While there are many drawbacks to fear on a personal level, when it comes to foreign policy, fear is a useful tool that brings opponents to the negotiating table…
Concern and fear are often framed as unwanted, negative emotions. For example, I wouldn’t want my daughter to live with constant fear. Therapists normally suggest that omnipresent and oppressive feelings of fear are part of an anxiety disorder. The news is replete with “fears” or concerns about the dangers of the Trump administration. There are reports that many Iranians now fear war, and other Iranians have plans to move to the countryside or flee to Turkey. Even Russian leaders are worried about understanding Trump’s motives and goals. These examples show how the fear of Trump and credible use of force are good things that have the ability to induce negotiations or even prevent war.
In nuclear diplomacy, fear was a useful motivation. This was the origin of the policy called Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) that was often mocked for its rather ironic and supposedly appropriate abbreviation. But the threat of nuclear annihilation produced a deterrent that led to restraint and an avoidance of nuclear war. The need for a strategy and military that didn’t rely on nuclear weapons also produced the development of Kennedy’s “flexible response” military and increased cooperation with NATO forces, eventually leading to the high-level talks between Reagan and Russian leaders that decreased the nuclear stockpiles of both countries.
Iran is often thought of as a power that doesn’t operate under the same level of restraint seen in the Cold War. They covertly seek nuclear weapons, and they are one of the few states in the world that supports terrorism as an arm of foreign policy. Some analysts point to the apocalyptic beliefs of Iran’s religious leaders as proof that conventional nuclear restraints don’t apply. On top of that, with the lack of credible use of force, Obama had little leverage in negotiation and ended up with what most agree is a lousy treaty. Because of the lack of a credible use of force, Iran continues to conduct missile tests that violate the treaty they signed.
But there is still a chance to induce restraint using the fear that Trump inspires. The dictatorship doesn’t have to worry about the polls, but after the 2009 riots that almost toppled the country, political leaders can still face indirect pressure from the people. Richard Nixon perfected this “madman” strategy, which convinced North Vietnam that he was crazy and ready to bomb anybody and everybody in order to bring them to the bargaining table. The resulting Paris Peace Accords in 1973 allowed American forces to withdraw from the country.
In a recent statement, President Trump put Iran “on notice” and has started sanctions that aim to limit their ballistic missile program and support for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Just through a series of largely symbolic presidential orders and a few tweets, he has put fear into the hearts of Iranians. Of course, the American media’s insistence that he is the next Hitler only helps create this perception. The hysterical reaction (and overreaction) to Trump’s executive orders paint him as a madman, so it doesn’t take much from Trump to be convincing.
While there are many drawbacks to fear on a personal level, on a foreign policy level, fear is a useful tool to bring opponents to the negotiating table. As ironic as it sounds, producing fear to induce change means there is less chance of war. As Obama showed plainly, without the threat of force, negotiations are much less effective. When negotiations to stop a state sponsor of terror from getting nuclear weapons fail, it means the only other option besides letting them obtain their weapons is the use of force. Thus, the madman rhetoric that promises war and produces fear actually has a better chance of leading to peace than talks of de-escalation or soft power. The fear of Trump is real for many people, but that also makes it really useful in advancing US foreign policy interests.
Morgan Deane is an OpsLens Contributor and a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry rifleman. Deane also served in the National Guard as an Intelligence Analyst.
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