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Donald Trump’s Paper Tiger World

The paper tiger fallacy, portraying an opponent as incredibly strong yet eager to concede, is a tried and true trope of foreign policy punditry for good reason. It rectifies a critical flaw in premeditated policy arguments by allowing the user, if unchallenged, to sustain the fiction that their preferred course of action will not only be successful, but relatively costless, despite evidence to the contrary. Representing the strength of one’s opponent in this way, however, runs serious risks if, in fact, you are not facing a paper tiger, but one made of flesh and blood. It is therefore important to treat arguments predicated on a paper tiger opponent, for instance assuming—as president-elect Donald Trump appears to—that  the United States can easily sway revisionist great powers such as China or Russia through bellicose rhetoric posturing, with intense skepticism.

Image courtesy of the Kremlin, © 2014.

Disturbingly, all evidence points to Trump and his ever-widening policy circle inhabiting a paper tiger world. Virtually every pre-inauguration foreign policy area that Trump and his coterie have stuck their fingers in has been predicated on the basis of both an unrealistic picture of their opponents’ strength and misrepresentation of what the United States can hope to accomplish by intervening. Given the frequency with which Trump and his coterie traffic in paper tiger arguments, it seems inevitable that they will catch a real tiger by the tail sooner rather than later.

For arguably any other president-elect in history it would be incredibly unfair to pre-judge their foreign policy acumen and decision-making before inauguration day. Donald Trump, however, is no ordinary president-elect. His willingness, indeed eagerness, to insert himself into global affairs prior to formally assuming office means he has, in essence, waived his right to a “wait-and-see” approach regarding his foreign policy direction. In short order Trump, amongst various recent transgressions, has contravened the longstanding “One China Policy” by fielding a congratulatory call from the President of Taiwan, dismissed intelligence assessments regarding the source and intent of hacking directed against Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee, fomented a nuclear arms race, and threatened to curtail U.S. support for the United Nations via the Security Council.

Pick virtually any of these issue areas and soon enough a paper tiger rears its head. Take, for instance, Trump’s call with Tsai Ing-wen, the President of Taiwan. Soon after the call, Marc Thiessen, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, argued that it was “a deliberate move—and a brilliant one at that,” since Trump “was serving notice on Beijing that it is dealing with a different kind of president—an outsider who will not be encumbered by the same Lilliputian diplomatic threads that tied down previous administrations.” Adopting a similar line of argument, Harry Kazianis, Director of Defense Studies at the Center for the National Interest, has raised the possibility of Trump doubling down on his phone call by meeting face-to-face with Tsai when she visits the United States.

The problem with these arguments is that they fail to acknowledge the potential for a Chinese response to U.S. provocations regarding Taiwan by escalating the situation. Even more troubling, Trump-leaning pundits portray China as a classic paper tiger: perceived to be incredibly powerful and bent on expansion but easily stopped through a U.S. show of force. For Kazianis, China is “march[ing] towards hegemony in Asia” and has “conduct[ed] what is charitably described as a massive power grab throughout the Asia-Pacific region.” Despite these revisionist tendencies, however, Kazianis curiously dismisses the possibility that China would respond militarily. Rather, by showing “he will push back against Chinese aggression,” Trump can easily and with few costs “ensur[e] the region remains at peace.” Similarly, Thiessen waves away any Chinese response by noting that “Beijing would be wise not to overreact to any overtures Trump makes to Taiwan,” since it could embolden Trump to further bolster ties with Taiwan. He concludes with the notion that, despite their military strength, China will grovel in the face of Trump’s message that “the days of pushing the United States around are over.”

Such paper tiger arguments are not limited to Trump’s engagement with Taiwan. Despite confusion over what Trump meant when he tweeted that the United States should “strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,” some commentators leaped to defend his bellicose stance. Robert Monroe, the former director of the now-dismantled Defense Nuclear Agency, believes that Trump will need to “reverse our national nuclear weapons policies instantly and initiate a crash course of actions if America is to survive” in an increasingly threatening world. Matthew Kroenig, Associate Professor of Government at Georgetown University, similarly argues that faced with a plethora of global threats, the United States “needs a robust nuclear force…not because anyone wants to fight a nuclear war, but rather, the opposite: to deter potential adversaries from attacking or coercing the United States and its allies with nuclear weapons of their own.” If Monroe and Kroenig are right, however, and the United States is so threatened, then why would these threatening states, faced with a U.S. nuclear build-up not respond themselves, either directly through a nuclear arms race or asymmetrically in other areas? In a similar vein, while it is easy for Trump to tweet that North Korea will never be able to build a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the United States, it is inestimably harder for the United States to actually prevent it from doing so.

Paper tiger proponents, it should be acknowledged, do have an easy way to save face. They can argue that the notion that the United States faces a paper tiger is no fallacy, but rather an accurate portrayal of an opponent’s true capabilities. China is actually unable or unwilling to back up their claims to the South China Sea or respond to U.S. provocations over Taiwan. Russia, North Korea, or any other potential nuclear adversary will cave in the face of a U.S. nuclear build-up. Still, the fact that many analysts (Kazianis, Monroe, Kroenig) explicitly point to opponents’ strengths precludes them convincingly reversing track to argue this strength is meaningless. Furthermore, although Trump supporters may be tempted to argue that the halting, appeasing foreign policy of the Obama administration unfairly inflated the perceived strength of U.S. adversaries, the near universal disdain for Obama amongst such pundits means such ad hominem protestations are difficult to sustain. True paper tigers certainly can and do exist; there are dogs whose bark is worse than their bite. To believe that they make up the entirety of the actors in the international system, or even a majority, however, reeks of wishful thinking rather than a measured assessment of intent and capabilities.


Alexander Kirss

Alexander is a PhD student in the Political Science Department at George Washington University. He moonlights as a defense consultant and writes broadly about the intersection of U.S. defense policy, foreign policy, and domestic politics, with a focus on organizational and structural issues. He has previously been published in War on The Rocks, Real Clear Defense, and The National Interest. You can connect with him on Twitter @fpclickbait for far more than just clickbait.
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