During the Cold War, it was taken as a given that the Soviet Union would test any new American president. It was an effort to see how the new leader would react under stressful conditions. After the Cold War, the desire to test new leaders to measure their political will and political temperament has not vanished.
Donald Trump has had a couple of chaotic weeks in office, leading a government that seeks to unsettle the past ways of doing things. Despite all of the rhetoric of change, the tests of resolve from foreign leaders are following a very familiar pattern.
International relations is a confusing and dangerous field for those who practice it. You can know a great deal about a country and its leaders, but you always are faced with some degree of uncertainty. You can know how a leader will probably react based on their past decisions, the type of political institutions in their nation-state, and a range of other factors that influence the kinds of incentives they face. But you never know how much of your estimates of probable actions will match reality until the leader actually makes decisions.
Wars have happened because political leaders have gotten this kind of calculation wrong. The German Kaiser was convinced that Great Britain would never fight to protect France, and thus missed a key element that determined the outcome of World War One. In 1941, the Japanese Imperial government thought that the United States would negotiate a peace after being attacked if it freed them to fight in Europe. That miscalculation led to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the unconditional surrender of Japan in 1945.
When nations miscalculate what political leaders in rival states will do, the results can be costly.
So, tests of resolve are common tools of policy. The idea is to create a situation that matters, but not too much. This allows all parties to send costly signals to each other about how they will act at other times. Russia spends time and money to deploy a missile system to the borders of NATO member states. This is a costly signal that threatens NATO allies and signals that Russia is willing to break its past commitments. The ball is then in the court of the Trump administration to respond. The response is a costly signal of how the Trump administration will react in future cases of threats. This signal is not just for Russia, but for all of the potential competitors.
Russia is only one of the states seeking to get a feel for Donald Trump. North Korea and Iran have tested ballistic missiles that can carry nuclear warheads since Trump’s inauguration. China has accelerated economic integration plans within Asia to fill the gap left by the abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
It is still early days for the Trump administration and the response to these threats has varied. Iran was hit by additional sanctions. North Korea will likely face additional penalties, but through the United Nations process rather than unilaterally. And Russia? Given all the furor over Russia and its possible role in the 2016 elections in the US, the response here is an important early signal about the resolve to stand by our NATO allies.
It is still too early to judge the response to this challenge. This is not a simple matter and it requires a thoughtful response, even in an administration distracted by other issues. The response may also take a long time to implement.
But it is still nice to see that in at least one area of contemporary politics, all the old rules still apply.