When a new American president is elected, the world likes to test him within the first few weeks or months of taking power. The witness of history is almost universal in this, so much so that the phenomenon cannot be accidental. It is likely, therefore, that Donald Trump will be tested by one of the major foreign powers fairly soon after Inauguration Day 2017. A crisis in the South China Sea; a successful North Korean warhead delivery system test; an ISIS “spectacular”; further Iranian insults and provocations; the possibilities are endless. The question these would-be antagonists are asking is the obvious one: How tough is America’s new Commander-in-Chief?
No president ever faced the kind of test that Abraham Lincoln did almost as soon as he became president on November 6, 1860, but that didn’t come from abroad. South Carolina did not bother waiting for his Inauguration the following March, but declared secession from the Union as early as December 20, in protest at his election. We know how he responded.
A century later, John F. Kennedy was only in the job one month when on February 22, 1961, Nikita Khrushchev of Russia launched his campaign against Dag Hammarskjöld, the Secretary General of the UN, over the Congo, signaling a new deep-freeze moment in the Cold War. Kennedy responded with an extraordinary State of the Union message in May, announcing higher defense funding, showing that he was not going to be cowed.
Ronald Reagan was tested in the opening weeks of his presidency when on March 22, 1981, the Russians suddenly announced the extension of their Warsaw Pact manoeuvres in Poland until April 7, meaning that their forces would be fully mobilized within a few miles of the West German border for over two weeks, during which time the USSR also branded the Polish trade union Solidarity as “counter-revolutionary.” Reagan was utterly unfazed by this obvious sabre-rattling, and passed the test triumphantly by continuing with his rearmament campaign and vocally supporting Solidarity and its leader Lech Walesa.
Within three months of his first inauguration, George W. Bush faced a serious foreign policy test on April 1, 2001 when a mid-air collision between a U.S. Navy signals intelligence aircraft and a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy interceptor fighter jet caused the death of the Chinese pilot, whereupon 24 Americans were detained and interrogated on Hainan Island. Bush passed this test by approving a document about the incident that was intentionally ambiguous, allowing both sides to calm what might easily have become an extremely dangerous situation.
President Obama similarly faced his first foreign policy test less than five months after his inauguration, when on June 12, 2009, the Tehran government was rocked by the first of a series of incredibly brave demonstrations of ordinary Iranians calling for democracy, human rights, and an end to the totalitarian mullah government there. He and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said and did nothing to support those calls, indeed the State Department actively undermined them, allowing the world to spot early how intestinally weak a president Mr. Obama was going to be for the next seven and a half years.
Will Donald Trump show the same combination of resilience and diplomacy that so many of his predecessors have, albeit sadly not Barack Obama? That is what America’s would-be rivals and antagonists will be finding out, probably sometime soon after January 20, 2017.