Last week, Chinese military officials confirmed that conflict and war with the United States under Donald Trump’s presidency has now become a “practical reality.” While the expansive definition of war leaves the exact connotation unclear, the confrontational tone is unmistakable. For key figures of the Trump Administration, personality defects and a skewed, dark vision of the world seem to give this sort of conflict an irresistible magnetism.
In a Nov. 18 interview with the Hollywood Reporter, white nationalist and Senior Advisor to the president, Stephen Bannon relayed his adoration of darker and more infamous figures of history and lore. His preference for a bigoted form of polemic influenced millions through Breitbart, his online mouthpiece.
However, having just gained a seat on the National Security Council and holding a firm grasp on the president’s collar, Bannon’s preference for darkness now guides U.S. foreign policy. With our most resource-rich partner and adversary, the People’s Republic of China, this influence may well have a catastrophic end for the global order.
In his interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Bannon argued media myopia and confirmation bias was to blame in painting his actions negatively—including future decisions in the White House. While for Trump and Bannon, accountability to the public narrative may have little immediate impact on their thinking, disruptions of engrained foreign policy norms will backfire immediately. Protests and calls for action will come with domestic policy; however, with them will come retaliatory measures from affected nations. Though most nations on Earth would be hesitant to take action against the United States, China will not be so coy or reluctant.
Bannon and others in the Trump Administration rely on thinking derived from an alternate reality, in which America’s position as a super-power is unchanging and has resulted in immunity from repercussions. China’s position as an economic, regional and nuclear power (with 200-300 nuclear weapons) means confrontation on a military level has the potential for a catastrophic end. Though North Korea, India and Pakistan represent the most pressing nuclear threat, placing Trump and Bannon behind our arsenal increases uncertainty.
When ABC’s David Muir questioned Trump about receiving the nuclear launch codes, in his first televised interview as Commander-in-Chief, the president paused. His response relayed a sense of responsibility, as well as a hope to do the right thing if the time came to consider nuclear options. One only hopes Trump is aware that launching a nuclear weapon or even threatening as President Eisenhower did, would bring an existential crisis unknown in human history. In the potential U.S.-China conflict, it is Trump who would draw first blood. If a war between these behemoths were to break out, the money would be on Chinese President Xi Jinping to avoid global disaster.
So, with an objectively uninformed, tactless president in the Oval Office, advisors and cabinet secretaries should provide some comfort. Although Sec. of Defense James Mattis has been seen as the moderating influence, Trump’s actions on immigration show a man uninterested in collaboration.
With his authoritarian personality, Trump likely feels responsible only to those he sees as wielding more power and puppet strings. Unfortunately for America and the world at large, the scruffy white nationalist in a black button down and ruffled jeans is that man.
Conflict with China, on some level, is inevitable with the Trump Administration. Moving against China in the South China Sea, or in ending the One China Policy would push U.S.-China relations into unchartered waters, resulting in confrontation. Trump’s susceptibility to influence and his placement of Bannon in his inner-circle and the National Security Council do not bode well for confrontation.
Bannon’s experience in foreign policy is nonexistent, as is Trump’s. The United States now has a tag-team with no foreign policy guiding moves against a seasoned adversary. A belief that media criticism and checking is unjust and biased only lionizes Bannon and Trump in their unorthodox actions. While other administrations might react to international condemnation or follow norms and customs, this administration has dedicated itself to disruption. Trump and his voters view norms as a euphemism for coastal elitism. While that may be the case for certain economic and social issues, in geopolitics, ditching respect and balance will be fatal.