Behind Donald Trump’s dangerous sabre-rattling

April 22, 2017

During last year’s presidential election campaign, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump favoured a more militarised foreign policy. They differed on the main target: Clinton aimed at Russia, while Trump singled out China.

Clinton wanted to continue the policy of both Republican and Democratic administrations since the collapse of the Soviet Union of steadily expanding NATO up to Russia’s borders in Europe. She also proposed challenging Russia in Syria.

With the US’s April 6 cruise missile strike on Syria, Trump has adopted Clinton’s position. The strike was ostensibly aimed at the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, but it quickly became apparent that its real target was Russia. Russian leaders have characterised relations with the US as having reached a new low. Trump has publicly said the same thing.

At the same time, Trump has ratcheted up the US confrontation with North Korea — with the larger target being China. Trump was eating dessert with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Trump’s “second White House” in Florida when the US leader casually mentioned the cruise missile attack against Syria. The implicit threat was clear.

Subsequently, Trump has publically demanded China force its North Korean ally to give up its nuclear program. Otherwise, he said, the US would “solve the problem” unilaterally — explicitly leaving military action on the table.

Further flexing his military muscle, Trump then dropped the MOAB super-bomb on Afghanistan. The most powerful bomb used in warfare since the US dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki at the end of World War II was aimed at the small ISIS forces in that country.

This show of force is largely symbolic. The cruise missile strike against a Syrian military airport did not affect the actual military struggle in that country. The civil war in Afghanistan is between the Taliban and the equally reactionary forces around the current government, not ISIS. So far, the threats against North Korea and China remain verbal.

But all this sabre-rattling is very dangerous. The US, Russia, China and North Korea are nuclear powers. Any actual military confrontation on any front could get out of hand. Trump has openly said nuclear weapons were “useable” in any potential conflict.

Trump’s agenda

Democratic and Republican politicians, and the capitalist media in general, have rallied around Trump’s ratcheting up of military threats. His new belligerence against Russia has muted Democratic charges that he is a puppet of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

The sabre rattling comes in a context of Trump’s failure to corral the Republican Party to deliver on repealing “Obamacare”, his difficulties in getting support to rewrite the tax code and his lack of progress on his pledge to “bring jobs back to the US”. The president is using the time-honored tactic of military aggressiveness to refurbish his strongman image.

The bipartisan support Trump is receiving has deep roots. The US-dominated “world order” is weakening.

The European Union, part of the structure of the US-led imperialist system, is wobbling. Russia is fighting back against NATO’s aggressiveness. In Asia, China is rising and threatens US economic dominance and even military dominance in the South China Sea.

At the same time, the US military remains more powerful than the militaries of all other nations combined.

This situation creates frustration among US rulers — if the US is so dominant militarily, why is its “world order” weakening?”

The powerful wounded beast is tempted to lash out with its main strength — its military. This makes it especially dangerous, as warmongering will not reverse the decline of the US empire.

The wars the US has launched in the Middle East and Afghanistan, grinding on for years and destroying whole countries, are a case in point. There is no realistic path out of this morass for the US short of ignoble retreat from the region. Far from retreating, however, the US keeps plunging in deeper.


Little is widely known in the US about Washington’s history of brutal imperialist aggression against Korea. After the defeat of Japan in WWII, the US sought to take over the former Japanese colony. However, the US was only able to occupy the southern part of the country, with the USSR opposing US troops near its border.

The US imposed military rule over the part of Korea it occupied until 1948. It then organised rigged elections to install a South Korean dictator. In 1950, the US invaded Korea to back South Korea in a civil war with the North.

When US forces drove deep into North Korea, China intervened. The US threatened to keep going into China to reverse the 1949 revolution. Chinese and North Korean forces drove the US out of the North, and the war ended in a stalemate.

This resulted in a ceasefire in 1953, but not a peace treaty. Legally, the US and South Korea remain at war with North Korea.

By the time of the ceasefire, the US war killed about a quarter of the population in North Korea and destroyed almost all of its urban centres.

The US has remained hostile ever since the ceasefire. In a Democracy Now! interview on April 17, the new threats were discussed by Bruce Cumings, professor of history at the University of Chicago, and Christine Hong, associate professor at the University of California.

Hong noted: “[Former president Barack] Obama waged a campaign of cyber-warfare against North Korea. Far from being a kinder, gentler or even softer policy, Obama’s policy was, in point of fact, warfare …

“Even the policy of military action against North Korea would be inconceivable if the Obama administration hadn’t made the militarisation of the larger Asia-Pacific region one of its topmost foreign policy objectives.

“Under the Obama strategic pivot to the region, the US concentrated its naval forces to a tune of 60% … in the Pacific region …

“I want to remind your listeners and viewers that the United States performs the largest war games in the world with its South Korean ally twice annually …

“It rehearses the decapitation of the North Korean leadership, the invasion and occupation of North Korea. It rehearses a nuclear first strike against North Korea with dummy munitions.”

There have been many crises between the US and North Korea over the years. One example occurred in 1994 when then-president Bill Clinton threatened a preemptive strike on a Yongbin plutonium facility.

Cumings told Democracy Now! that “each crisis is treated as if it has no background. The fact is that American nuclear intimidation of North Korea goes back to the Korean War.

“After the Korean War, in 1958, we installed hundreds of nuclear weapons in the South, the first country to bring nuclear weapons onto the peninsula. North Korea has, since the late 1950s, had to find a way to deter the US from using those weapons.

“For decades, they built underground. They have something like 15,000 underground facilities of a national security nature.

“But it was inevitable that when threatened with nuclear weapons … it was just inevitable that North Korea would seek a deterrent.”

China’s stance

China is extremely worried about the present crisis. It opposes any attempt by the US to defeat North Korea and impose a unified Korea under the US military umbrella right on China’s borders.

During US Vice-President Mike Pence’s recent provocative visit to South Korea, he went to the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas to glare across into North Korea for the cameras. He also reiterated that a military option was on the table, and that the US would go ahead with building a missile defense system in South Korea. China correctly claims this system is really aimed at it.

In this volatile situation, any miscalculation or US military action could swiftly get out of hand, renewing the Korean War with extremely dangerous consequences.

The whole situation could be solved by the US signing a peace treaty with North Korea, finally ending the Korean War, and ending the provocative twice yearly war games aimed at the North.

North Korea has repeatedly pledged that if those steps were taken, it would end its nuclear program and destroy its nuclear weapons. All this could be negotiated via a peace treaty, but Washington rejects this out of hand.


The US is also continuing to expand NATO towards Russia. In the Ukraine, the fighting between the Kiev government in the west and the Russian-speaking east smolders. The US supports Kiev, while Russia backs the east.

A flash point is Syria. The cruise missile attack has caused Russia to dig in its support for the Syrian regime — but not necessarily Assad as an individual in the future. Russia wants to keep its long-standing military bases in Syria, which give it access to the eastern Mediterranean.

With both Russian and US air forces bombing Sunni Islamist forces, fostering Sunni extremism, a clash could happen. For example, the US-led coalition is fighting to retake Raqqah from ISIS. So is the coalition of Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime.

These forces could clash, leading to a new crisis.

In his historic 1967 speech denouncing the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King Jr said that the US was the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. This remains true. We must oppose US military adventures and threats, and all governments which support them, in these dangerous times.

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