We’ve been to the brink before. This time, Trump’s rejection of the Iran nuclear deal could push us over. John Foster Dulles, Ike’s secretary of state (1953–59), foreshadowed the present administration: appear to go to the brink of war but don’t follow through. Dulles’ formula, however, retained congressional and public support. It basically continued previous policy and didn’t accomplish much, but neither did it start fresh wars.

Critics derided Dulles as rigid, limited and bellicose. “Dull, Duller, Dulles,” said bumper stickers. Actually, he was quite bright and aware that his predecessor, Dean Acheson, was pilloried for not doing enough to “roll back” communism. Acheson dismissed his detractors, mostly in the Senate, as “the attack of the primitives,” but they hamstrung him. Dulles was not going to let that happen to him. He announced a series of tough policies with no intention of following through. 

His technique: posture, pose, play-act. His first “policy of boldness” was to denounce the Democrats for accepting Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and demand instead liberation. When presented with chances to liberate — the 1953 East Berlin uprising, 1956 Hungarian revolution and 1956 Polish revolt — he did nothing. Dulles understood that U.S. rollback of Soviet power would ignite World War III.

Dulles purged State of the “China hands,” Chinese-speaking diplomats unjustly accused of Communist sympathies, robbing us of Asia expertise and enforcing conformist silence. The Republicans talked about “unleashing” Chiang Kai-shek to retake China. Dulles knew that Mao had beaten Chiang in 1949 and would do so again, giving the Communists the opportunity to take Taiwan. So, while we protected Taiwan, we kept it on a leash. 

Upset at Europe’s inability to form a European Defense Community in 1953 — due to French fears of Germany — Dulles announced an “agonizing reappraisal” that could shrink U.S. forces in Europe if Europe did not get its security act together. Europe didn’t, so we simply continued our NATO commitment. 

In 1956, Dulles revealed that we had been three times to the brink of war to safeguard Korea, Indochina and Taiwan. Thus was born the term “brinkmanship.” Logically, avoidance of war does not demonstrate that we approached any brink, something you’d prove only after you’ve gone over it. The only U.S. military action of that period was the landing of Marines in Beirut in 1958 to dampen Lebanon’s Christian-Muslim conflict, which didn’t stay dampened.

Secretary of State Pompeo resembles Dulles in his incessant trips overseas, not all of them necessary, instead of working through State Department professionals whose ranks, then and now, have been decimated. (Got a foreign-policy problem? Decimate the State Department.) Dulles did and Pompeo does too much diplomacy personally, which is often poorly prepared and yields little beyond film clips. 

Some say the last secretary who really ran the State Department was Acheson (1949–53), who mostly stayed in Washington, planning and guiding policy, some of it in the face of George Kennan’s criticism. At present, few in State openly criticize. Many of the best have left, their positions unfilled. Those who remain stoically preserve their jobs. No one articulates a coherent, feasible strategy. 

Trump’s brinkmanship parades reality-TV bravado. His threats first whip up tension, which he then calms, essentially returning to the status quo ante but claiming victory. For Trump, all diplomacy is personal; facts — historical, geographic, economic — bore him. He ignored Secretary of State Tillerson and sent Jared Kushner to meet foreign chiefs without even informing Tillerson. Pompeo and Bolton are Trump’s attack dogs, so far on a leash. 

One can see Dulles in Trump’s “fire and fury” at North Korea, but Trump reverses himself: smiling with Kim in Singapore, frowning in Hanoi, excusing Kim’s rocket tests, then meeting Kim in the DMZ. He initiates a tariff war with China, then softens after chatting with Xi Jinping. 

Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the Iran deal may be one tough-guy act too many. Iran now gives Trump the choice of war or accommodation. Washington supposed that new sanctions would quickly break Tehran, but it pushes back with uranium enrichment and asymmetrical jabs. U.S. and Iranian retaliation and counter-retaliation can escalate into war.

Important factor — which way Europe tilts: Obey Washington or keep the nuclear deal afloat? The EU is attempting a diplomatic solution. France, Germany and the UK have jointly devised a bartering vehicle for trade with Iran, INSTEX (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges), to bypass dollars. It hasn’t been used yet but further estranges U.S. allies. 

Trump knows another Mideast war would hurt his reelection, but he can’t be seen as weak. The recent NAFTA redo suggests a solution: Offer Iran some small changes in the nuclear deal, lift U.S. sanctions and declare victory. As Hans Morgenthau warned decades ago, never put yourself in a position from which you cannot advance without grave risk and from which you cannot retreat without loss of face.