Opening the Window: Reversing Restrictions on Landmines Signals Possible Resurgence in Old Warfare Tool

By Daniel E. White

What was once a last millennium weapon has reemerged in the American arsenal. It is not flamethrowers expelling soldiers from the trenches of World War One, nor is it the wanton destruction brought on by Agent Orange during the conflict in Vietnam, it is the weapon that indiscriminately maims children and soldiers alike—landmines. Today, President Trump has opened the door to using these weapons both in the Korean Peninsula and elsewhere after conducting a defense policy review process. 

Almost 20 million landmines still exist in war-torn regions, like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Egypt. There are so many in northwest Egypt that ISIS is digging up landmines once set by Nazis and using them to create improvised explosive devices. Yet, the Trump Administration has still decided that landmines should be an available option. 

The World’s Against Landmines

While the European Union condemned the administration’s endorsement, European powers have failed to place significant pressure on the United States to reconsider its policy stance. Despite many opportunities that could be exploited in the integrated military relationship in the transatlantic security apparatus, such as NATO spending levels and missions in Iraq. More pointedly, the U.S.-Korean military relationship could be leveraged with significant European financial support, particularly when the funding mechanisms become less predictable amidst a nuclear threat from North Korea. 

The Ottawa Treaty, with 133 signatories, aimed to ban the use of anti-personnel mines across the world. Yet, of these 133 countries, notably, the world powers of the United States, China, and Russia, were absent. The United States has generally complied with the treaty, yet it has not signed because of the historical and current use of landmines on the Korean border

Presidential Policy Reviews

The Trump Administration’s first Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, began the process of reviewing the use of landmines. While Secretary Mattis has since resigned, the policy review was completed and greenlit the use of landmines that have a self-destruct detonation in less than 30 days or a back-up deactivation feature. The rationale was that the adherence to Obama’s policy of not using landmines outside of the Korean peninsula put U.S. forces at a “severe disadvantage.” This further cements President Trump’s policy of giving the military free rein to conduct operations around the world.

Previously, President George W. Bush had a similar policy. After a two-and-a-half-year policy review, they decided to abandon the goal of joining the Ottawa Treaty, which required the country to not use landmines, thus giving up a necessary military capability, carrying both a “valid and essential role” in protecting U.S. forces during military operations. President Obama’s administration adopted a policy to not produce nor increase the number of anti-personnel landmines. Furthermore, during his administration, the United States led the world in funding de-mining efforts and aiding victims.

Morality and Budgets in Foreign Policy

Is this a moral foreign policy option? The United States plays by different rules and is held to a higher standard—the gift and the curse of a hegemon. There must be a balance in this morality among the two main aspects of world order—power and legitimacy. President Trump’s approach is one of selective morality to foreign policy that leaves America weaker. Taking, preserving, and risking life is a heavily considered decision in war and requires civilian oversight, not purposeful executive neglect.


With the Department of Defense supporting the Department of Homeland Security in enforcing an inhumane border policy with real human costs, could it be a viable option for the Trump administration to use landmines on the southern border with Mexico? While it might sound egregious, with a pathway to expanding the use of landmines beyond Korea, sometimes talking points in stump speeches turn into reality. So far, $3.8 billion has been reallocated from the Department of Defense’s budget that was originally earmarked for the F-35, naval vessels, and army vehicles to the southern border. Both sides of the aisle have expressed their dismay, but aside from a Supreme Court injunction, the world will have to wait and see whether or not President Trump will place landmines on Mexico’s front door. 

Daniel E. White is currently a Master of Public Administration candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and previously served over five years as a U.S. Army officer in East Asia and the Middle East. Previously, he worked at a think tank, aerospace and defense company, and the United States Government.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.