – in the Donbass – as I have described in numerous past interventions in GB and in track 1.5 format in many capitals around the world, is to introduce a peacekeeping force from a neutral, non-NATO, non-post-Soviet, country (India, Pakistan, Singapore, or perhaps even, ironically, Israel). Peacekeepers are the only way to staunch the basic and quite classical security dilemma in which the pro-Kiev and rebel forces find themselves – that is, in the absence of trust between both sides, and to the extent that the rebel side is not fully controlled by Moscow, any withdrawal by one side will be met by an advance by the opposite side. In the event, the peacekeeping force should be interposed between the two sides, along the Minsk 2.0 ceasefire lines, and also along key points of the Russo-Ukrainian border in southeast Ukraine.
At least three conditions should accompany the introduction of peacekeepers: first, enshrinement in Ukraine’s constitution of the country’s indissolubility (in the Australian constitutional idiom), and recognition of such in a formal treaty between Ukraine, Russia and any number of guarantor powers; second, affirmation by the UN Security Council of Ukraine’s permanent non-NATO status; and third, maximum removal of non-Crimea-related sanctions against Russia by Western countries. As for Crimea, its status warrants separate treatment and a separate formula, and should not interfere in the general solution algorithm just mentioned. After all, while Ukraine is fairly important in and of itself as a specific theatre of American or Western interest, stabilization of the general European theatre – and of Russia along with it – is by far the more significant strategic objective for your government.
Now to China. Understand that Chinese strategic seriousness today is a function not only of that country’s growing economic power and military sophistication, but indeed of a collective understanding among the elites in Beijing that China can under no circumstances be allowed to lose a ‘third opium war’ – as it were – for this would again set the country back a hundred or more years. This means that China, too, would be quick to use nuclear weapons to defend itself if the survival of the government were at stake. North America would be easily within reach – to say nothing of Japan. My humble advice is therefore not to fall on your strategic sword over the South China Sea theatre. You may be able to push Beijing to certain modest, face-saving concessions here, but this is not your core fight – especially given that China may now consider, and perhaps not wrongly, that it, and not the US, has in the final analysis won the Cold War.
What of your relationship with Iran? Here you must be sure that you realize what you are getting yourself into. For any military action against Iran would surely precipitate a massive missile launch against Israel by Hezbollah from within Lebanon and Syria, and also missile attacks against Israel from Iran itself. To the extent that Israel would fear being crippled or paralyzed by such bombardment, it has already promised overwhelming response at least in Lebanon. In extremis, one could conjecture that this could lead to the use of nuclear force – in Lebanon or against Iran itself.
Still, targeting Iran would likely trigger Russia – an ally – to action. And so, just as you will be negotiating a major peace with Russia in the Ukrainian and European theatre, you will inadvertently be stumbling into war with Russia, directly or indirectly, in the Middle Eastern theatre. And here too, the use of nuclear weapons by Russia is not to be excluded – particularly if Israel should use a nuclear weapon, or should you in Washington also threaten to use one.
As you ponder these three, increasingly overlapping theatres – the Russo-Ukrainian-European theatre, the Chinese-East/Southeast Asian theatre, and the Middle Eastern theatre – you should immediately become conscious of the conspicuous limits of American power. You will, in order not to repeat the major strategic mistakes of your immediate predecessor and of several before him, want to avoid morality plays and remain constantly porous to the fancies, considerations and general mentality of your opposite numbers in other major capitals. Of the three great-power leaders, you rule the most lucky and prosperous country, but you are by far the least knowledgeable in world affairs, history, geography and even economics. The better posture is therefore to be open to learning from, and exchanging kinetically with, these other powers in order to find ‘sweet spots’ for problem-solving the major friction points in the world.
To be sure, you will not be able to solve most conflicts, and virtually no conflict can be solved perfectly. Even in the Ukrainian theatre, there will be significant ‘interstitial’ dynamics (forces largely or even completely outside of the control of strategic centres in any of the capitals) that, notwithstanding the possible ‘local’ winning algorithm of peacekeepers in concert with the other conditions, may well lead to the eventual ‘general’ collapse of the Ukrainian state and the eruption of hot warfare enveloping Russia and Europe alike. Similarly, in the South China Sea and the Asia-Pacific theatre more broadly, whatever your strategic intervention and skill, there will be plenty of room for miscalculation or military adventure among the various parties, with the future of a nervous, nuclear North Korea weighing heavily on the larger relationships between Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul.
The reality of the interstitial can only be addressed by creating new international regimes and institutions, and by improving existing ones. To this end, you would be well-advised to avoid destabilizing the EU at all, and indeed to expend every possible American instrument and lever to consolidate the European project, as it remains the lynchpin of global peace this century. Do not be foolish in exalting the Brexiteers of Westminster, or in excessively exciting the populists of the Continent – for they will drive the world to war soon. Nay, your objective is to tame these centrifugal forces, and to understand that Europe is, for all of its imperfections, the world’s most important and successful peace project.
Now, what Europe has accomplished with the EU must be replicated, in tailored forms, in Eastern Europe, Western Asia or the Middle East, Asia-Pacific, and even the Arctic. States must be bound between themselves by international law and institutions of trust, constantly evolving in order to preserve legitimacy before their populations, and to reflect the variable geometry of regional interdependence. Just as importantly, a key challenge for America’s still-considerable political and legal ingenuity will be to help these various regional regimes invent or find mechanisms or ‘tendons’ – as it were – for flexible and productive (but maximally predictable) interaction among themselves. In other words, these regional blocs ought not to be coal-like in their architecture, but instead sponge-like in their ability to reckon peaceably with other blocs – especially neighbouring blocs, and blocs whose members have different political traditions and constitutional norms. Bref, this means finding institutional modi vivendi between the EU and the Eurasian Union (part of interstitial scaffolding for solving the Ukrainian crisis), but also between the EU and ASEAN, the EU and emerging China-led blocs, the EU and a new Western Asian regime, a revised NAFTA and the EU, China-led blocs and the Eurasian Union, and indeed countless other permutations of inter-regime collaboration and engagement.
You have, at least in your early rhetoric, maligned the UN, and threatened to penalize the institution financially if it does not make decisions or deliver results that are in keeping with your predilections. But you must rethink this posture immediately and decisively – for it would, if generalized among other key states, launch the world into chaos. Remember always that the UN, for all of its inefficiency and kinks, is intended to deliver not de maximis but rather de minimis outcomes in global affairs: not global peace or love, but instead the absence of direct armed conflict between the great powers – tout court. To date, the UN has, surprisingly but spectacularly, delivered on this de minimis goal, even if it has not been successful in eliminating genocides, second-tier conflicts and countless humanitarian disasters and human tragedies.
You will therefore respect this basic scaffolding of the modern global peace, lest you push it asunder through hubris or what may be termed the ‘corruption of noble intentions.’
Why has the UN been so successful? Because the genetic logic of the Security Council precludes the possibility that any of the great powers among the P5 can go to war against one or more of the other great powers with international legal sanction. Veto oblige, the US would never allow China to go to war against it under international legal sanction; the same is true of Russia vis-à-vis China or the US; und so weiter… The extension of this genetic logic at the Security Council requires great (nuclear) powers like China and Russia to veto pretensions to international strategic action by any other grouping of countries in theatres that, say, Beijing and Moscow hold strategically dear. Such uses of veto are nary capricious, and even if they will on occasion be opportunistic or cynical, they provide an essential signal to all aspirants about which interventions could potentially result in the general conflagration that the Security Council in particular, and the UN in general, is designed to preclude. You will therefore respect this basic scaffolding of the modern global peace, lest you push it asunder through hubris or what may be termed the ‘corruption of noble intentions.’ In that case, this would all end in tears – for the US and the entire civilized world alike.
A final note – and this one about matters internal to your country. I have deliberately avoided any commentary on domestic American matters in this missive for two reasons: first, most of your domestic policy questions, from healthcare to even border security, are not of first-order global import (except for purposes of curious observation, critical or other); and second, although I am a friend of America (and many Americans) and a great admirer of American civilization and achievement, I am perfectly mindful of the fact that the US is not my country, and so I remain diffident before the prospect of telling you how to run your own house – even if I may have some impressionistic ideas about the proper course on some of these issues.
But where your decisions and activities, including of domestic provenance, directly affect the state of the global peace, or materially promise to consolidate or destabilize this peace (or order), I cannot refrain from expression. To this end, my greatest domestic fear for your country is the very real prospect – if not probability – of a major terrorist attack on American soil in the coming months. I am certain that this is on your mind also, and I sincerely hope that you and your administration are planning for such a scenario in the most serene terms. Alas, at the time of this writing, given your caprice and the precarity of your popularity both with the American population and, more importantly, with Congress, I fear the worst. I may be wrong. But a Bataclan-style attack in a major American city like New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles or Chicago could well trigger you to respond with biblical ferocity and theatre. Anti-Muslim pogroms could easily erupt in many parts of the US – so softened has the American body politic been, over the last decade and a half, before anti-Islamic rhetoric and policy. You might use this shock to expand the powers of the executive to a quasi-wartime footing. Congress, the courts, the media, and the population alike would be pliant – or otherwise slow to move. And you would relegitimate your presidency.
Of course, this relegitimation might not stop at your borders. In the classical style of many political leaders past, democratic and less democratic alike, you may be tempted to launch what Tsar Nicholas II called a “small victorious war” in order to distract the population and consolidate the centre. This war, of course, would be inherently destabilizing – and could potentially be cataclysmic, for you and the planet alike, depending on the adversary you choose to target. As I have written above, you would be wise to choose with great care. Remember: the Tsar lost that war. And the world is still picking up the pieces over a century later.
Of course, I would far prefer that you not have to choose any target at all. Better to govern modestly, with due proportionality. In this, I bid you good luck and great success.
Irvin Studin is Editor-in-Chief & Publisher of Global Brief.