The coronavirus pandemic is beginning to press the Trump administration to reconsider some defense options and military deployments, but the crisis has not yet begun to fundamentally transform Donald Trump’s Peace through Strength doctrine which promises “strategic predictability, operational unpredictability.”
I. Peace through Strength?
The primary focus of Trump’s so-called Peace through Strength doctrine is to counter and deter the military capabilities of what the Pentagon calls “revisionist powers,” such Russia and China, and “rogue states,” such as Iran and North Korea, in its 2018 National Defense Strategy. The irony, however, is that Trump’s doctrine is failing miserably in that it is pushing China, Russia and Iran, if not North Korea, even closer together in the formation of a “Eurasian axis”—so that the mutual interests of these states outweigh their differences. Now, Russia and China are even closer to forging a formal defense alliance.
Although their actions do not appear to be coordinated at this time, China, Russia, Iran, as well as North Korea, have all hoped to counter U.S. military pressures and economic sanctions in an effort to overstretch U.S. political-military and financial capabilities across the world through both symmetrical and asymmetrical military measures and actions. It is crucial to seek out new diplomatic options—in an effort to prevent a new arms race, if not a major-power war.
Perhaps the most immediate strategic impact of the pandemic was on Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy toward Iran—after the March–April 2020 USS Theodore Roosevelt affair. In speaking truth to power, Captain Brett Crozier’s demands (the US was “not at war. Sailors do not need to die”) to move most of his crew onshore to Guam in order to save them from the spread of the coronavirus nevertheless forced the U.S. Navy to redeploy a second aircraft carrier, the USS Harry Truman, out of the Arabo-Persian Gulf region and toward the Pacific at a moment of heightened US-Iran tensions.
At that time, Trump threatened to attack Iranian ships that have been harassing U.S. naval forces. In a tit for tat, Iran then threatened to target U.S. naval forces. Such threats and counter-threats illustrate the need for a “hotline” to de-escalate the conflict. Yet such a U.S.-Iran “hotline” may not be sufficient to prevent war—given the fact that Trump’s so-called “maximum pressure” strategy on Iran has failed to bring about diplomatic compromise.
U.S.-Iran tensions have continued to mount after the Trump administration dumped the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal that had been negotiated by the UN, the European Union, and the Obama administration. Tehran has continued to press ahead on its nuclear enrichment program and it tested a new military satellite with limited military and reconnaissance capabilities in late April. The satellite launch represented a political statement designed to show Iranian resolve in the face of U.S. pressures, yet it nevertheless raised American fears that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards might eventually be able to mount nuclear warheads on intercontinental missiles in the future.
Concurrently, the Trump administration has hoped to augment international pressures on the Iranian regime and prevent it from importing small conventional arms at a time when Russia, China, India and Turkey—which have all been impacted by U.S. sanctions on Iran—have not been playing along. In particular, China and Iran have expanded their military partnership and energy deals potentially worth $400 billion—but with conditions that could lead Iran to become a “colony” of China. In the effort to obtain international support for new sanctions on Iran, the Trump administration has ironically wanted to claim that the US still belongs to the JCPOA nuclear deal after dumping it with great fanfare in 2018.
If the Trump administration is eventually successful in bringing back UN sanctions on Iran, then the JCPOA nuclear deal is very likely to collapse—which could trigger a new nuclear crisis.
Ironically, the USS Theodore Roosevelt affair may have provided the Trump administration with a way to shift its strategic focus toward China while still seeking to pressure Iran in other ways besides the deployment of vulnerable aircraft carriers.
In a sign of ongoing U.S.-China tensions, the U.S. Navy conducted yet another “freedom of navigation operation” in late April by sending the guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill to assert “navigational rights and freedoms” in the Spratly Islands. This was just after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused China of exploiting the media attention raised by the coronavirus pandemic in order to “bully” its neighbors in the South China Sea.
Here, the Trump administration has threatened stronger sanctions and tariffs on China’s exports to the United States by pointing its finger at the Chinese Communist Party as being responsible for the pandemic and affirming that Washington does not blame the Chinese people. This threat of “punishment” nevertheless helps to fuel Chinese nationalism and has raised Chinese Communist Party fears of stronger US support for the democracy movement in Hong Kong and for regime change.
As stated by Army Gen. Joseph Votel in a House Armed Services Committee meeting in February 2018, the Trump administration has feared that Tehran’s eventual membership in the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) would boost Iran’s power and influence. In effect, from the Trump administration perspective, Iranian SCO membership would represent the “keystone” that would help solidify a Russia-China axis in Eurasia and in the wider Middle East as a potential “threat” to Israeli, Saudi, and US global interests.
Trump administration “maximum pressure” strategy on Iran is consequently intended to disrupt China’s Belt and Road Initiative and to break a burgeoning Sino-Russian Eurasian alliance that is attempting to draw states such as Iran, Syria, Turkey, Venezuela, Pakistan, and possibly the Philippines, even closer to Russia and China. Beijing is concurrently attempting to attract and influence Central and Eastern European States in the 16+1 forum. For its part, Berlin has hoped to sustain the China market for its exports but is beginning to debate China’s investments in Germany’s strategic industries and other issues that provide Beijing with strategic leverage over German foreign and economic policy.
In addition to expanding its Belt and Road Initiative throughout the world, Beijing has hoped to establish a Chinese version of the US Monroe Doctrine in the East and South China seas in its regional rivalry with ASEAN members, while concurrently threatening to unify with Taiwan by force if necessary—as President-for-life Xi Jinping threatened in January 2019.
Moreover, while U.S.-China political-military tensions have augmented during the pandemic, with each side propagandizing against the other, Beijing has attempted to capitalize on Trump’s anti-European Union protectionism by providing medical assistance to Germany, France, Italy and Serbia to help these countries fight the coronavirus pandemic—while hoping to turn a divided Europe away from American influence. Italy—now the sick man of Europe—signed a memorandum becoming a member of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative in March 2019.
With respect to Russia, the United States and NATO have been engaging in a renewed military confrontation in eastern Europe at least since Moscow’s preclusive annexation of Crimea and political-military interference in eastern Ukraine in 2014. The United States and Russia have been engaging in nuclear and conventional weapons build-ups in the regions of Kaliningrad/ Baltic Sea, Crimea/ Black Sea, and Syria/ eastern Mediterranean.
Moscow’s preclusive expansion toward Ukraine and Syria has been coupled with efforts to play its energy card in an effort to attract Central and Eastern European states, Turkey and even Germany (Nord Stream 2) closer to Russian interests and away from the United States and EU-backed Three Seas Initiative, for example.
While the pandemic appears to be further antagonizing the United States and China, it appears to be pushing Moscow and Beijing even closer together. Moscow is planning a new gas pipeline to China and a new railway that would connect the ports of the Arctic and India Oceans as part of their burgeoning Eurasian alliance. For its part, China has boosted oil purchases from Russia, thereby helping to keep Russian energy corporations solvent.
In response to alleged Russian violations of the 1987 INF treaty, the United States has dropped out that treaty, and could soon drop out of New START—a possible option that has been rationalized, at least in part, by the claim that China is not part of the New START treaty. The United States had previously dropped out of the 1972 ABM treaty in order to deploy missile defense systems in Europe and Asia that are seen as potential threats to both Russia and China, as well as Iran and North Korea through what I have called the “insecurity-security dialectic” and the new “Butter Battle” arms rivalry that additionally threatens to tear apart the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act.
The United States, Russia, China, and now Japan, are all engaging in a new arms race to develop hypersonic weaponry while concurrently deploying low yield nuclear weapons on both tactical and long-range missile systems. The deployment of low yield nuclear weapons appears to signal a move to develop an actual nuclear warfighting capability. And the United States threat to deploy intermediate-range missiles in the Asia-Pacific region could provoke a formal Sino-Russian military alliance.