Guest article: To Trump or Not to Trump

By Peter Viggo Jakobsen*

Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president has rocked the U.S. security establishment and its allies around the world. Trump has claimed that allies are “ripping the United States off,” dismissed NATO for being “obsolete,” and mused that the time may have come for Japan and South Korea to develop their own nuclear weapons. He insists that U.S. allies have to pay and do more for their defense. Many in the United States and abroad have decried these statements as destabilizing and dangerous; The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists captured the general mood moving their doomsday clock 30 seconds closer to midnight in response to Trump’s inauguration.

This concern is massively overblown.

Trump’s aggressive statements and erratic behavior will most likely strengthen America’s web of alliances. Trump’s aggressive communications strategy and his “America First” approach to international negotiations have already frightened allies into doing something his predecessors could not: increase defense spending. The question in allied capitals is no longer whether defense spending should increase, but how much. In Europe allies are now scrambling to produce concrete plans for how they will increase defense spending in time for President Trump’s first visit to NATO in late May 2017. His perceived unpredictability is also making military provocations and risk-taking by America’s adversaries less likely.

The concern triggered by Trump’s election stems in no small part from the rise of what I call “Trumpology” – the incessant scrutiny of Trump’s personality, his statements, and his tweets. Trumpology is a new growth industry because Trump’s communications meet all the criteria journalists look for in a good story: anxiety, comedy, conflict, and outrage. Many experts now spend their time putting Trump’s words under the microscope to identify all the disasters they might create. In addition, psychologists are busy analyzing his personality and upbringing in order to explain why he is acting so weird.

The American intelligence community has used personality profiling since World War II to better understand how leaders in closed authoritarian systems think and act. The results have been useful on occasion, but the study of personalities and intentions is insufficient with respect to predicting foreign policy actions and outcomes. One must also analyze the consequences and the opposition that proposed actions are likely to generate.  If one considers the consequences of undermining existing U.S. alliances and how much opposition such action would trigger, one gets a far more positive picture of Trump’s impact on world security than the doomsday scenarios that Trumpologists have mass-produced since his election.

Since the late 1940s, U.S. allies in Europe and Asia have based their national security on the assumption that the United States will assist them in a crisis. This assumption and the post-Cold War downsizing of Europe’s military forces have rendered Europeans incapable of conducting even relatively small-scale military operations without substantial American support. The situation in the same in Asia: Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan have all based their defense forces and defense spending on the assumption that the U.S. cavalry will come to their rescue if necessary.

If Trump withdraws these security guarantees, the allies will face a stark choice between deterrence and appeasement. In Europe, deterrence is the most likely choice because Germany, France, and the United Kingdom are strong enough to constitute the core of a new alliance that can deter Russia. In Asia, China will become so strong that most states bordering the East China Sea will have no choice but to appease Beijing and accept its hegemony. Regardless of the outcomes, Europe and Asia would face a period characterized by high instability and a heightened risk of war. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan would likely develop nuclear weapons. Germany and Poland would have a strong incentive to do the same unless France and Britain offer them nuclear protection.

John Mearsheimer, Barry Posen, and Stephen Walt have long recommended that the United States withdraw most of its forces from Asia and Europe because the costs of the existing onshore presence dwarf the benefits. In their view, the existing security guarantees amount to “welfare for the rich” and increase the risk of entrapment in wars that do not involve American national interests. They believe that the United States would be much better off by copying the offshore balancing strategy that the British Empire employed in Europe before World War II.

Offshore balancing did not serve the British well in the end, however. It threw them into two world wars that brought the empire to its knees. Britain’s fate highlights the weakness of offshore balancing: a loss of the ability to shape the security politics onshore decisively. The failure of British offshore balancing dragged the United States into both world wars.

The United States has benefitted tremendously from the onshore balancing strategy it adopted after World War II in Asia and Europe to deter Communist aggression. Its permanent military presence, coupled with the allies’ military dependence, enabled Washington to shape developments to align with U.S. interests. Washington repeatedly gave their allies Mafia-style offers they could not refuse. U.S. economic assistance programs provided to allies in the wake of World War II came with conditions that forced the recipients to buy American goods and liberalize their markets in ways that were highly beneficial to American firms. Washington forced Great Britain and France to withdraw their troops from Egypt during the Suez Crisis (1956), coerced Germany to support U.S. monetary policy (1966-1969), and thwarted nuclear weapons ambitions and programs of many allies, including Japan, Germany, South Korea, and Taiwan.

Military dependence on the United States also induced many allies to support American wars in faraway places that did not affect their national security directly. Since 9/11 allies have sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, closed their eyes to secret detention and extraordinary rendition programs, the use of torture, and the massive surveillance of their own citizens. Allies have given the United States access to bases, facilities, as well as their airspace and territorial waters. Finally, many allies buy American weapon systems to maintain inter-operability and their security guarantees. The F-35 is the latest example of this.

The consequences of a U.S. military withdrawal from Europe and Asia would be dramatic. The United States would lose most of its military bases, American firms would find it much harder to gain market access, the American defense industry would lose billions of dollars, and European allies would stop supporting the United States militarily in faraway conflicts. The United States would be reduced to a regional power with little say in the management of Asian and European affairs. This is why it will not happen. This outcome is not only at odds with America’s economic interests, it is also completely at odds with the widespread belief in American exceptionalism and greatness that Trump and his supporters also embrace.

But if the costs of abandoning allies are prohibitive, why is Trump threatening to do so? Schelling’s classic work on game theory suggests an answer: it shows that you can obtain greater concessions in negotiations by appearing mad or unpredictable. In this perspective, Trump’s statements and seemingly erratic behavior make a lot of sense as a negotiation tactic aimed at pressuring U.S. allies to increase their defense spending. His perceived unpredictability is adding credibility to the threat that he might actually withdraw U.S. forces even if it is not in the United States best interest to do so. There is genuine concern among U.S. allies about what Trump might do if they do not take immediate steps to increase their defense spending. The South Korean government reacted to Trump’s election by vowing to increase defense spending significantly if he insists on it. Likewise, the Danish Prime Minister promised to increase defense spending after his first phone conversation with Trump. In Germany Trump’s election triggered a hitherto unthinkable public debate on whether Germany should develop nuclear weapons.

President Trump’s unpredictability will also put America’s opponents on the defensive. President Obama’s reluctance to threaten and use force likely emboldened China and Russia to take greater military risks in Eastern Ukraine, Syria, and in the East and South China Seas. While Beijing and Moscow could be fairly confident that Obama would not take military counter-measures, they have no way of calculating what President Trump might do. It is easy to imagine him giving the order to down a Chinese or Russian plane to demonstrate that “America is great again.”

Paradoxically, Trump’s tweets and theatrics are good news for world peace. They create unpredictability and anxiety that the United States can use to obtain greater concessions from friends and foes. The likely result is strengthened U.S. alliances and U.S. opponents that will favor negotiation over provocation in their efforts to settle differences with the United States and its allies.

A longer version of this article first appeared on War on the Rocks, March 2, 2017.

* Dr. Peter Viggo Jakobsen is an Associate Professor at the Royal Danish Defence College and a Professor (part-time) at the Center for War Studies at University of Southern Denmark.

Are You Listening, President Trump?

Fifty-six years ago, President Kennedy entered office eager to show how weak his predecessor, Eisenhower, had been and how brave and decisive he himself was. He sent his troops to Vietnam, and the rest is history. Two months ago, President Trump entered office eager to do the same in respect to his predecessor, President Obama. To do so, he has hit on the brilliant idea of sending more American troops to Syria. In response, President Assad of Syria has told him that such troops, deployed without his permission, would not be welcome. Also that, over the last seventy years or so, almost every time Western, specifically American, troops went into the so-called developing world they failed to achieve their objectives. In quite a few cases the outcome was to open the gates of hell, as the Koran put it.

As the following, extremely partial, list of their failures shows, Assad is right.

1944-1948. A few hundred active “terrorists” hound the British out of Palestine, leading to the establishment of the State of Israel.

1946-1954. French troops are defeated in Indochina, leading to Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian independence.

1948-1960. British troops fail to hold Malaya and end up by withdrawing from the country. Thanks to a masterpiece of propaganda, the Brits make most of the world believe that they had actually won the war. But this does not prevent Malaysia from becoming independent state.

1950-1953, Western forces, operating under UN auspices, wage against North Korea and China. The outcome, stalemate, is probably the best that could have been achieved.

1953-1960. British troops fail to defeat the Mau Mau Revolt in Kenya, ending up by withdrawing from the country, which gained its independence.

1954-1962. The War in Algeria, which had been a French colony for well over a century, ends with a humiliating defeat for France.

1955-1960. An insurgency forces the British to give up Cyprus, which becomes an independent country.

1963-1967. Another insurgency forces the British to surrender Aden. Ditto.

1965-1972. The Second Vietnam War, which was the largest of them by far, ends with the decisive defeat of the US and its allies and their final withdrawal.

1970-1975. As part of the Second Vietnam War, the US invaded Cambodia. In 1975 it had to throw in the towel. With the US cowed and decolonization all but complete, major Western attempts to intervene in the developing world came to a halt.

1982-1984. A small continent of US troops enters Lebanon, but quickly leaves again after terrorists start blowing them up.

1991-1992. The US and its allies, provoked by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, go to war. In almost seventy years, this is the only campaign that resulted in a clear victory. As a result, President George Bush declares that the US “has overcome the Vietnam Syndrome.”

  1. The US and its allies send troops into Somalia. To absolutely no avail, except for turning that country into an even worse hell than it already was.

2002-present. To avenge 9-11, the US and its allies invade Afghanistan. The resulting mess is still waiting to be cleared up.

2003-present. The US and its allies invade Iraq. Saddam Hussein is overthrown and, ultimately, killed. However, once again the outcome is a mess that has still not been resolved.

2005-present. French and British forces, initially supported by US cruise missiles, assist local militias in overthrowing Dictator Muammar Gadhafi. The outcome is the same as in Iraq.

2011-present. Small NATO contingents take part in Syria’s murderous civil war, but achieve practically nothing. Thanks in part to Russian aid, the side whom the US and its allies oppose, i.e. President Assad, seems to be gaining the upper hand.

Are you listening, President Trump?

Just Published!

Martin van Creveld, More on War, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2017

When the chips are down, the survival of every country, government and individual is ultimately dependent on war. That is why, though war may come but once in a hundred years, it must be prepared for every day. When it is too late—when the bodies lay stiff and people weep over them—those in charge have failed in their duty.

In almost every field of human thought and action, good philosophers abound. They have examined their subjects, be they aesthetics or ethics or logic or the existence of God, and dissected them into their component parts. Next they re-assembled them, often in new and surprising ways that helped students to expand their knowledge and gain understanding. Some even helped improve the ability of the rest of us to cope with real-world problems. Yet in two and-a half millennia there have only been two really important military theoreticians: Sun Tzu (544-496 BCE) and Carl von Clausewitz (1779-1831). All the rest, including quite a few who were famous in their own times, have been more or less forgotten. Today they are of interest, if at all, almost exclusively to the military historian.

Both Sun Tzu’s the Art of War and Clausewitz’s On War have had praise heaped on them by generations of soldiers and scholars. With very good reason, needless to say. Nevertheless, both are marked by serious problems. In part, that is because there are entire fields which they address hardly if at all. Including the causes of war, the relationship between economics and war, the technology of war, and the law of war. This even applies to naval warfare, an age-old but critically important topic that neither of them mentions in a single word. In part, it is simply because they are old. Being old, they have nothing to say about the many forms of war that have emerged since they were written and whose role in contemporary conflict is often decisive. Such as nuclear war, air- and space war, cyberwar, and asymmetric war.

What is needed, in other words, is a new theory of war. One that is succinct, comprehensive, and easy to read and understand. And one that, by taking a contemporary approach, filling the gaps, and expanding into new fields can take the place of the above texts both in military and civilian life, both in- and out of the classroom.

The purpose of More on War is to provide just such a theory.


“Van Creveld is incapable of writing an uninteresting book.”

Prof. Lawrence Friedman, Foreign Affairs.

Yes, They (Sometimes) Can

I have in front of me a book by a British scholar, Peter Greenhalgh, named Early Greek Warfare. Published by Cambridge University Press as far back as 1973, it is a scholarly treatment of the topic clearly aimed at the specialist. On the cover there is a sixth- or early fifth-century BC image of a two men amicably riding side by side. Originally it was painted on a vase now at the Martin-von-Wagner Museum in Wuerzburg. The vase shows the couple twice, once from the right and once from the left. As you can see, the older man is a warrior with powerful shoulders. He is wearing a tall helmet of the so-called Chalcidian type as well as greaves; he is also carrying a shield and two spears. The younger looks more like a teenager and is not nearly as strongly built. Unarmed, all he wears is a light tunic with very short sleeves, showing his slender, immature arms.

The men are probably on their way to war, and the eagle at their back was meant as an auspicious omen. Never mind. To anyone at all familiar with ancient Greek history, the image—in my view, a beautiful one indeed—strikes a chord. What we see is neither a casual encounter nor a so-called “Platonic” one. It is a homosexual couple consisting of the lover, or erastes (from eros, sexual attraction), and his beloved, or eromenos. The latter was usually a young boy in his teens. Modern scholars agree that such relationships were socially approved. In some cases they may even have formed part of a semi-official initiation rite. One not too different, say, from those practiced until not so long ago by some tribal societies in Papua-New Guinea during which the novices were made to fellate grown men as part of obtaining the essence of masculinity. Provided only the relationships were consensual—there was, nota bene, no age of consent—Athenian law allowed them. Indeed one scholar has claimed that they formed “the principal cultural model” for what a free relationship between citizens could and should be.

The Summer of 1942, a 1971 novel that was later made into a film, told the story of an affair between an American teenager and a woman several years older than he. It was based on real events; however, so considerable are the differences between the film and the book (by Herman Raucher) on which it is based that it is hard to say what really happened. Hence I shall not discuss it here.

Fast forward to 1998. In Germany the book, “Wir waren Hitlers eliteschueler” (“We used to be Hitler’s Elite Students) was published. It is a collection of short essays, each written by a former student at one of the so-called Napolas, short for Nazional-Sozialistische Politische Erziehungsanstalten. Taking the place of the old Kadettensschuelen, or schools for cadets, which the Allies after World War I ordered closed, the Napolas enlisted twelve-year olds and graduated them six years later. Somewhat similar to America’s military academies, they emphasized history, “racial science,” drill, and sports. Competition to enter them was keen, and looking back on their experience many of their absolvents had little but praise for them.

I shall not go into the question as to how good or bad the schools were, the extent to which they were and were not responsible for all the terrible things the Nazis did, and so on. My point is rather that one of the former students, who was fifteen years old at the time, tells how he befriended a young woman living nearby. She was lonely—perhaps her boyfriend or husband was at the front. The rest followed of itself. Again, looking back on his experience, he only had good things to say about it.

Four years later another book made tis appearance. The author was the world-famous Israeli writer Amos Oz; the title, A Tale of Love and Darkness. It, too, has been made into a movie, albeit one that never attracted as many viewers as The Summer of 1942 did. Oz, who was born in 1939, moved to a kibbutz after his mother killed herself. There while still a teenager, he either seduced or was seduced by—it is hard to tell—a female teacher twice his age. In the end it was she who put an end to the affair. Decades later, while on a lecture tour in the US, Oz met a woman who looked strikingly like her. Going up to greet her, it turned out that she was his former teacher’s daughter who had come to listen to him. The mother was also present. She was, however, in a wheelchair. Suffering from Alzheimer, she did not recognize her former student.

Any number of similar episodes, some involving boys, others girls, could be cited. Let me make myself absolutely clear: I am not saying that people should start breaking the law and have sex, even consensual sex, with minors. The law is the law, and it has to be obeyed. Still it is useful to know that in Japan, not exactly the most backward country on earth, the age of consent is 13. In China, Brazil, and several other South American countries it is 14. The same applies to Austria, Estonia, Hungary, Italy Liechtenstein, Macedonia, Montenegro, Portugal, Serbia, and Germany. The total number of people who live under these laws, as well as in some “developing” countries I did not list, must be little short of two billion. The German case is particularly interesting. As long as a person over the age of 21 does not “exploit” a 14- to 15-year-old youth, there is no problem. For such a person to be put on trial, a complaint from the younger individual is required; in which respect German law resembles ancient Athenian one.

As the above examples show, there is some evidence that having sex with older people, whether hetero-or homosexual, can be good, or at any rate not bad, for at least some boys. As to the law, not only is it quite arbitrary but it is rooted in social attitudes. Attitudes which, since they vary from one civilization to the next, have little if anything to do with what young people do or do not understand, can or cannot do, want or do not want. Let alone with “basic” human nature at this age or that. Such being the case, it is quite possible that, in at least some cases, the “cure,” which today usually consists of punishing the older partner and actively compelling the younger one to assume the role of a victim, does more harm than good.

As to girls, there seems to be a near-universal consensus that they develop faster, and reach maturity earlier than boys do. So draw your own conclusions.