In international relations, there is no worse message than ranting weakness followed by a retreat. Donald Trump has committed this mistake three times – over North Korea, Iran, Turkey.
In August 2017, the US media reported that Pyongyang had managed to miniaturize a nuclear warhead, so you can mount it on a missile. In November 2017, North Korea had conducted ballistic missile tests, some very long range. By a tweet, the president of the United States had warned her that if she continued, he would unleash it against “fire and fury as the world has never seen before”.
In the eyes of Donald Trump, it was unacceptable that the US territory was under direct threat from North Korea. After the threat, the White House abruptly opted for dialogue, and three Trump-Kim summits were held between June 2018 and June 2019.
These meetings were not able to advance one iota towards the desired American line: nuclear disarmament in exchange for a promise of lifting trade sanctions. North Korea resumed its missile tests and shot, on October 2, a 2000km range missile capable of being launched from a submarine. That did not reassure the two main regional allies of America, Japan and South Korea.
As for Iran, a presidential tweet of 25 June 2019 threatened “obliteration” in case of an “attack against anything American”. This boast was followed by a US strategic retreat when Washington was content to encourage the Saudi monarchy “to defend itself well” after its main oil facility had been badly damaged by bombing and drones, and hardly traceable cruise missiles, claimed by the Yemeni Houthi Shiites, but attributed to Tehran by the Pentagon.
That made him panic the two old US allies in the Persian Gulf that are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It is therefore not surprising that we have deployed a huge red carpet when Putin went to Riyadh on October 15. The Saudis were the opponents of Russia in the Syrian Civil War but they respect any country that never abandons its friends, unlike America.
The third rant was aimed at Turkey’s Islamo-nationalist Erdogan. The President threatened, in a tweet on 7 October, “economic destruction” if the Turkish army used the withdrawal of US forces in northern Syria, to seize territory and hunt Kurdish populations. The Syrian Kurdish fighters had helped America to dismantle the Islamic state.
The retreat is still coming. On 17 October, US Vice President Pence signed in Ankara a vague text that authorised after the fact Turkey’s capture of a wide strip of land north of Syria. That will encourage the French and the British to think twice before embarking on external military expeditions with Americans.
These declines have little to do with the key issues of Western security, it will be said. Perhaps. But geopolitics is important and is also about what happens in people’s heads. America looks like it does not want to fight. It is a message that will not reassure either the Baltic or Taiwanese. Worse, it is unnecessary food to the potential hubris of a Putin or Xi.
Regarding China, America has already given a huge message of weakness under Obama, when the Chinese navy militarised Paracells and Spartleys, reefs that were previously regarded as terra nullius (land unowned) by international law.
When America makes a withdrawal without consulting a country previously invested, it poses big risks to its fellow allies, but also perhaps to itself in the long term.
The only certainty left to us is that France and Britain, the only two European powers who still know how to fight, must – Brexit or not – pursue their joint efforts on arms and operational co-ordination, under their agreement in Lancaster House in November 2010.