Donald J. Trump’s threat to impose 5% tariffs on goods from Mexico to force tougher border enforcement is the latest move in his Peace Through Strength foreign policy. Trump’s April 2019 announcement to withdraw aid to three Central American countries because they are not doing enough to stop asylum seekers, is another recent example. Certainly, Trump is not the first president to employ a policy that reduces investment in aid and diplomacy, with significant cuts to the State Department and USAID, while at the same time boosting military spending. Nevertheless, Trump’s emphasize on coercion instruments over diplomacy is primed to fail because it contradicts his other main strategy—namely, his Strategy of Exhaustion, which is designed to weaken his opponents in a cyclone of falsehoods.
More military band members than U.S. Foreign Service Officers
It was in December 2017 that Trump presented his National Security Strategy (NSS), which included the concept of Peace Through Strength. In monetary terms, for the fiscal year 2018, it meant a $17.3 billion decline in the budget line for the Department of State (including a $700 million decrease in aid for Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) and a $54 billion increase in spending for the Pentagon. Such expenditure means that the United States continues the trend to hugely overinvest in military tools and dramatically underinvest in diplomatic ones. This is despite the fact that military force usually has the opposite effect of what is intended, an argument that former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates often made while in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. Gates argued that it was not in America’s interests that it has more musicians in its military bands than it has diplomats or that the entire American diplomatic corps is less than the staffing of a single aircraft carrier group.
However, Trump’s emphasis on coercive tools goes a step further by weaponizing U.S. economic instruments. The escalating series of tariffs on all Mexican imports and a stricter embargo on Iran are cases in point. While it is not clear that exerting maximum pressure on Iran will bring the regime to its knees, the fact that Mexico strengthened security at its southern border and agreed to change its treatment of migrants from Central America, had Trump presenting his coercive trade measures as decisive interventions that persuaded a third country to act in U.S. interests.
Why it will not work
But, contrary to what Trump’s triumphant tweets might proclaim, his attempts to deter immigration through coercion and cruelty has so far proven a miserable failure, with the number of people crossing from Mexico into the U.S. increasing by as much as 30% in the short term.[i] In the long term, stopping development aid is sure to have equally deleterious effects, since aid is intended to address the root causes of why people leave. In fact, while emigration from Central America is on the rise, flight from El Salvador has fallen markedly, which some officials attribute to the effects of U.S. security aid there. Coercive instruments simply have limited effectiveness in tackling problems like immigration, a point that former Secretary Gates reiterated.
However, the main reason why Trump’s foreign policy strategy will fail is that it conflicts with his Strategy of Exhaustion–a policy of filling the public space with falsehoods to shape opinion. Whatever we might think of Trump’s leadership skills, he is a genius when it comes to understanding that an unfailing method to make people accept untruths is to repeat them often. Daniel Kahneman, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics and author of the acclaimed book Thinking Fast and Slow,[ii] writes that, “a reliable way to make people believe falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truths.” Foreign policy analysts call this the mere exposure effect—the fact that repetition of ideas (whether true or false) pushes us toward belief simply because repetition fosters cognitive ease and a sense of familiarity. Consistency of message also matters much more than completeness.
Domestically, Trump’s use of the mere exposure effect is aimed at his base but also his critics. Trump’s wants to numb the critical voting public by drowning it in absurdity and hypocrisy to the point that it simply tunes out current political discourse. I recently read a perceptive article about Joe Biden in The New Republic written by George Blaustein,[iii] an academic at the University of Amsterdam. At the end of the piece was a small advertisement for subscribers that enticed them with the phrase: “New hope for the civically exhausted.” That is exactly it—centrist voters or civic-minded voters—they are exhausted by what feels like the unmooring of the norms and values of Trump’s executive branch.
Bait and Disappear
In the end, Trump’s Strategy of Exhaustion combined with his shredding of norms and values affects the perceptions of the states in Central America that are at the receiving end of his Peace Through Strength foreign policy. It is difficult for such countries to gage the seriousness of Trump’s rhetoric when the real target is a domestic audience (who is growing impatient at Trump’s inability to build his border wall). Moreover, it is difficult to negotiate with an unpredictable executive branch that is prone to falsehoods. Trump even fabricated his “win” with Mexico. According to the New York Times,[iv] all the central elements on migration were settled months ago, meaning the tariffs were never going to really happen and the “deal” with Mexico was already brokered. Trump’s tariff threats were more examples of empty falsehoods or as New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks contends, the incident provided Trump with another “chance for his own performative narcissism.”[v]
The combined result of Trump’s Peace Through Strength and Strategy of Exhaustion is resistance. Dan Drezner of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy points out that since Trump took office American influence in the world has decreased while hostility toward U.S. positions has increased.[vi] The only constructive change that Drezner identities in foreign leaders is their ability to flatter the U.S. president. If enhanced fawning results in Trump boasting that the U.S. is getting the “respect” it deserves on the international stage then world leaders could learn a thing or two from Queen Elizabeth, who smoothly disarmed him with smiles, small talk and a banquet.