Donald Trump has been one of the most critically scrutinized political figures in recent history. But what has so far escaped much attention is how Trump promised to ‘Make America Great Again’ by ‘winning’ on all fronts. Yet victory has long been a centrepiece of Trump’s vision for American renewal. Here is Trump on the stump in April 2016:
You’re going to be so proud of your country. […] We’re going to turn it around. We’re going to start winning again: we’re going to win at every level, we’re going to win economically […] we’re going to win militarily, we’re going to win with healthcare and for our veterans, we’re going to win with every single facet, we’re going to win so much, you may even get tired of winning, and you’ll say “please, please, it’s too much winning, we can’t take it anymore” and I’ll say “no it isn’t”, we have to keep winning, we have to win more, we’re going to win more!
Perhaps because it was drowned out by the vital question of whether or not Trump coined a new term, ‘bigly’, or because America and its allies have become deeply uncomfortable with the triumphalist rhetoric of victory; or because analysts have simply been unable to keep pace with the welter of puzzles that Trump throws up – his comments about victory have not yet been taken seriously. But now that Trump’s administration is in its first hundred days and his ‘contract with the American voter’ is coming into effect, it is worth taking the question of victory seriously. As Andrew Priest recently noted on this blog, ‘Mak[ing] America Great Again’ depends on ‘success in the world’. Trump will need American wins abroad to deliver on his promises at home. So what does victory mean to Trump, what does it mean to the rest of the world, and can he achieve victories in today’s political landscape? In what follows we expand on each of these questions.
The Meaning of Trumpian Victory
Trump has thrown ‘winning’ around more than any public figure since Charlie Sheen, and certainly with more gusto than his twenty-first century predecessors. Even in the pitched political climate of the Global War on Terror, George W. Bush settled for ‘mission accomplished’, while part of Barack Obama’s effort to dampen the sense of existential struggle stalking counterterrorism was to spell out what victory would not look like. By contrast, Trump has been more casual and less forthcoming about victory. However, we can piece together some specifics of his vision of victories abroad from his speeches, his contract with American voters, and the foreign policy priorities of his new administration.
First, during the primary season he was slightly more specific:
we lose everywhere, we lose militarily, we can’t beat ISIS, give me a break! We can’t beat anybody. […] It will change. […] We’re going to build up our military. We’re going to have such a strong military that nobody, nobody is going to mess with us. We’re not going to have to use it!
During the general election, he added that ‘we’re going to win at the border’. From this we might glean that victories abroad will depend on confronting terrorism, reinvigorating the notion and practice of deterrence, and hardening America’s borders. To wit, candidate Trump proposed to ‘bomb the hell’ out of terrorist groups like Islamic State and indicated he may see the Assad regime as an acceptable evil in the Syrian crisis – two options that go hand in hand with the unilateral warmth he has recently showered upon Russia and its president. At the inauguration, he promised to ‘unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth’ – an objective that tops the list of his foreign policy priorities. Although there have been some flip flops, he repeatedly returns to the promise to wall up the US southern border, a project that Trump the deal maker promises will be paid for by Mexico. This will complement his plan to deport two or three million undocumented immigrants and establish ‘new screening procedures for immigration’ – especially from those countries that he views as ‘compromised by’ Islamist terrorism.
Trump’s vision of military victory via deterrence works first by eliminating the current defense sequester, after which he proposes to ‘expand military investment’ so that nobody would dare mess with the US: ‘peace through strength’. He is also considering expanding the nuclear deterrent: ‘The US must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.’ However, he does not always view nuclear weapons as solely for deterrent purposes: ‘Somebody hits us within ISIS — you wouldn’t fight back with a nuke? […] why are we making them? ’ Furthermore, Trump views nuclear weapons as a part of the negotiators toolkit, part and parcel of deal making – in which it is costly to take options ‘off the table’ and it pays to ‘to be unpredictable’ – rather than a most dangerous and sui generis facet of national security. Trump thus provides us with a chilling mixed message about nuclear deterrence that also marks a natural-experimental test of the bargaining as well as the long-running debate between nuclear optimists and sceptics about whether ‘more may be better’.
With its borders developed, immigration slowed to an ‘extreme[ly] vetted’ trickle, and the US military reinvigorated, Trump looks ready to pursue hardline stances against North Korea, Iran, and China – the latter a country that he cannot seem to resist antagonizing and being antagonized by. How these myriad policies and decisions will feed into a new era of American victory remains unclear. However, as Priest discusses, Trump’s view of international relations is that ‘national triumph is a zero-sum game in which America’s adversaries must lose’. It is also worth noting here that Trump’s general orientation toward the notion of victory – as manifest in his comments about his own decisive popular defeat turned ‘beautiful’ and ‘historic electoral landslide’ – is best described as flexible. He has shown on a number of occasions a willingness to do the heavy hermeneutic lifting to turn losses, draws, and ambiguous outcomes into triumphs. He has also shown a predilection for claiming others’ successes as his own. Taken together, it seems that he does not know how to win except by diminishing others and amplifying particular facets of American identity; yet much like a woman Trump deems ‘worthy’ of harassment, Trump knows victory when he sees it, even if no one else does.
Regardless of how Trump and his advisors think America’s new victories will actually unfold, their promises of wins ubiquitous to the point of mundanity come at a moment when such accomplishments are more difficult than at any other point in modern history. As strategic studies, just war, and international legal scholars show, we have seen a significant shift away from war as legitimate solely for the purposes of restoring the status quo ante or propping up international stability. Instead, legitimate victory now depends upon long-term change in political, social, and economic sectors so as to prevent future instability and conflict – a moral victory today must be positive and transformative rather than merely restorative. It nearly always involves carefully calibrated and circumscribed use of force, post-conflict reconstruction, ‘winning hearts and minds’, and the assent of the international community. Even if these conditions are satisfied, the durability of victory remains precarious, thanks to the ever-present possibilities of recidivism, insurgency, and/or terrorism.
Moreover, as Hom discusses elsewhere, ‘conventional notions like negotiated settlements, surrender for the sake of survival, and total conquest are either impossible or turned upside down’ by the nature of international terrorism. Traditionally, victory in war pertained to territorial state armies incapacitating each other or capturing vital territory. Winning matters here but more importantly each side must avoid comprehensive defeat, up to and including a negotiated surrender designed to preserve the state’s continued existence. We call this surrender-for-survival. However, terrorist groups operate by a very different logic of political violence. While states can surrender to survive, the moment that organizations like ISIS and al Qaeda capitulate, they cease to exist in any political meaningful way. They are much less restrained than nation-states, but precisely because their raison d’être is to violently challenge an international order they deem illegitimate, surrender is the only event that can decisively eliminate terrorist organizations. Continuing the fight, even if strategically unsuccessful in any conventional sense (loss of territory, resources, people, etc.) is precisely how terrorists ensure their existence. As Hom writes:
It has become something of a cliché that Islamist terrorists love to die as much as others love to live, but the more important strategic point is that while battlefield casualties count as tactical losses for nation-state militaries, they provide a sort of perverse index of the strategic health of the jihadist cause – not because of some nihilistic obsession with violence but because of the dependence of such causes on a conflictual relationship with conventional actors.
Taken together, these shifts suggest that victory today is more nuanced, difficult, expensive, and time-consuming than ever before, and no less fleeting. Furthermore, the political logic of terrorism may turn victory on its head in a way that state leaders have not yet fully appreciated.
Can Trump Win Abroad?
The current challenges of victory only make Trump’s own views about the topic more troubling. Given the issues just outlined, along with the continued taboo against nuclear weapons and his voting public’s own distaste for expending blood and treasure on military adventures, how can Trump achieve the sorts of victories that he envisions will make America great again?
This is because his plans work at cross-purposes, or simply because the world does not work the way he thinks it does. How far will Trump have to build up the US military as a global deterrent to make up for the security dividend lost by weakening America’s relationships with nearly all its closest allies and by destabilizing NATO? Viewing alliances and other international relationships in purely economic-transactional terms (Trump the deal breaker) makes little sense alongside a policy of growing the military – expense be damned – for purely symbolic purposes. Even for defense hawks, this looks like one step forward, one (or more) steps back. Moreover, deterrence is just as likely to produce another round of security dilemmas with America’s rivals as to lead to ‘peace through strength’. China and Russia may not be able to challenge the US militarily, but that does not mean they will not ‘mess’ with the US on issues like the South China Sea, Taiwan, and Eastern Europe – especially if they perceive that US military developments affect strategic dynamics in those regions.
Deterrence further presumes a strike-able and rational adversary with commensurable interests, neither of which takes stock of the strategic and political peculiarities of international terrorism. You can deter other actors who must preserve themselves in war, but not those who constitute and preserve their self only through battle and sacrifice. Additionally, building up a conventional deterrent so that ‘nobody will mess with us’ and thus ‘we never have to use it’ runs against the grain of America’s longstanding policy of overwhelming overreaction to terrorist attacks. Trump promises both to armor the US to the hilt and to expose its soft political underbelly to an otherwise impotent foe, directly contradicting his promise that ‘we do not go abroad in search of enemies.’
Unless he can learn to love foreign occupations and learn to rely on his own intelligence community to supply the sort of deep local knowledge on which contemporary warfare now depends, Trump’s counterterrorism successes are therefore likely to look just like Obama’s: a drone of remote air strikes punctuated by ‘high value’ kills and other ‘little, insignificant truncated “victories” to the broader detriment of human rights and international security’, which stand in for any real, structural, change in the situation on the ground – that is, another round of Obamacare for the Middle and Near East. Once again, this works at cross-purposes with Trump’s vision of American greatness through security, for one of the effects of successful air strikes has been to encourage ISIS to fully embrace a strategy of international terror.
Nor can Trump win ‘at the border’ in an age of a digitally dispersed ‘caliphate of the mind’ and increasingly online radicalization. Many recent US terrorist attacks were carried out by US citizens radicalized by non-traditional means. And recent incidents in Europe only drive home the new potential unlocked by ISIS to foster attacks in the absence of local infrastructure, transnational ties or movement, or even a single face-to-face meeting. Although it likely never would have, a border wall will most certainly not prevent future attacks – not when they can germinate entirely on home soil watered through the conduits of the internet.
What if Trump responds to an actual terrorist attack by again broaching a nuclear strike? He will aid the efforts of nuclear aspirants everywhere, effectively confirm radicals’ arguments against the US and its allies, give further comfort to his terrorist nemeses, and bring the world that much closer to doomsday.
Perhaps, however, we should not take him literally here. Even then, though, there is the issue of his general view of nukes. Trump likes a nuclear bargaining position. But international politics qua deal-making with thermonuclear chips cannot produce real victories for Trump for two reasons. First, most analysts today agree that there are no strategic or legitimate winners in a nuclear exchange, and any actions that incline toward this are highly suspect. Second, nukes are especially unsuitable to the kind of unrealistic, dyadic or two-dimensional game to which Trump would reduce international politics. Even if he could leverage them successfully against one state, playing nuclear bargaining chips would likely constitute a provocation with all sorts of unanticipated knock-on effects on other actors and future interactions. This means that either by misplaying his hand or by winning, Trump may destabilize the nuclear status quo and encourage proliferation – again, just the opposite of his stated goal.
For all its problems, today’s nuclear complex remains preferable to even an isolated nuclear event. Moreover, because such an event would be unprecedented, there are no good grounds for confidence that it would remain isolated. There is no evidence Trump has considered any of this. Ironically, his open embrace of Russia might provide some glimmer of a firewall against nuclear escalation. Yet such a situation would mark an extreme and dangerous test of Trump’s regard for Putin, and vice versa, especially where the latter’s geopolitical and strategic interests come into play.
Conclusion: The Only Win That Matters
These problems only scratch the surface of victory as a brambly path back to greatness. We could add the highly complex and dangerous confrontation Trump seems bent on fomenting with China across several dimensions – economic, trade and manufacturing, geopolitical and strategic – in which America might lose badly. More generally, how can the US ‘become winners again’ again if it is economically hamstrung by Trump’s debilitation of the dollar, reinvigoration of protectionism, and slow cultivation of American natural resources? Saving jobs and the economy via these routes works directly against the projection of American power abroad, which further depends on the very bulwarks of international order that Trump seems most intent on undercutting. Taken together, there is no clear pathway to success here, and certainly not a plausible plan to ensure that the world becomes ‘more peaceful and more prosperous with a stronger and more respected America.’
On the other hand, Trump’s post-election willingness to interpret nearly any foreign or domestic event as a win, combined with his probable continuation and expansion of Bush’s and especially Obama’s brand of counterterrorism, will provide plenty of empty victories which he can fill with meaning and then point to as evidence of an American renaissance. And if he can successfully con the ever-more credulous American electorate that immigration statistics translate to security, all the better for him. These ‘wins’ will accomplish next to nothing and may well harm America’s role and influence in the world. However, they may also contribute to the only real victory that Trump actually cares about, based on the balance of all his behavior to date: closing the electoral deal in 2020. Unless his quarter-baked and contradictory initiatives, zero-sum view of international politics, and fuzzy principles about nukes render re-election unnecessary, historians in the future may well look back and conclude that although he had almost no understanding of the international politics of victory, at home Trump couldn’t lose for winning.
 See Eric Patterson, ‘Victory and the Endings of Conflicts’, in Andrew R. Hom, Kurt Mills, and Cian O’Driscoll, Eds. Moral Victories: The Ethics of Winning Wars, book manuscript.
 This includes Germany and France, long two of the United States’ staunchest allies. Trump has, so far, espoused no concern and little knowledge of the durable tradition of right-wing and Christian terrorism, both in the US and other countries.
 James D. Fearon, “Rationalist Explanations for War,” International Organization 49, no. 3 (1995): 379–414; Scott Douglas Sagan and Kenneth N. Waltz, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: An Enduring Debate, 3 edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012).
 Robert Mandel, The Meaning of Military Victory (Boulder, Colo: Lynne Rienner Pub, 2006).
 Cian O’Driscoll, “At All Costs and in Spite of All Terror? The Victory of Just War,” Review of International Studies 41, no. 4 (October 2015): 799–811.
 Gabriella Blum, “The Fog of Victory,” European Journal of International Law 24, no. 1 (2013): 391–421.
 Ibid. See also Andrew R. Hom, Kurt Mills, and Cian O’Driscoll, Eds. Moral Victories: The Ethics of Winning Wars, book manuscript.
 See Daniel Brunstetter, ‘Justice After the Use of Limited Force: Victory and the Moral Dilemmas of Jus Post Vim’ in Andrew R. Hom, Kurt Mills, and Cian O’Driscoll, Eds. Moral Victories: The Ethics of Winning Wars, book manuscript.
 Campbell Craig and Jan Ruzicka on the nonproliferation complex, “Who’s In, Who’s Out?,” London Review of Books, February 23, 2012.