WASHINGTON – A superpower can get away with a lot. It can sometimes muscle its way through tough situations; it can duck the consequences of sloppy policy better than your average state. But ill-considered statecraft will eventually catch up with even the mightiest nation.
This is happening to the United States today. President Donald Trump put relationships with three undeniably bad actors — Venezuela, North Korea and Iran — at the center of his foreign policy. In each case, unfortunately, his administration has combined vaulting ambitions with dismal planning and weak execution. Trump has promised dramatic breakthroughs and great achievements while eliding hard questions about how — and whether — they can be brought about. More than two years into Trump’s presidency this style of policy is becoming unsustainable. An administration that drives recklessly is running out of road.
Take Venezuela. The administration’s goal, removing President Nicolas Maduro to allow a democratic restoration, is ambitious yet appropriate, given the economic and humanitarian catastrophe inflicted on the people. The administration’s theory of victory — that removing Maduro requires flipping key members of the military and security services — is high-risk but offers the most realistic avenue to renewing democratic rule.
The problem is that Trump, pushed forward by national security adviser John Bolton, appears to have underestimated the difficulty of dislodging an entrenched authoritarian, and to have made threats he has little intention of carrying out. To ratchet up the pressure, Trump and Bolton have very publicly hinted at taking military action against the regime, even though it always seemed unlikely that a president who has long inveighed against wars of democracy-promotion would launch one in Venezuela. The administration thereby created a classic escalation-humiliation trap should military threats and nonmilitary pressures fail to topple the regime.
This scenario is now staring Trump in the face. On April 30, a bid to topple Maduro collapsed when several key Venezuelan officials who had promised to switch sides changed their minds at the last minute. The White House decided to burn its erstwhile conspirators by identifying them publicly. That move was presumably meant to sow mistrust in Maduro’s inner circle, but it will likely discourage other disaffected officials from cooperating with the U.S.
Trump is reportedly unhappy with his advisers for misjudging Maduro’s staying power and urging him to take such a hard line. But he is simply reaping the consequences of failing to connect the goal of one’s policy with the willingness to pay the costs that may be necessary to achieve it. If the Venezuelan government takes steps that deepen the current crisis — by arresting the self-declared interim president, Juan Guaido, or intensifying its repression of the opposition — the dilemmas the U.S. faces will only sharpen.
Trump’s North Korea policy may also be reaching a dead end. Here the president shifted from maximum pressure in 2017 to maximum engagement since early 2018. Yet the connecting thread has been the pursuit of an objective — complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization — that is probably not obtainable at the level of either pressure or payoff the U.S. can safely provide.
In fairness, this dilemma is not new. A solution to the North Korean nuclear and missile problem has eluded every recent U.S. president. Yet Trump has been remarkably undisciplined in dealing with this most difficult challenge.
Most egregiously, he declared that the North Korean problem had been solved after the two sides issued a vague communique at the Singapore summit in 2018. But this declaration committed North Korea to very little, and it papered over fundamental questions such as what the two sides actually mean by “denuclearization.” It also undermined the economic-pressure campaign the White House had, to its credit, orchestrated during 2017 as a way of bringing Pyongyang to negotiate. For good measure, the president also suspended military exercises with South Korean troops, without consulting either Seoul or his own Pentagon advisers.
The fiction that Trump has been peddling about North Korea was thus bound to unravel at some point. That unraveling may now be underway. North Korea recently test-fired two short-range ballistic missiles, presumably in hopes of nudging the U.S. to grant more sanctions relief and seeing how far it can go without triggering a significant response. The relative calm that has prevailed on the Korean Peninsula since early 2018 now seems fragile, indeed.
Finally, there is Iran. Here, too, Trump was handed a real problem: the combination of Iranian regional expansionism and the shortcomings of the nuclear deal signed in 2015. And here, too, Trump has addressed the problem in a dismayingly inept way.
The administration has steadily ramped up pressure on Tehran by withdrawing from the nuclear deal, declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization, and now seeking to drive Iranian oil entirely off the global market. But it has done so in unnecessarily and self-isolating unilateral ways, such as simply withdrawing from the nuclear deal rather than exploiting the European allies’ willingness to tighten it.
And even as Trump has speculated publicly about signing a new deal with Iran, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has laid down preconditions that Tehran will not accept because they amount to a near-total reversal of decades of Iranian foreign policy. In other words, the administration’s actions seem calculated to provoke a crisis, but how the administration plans to get a better outcome remains hazy.
That lack of clarity is becoming more dangerous as tensions in the Gulf spiral upward. Amid reports that Iran may be planning attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq or the Persian Gulf, the Pentagon has deployed additional military assets to the region and the State Department is evacuating nonessential personnel from Iraq. U.S. allies — even Israel — are looking to get out of the way if the confrontation between Washington and Tehran escalates. And after a rocket landed near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Trump threatened to bring about the Iranian government’s “official end” if it further provoked the U.S.
Coercive threats aside, Trump himself now appears worried that his policy is misfiring: He is reportedly complaining that Bolton has been dragging him toward a war he does not want.
In all three cases, the Trump administration promised to act boldly and deliver decisive results. Yet it has fallen down on the basic policy formulation and smart planning that is critical to effective statecraft. And in all three cases, America is moving into a more fraught, dangerous period where the margin for error is shrinking.
Even superpowers need to carefully define their objectives, relate their goals to the costs they are willing to pay and keep steady when things get tense. So far, the Trump administration has been flouting these rules of diplomatic competence. It won’t be able to get away with this much longer.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and the Henry Kissinger distinguished professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.