Trump’s ‘Madman Theory’ Isn’t Strategic Unpredictability. It’s Just Crazy.
What worked for the president on the campaign trail is now becoming his greatest foreign-policy weakness.
On the campaign trail, the media loved Donald Trump’s unpredictability. What would the wacky candidate do next? It was an approach he was keen to wield not only on the political stage but the global one, calling for an “unpredictable” foreign policy. “We are totally predictable. We tell everything. We’re sending troops? We tell them. We’re sending something else? We have a news conference. We have to be unpredictable, and we have to be unpredictable starting now,” he said in an April 2016 speech.
Recent weeks have seen a renewed focus on this pledge, with Trump switching positions almost by the day. Trump declared that NATO, despite his earlier claims, is “no longer obsolete.” He won’t declare China a currency manipulator. Despite months (and even years) of calling for cooperation with Syria and Russia to combat the Islamic State, and for an “America First” doctrine skeptical of the value of international norms, Trump ordered a cruise missile strike on Syria’s Shayrat air base in retaliation for the Bashar al-Assad regime’s apparent use of chemical weapons against civilians. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., now visibly disagree on whether the administration will resume Barack Obama’s policy of demanding Assad’s removal from power.
Reversals and shifts are far from unprecedented. New administrations often adjust their policies to deal with the complex realities of international affairs or with changing tides in domestic politics. But few of these have openly sung the praises of unpredictability or contradicted themselves with such abandon as the Trump administration. The president and his supporters argue that having a reputation for being unpredictable will make others think twice before messing with the United States.
But unpredictability isn’t a strength. For a great power such as America, it’s a recipe for instability, confusion, and self-inflicted harm to U.S. interests abroad.
Some commentators link Trump’s championing of unpredictability to the so-called “madman theory” of Richard Nixon’s attempt to persuade rivals — including the North Vietnamese and the Soviet Union — that he was impulsive and unpredictable. Neither Hanoi nor Moscow was ever entirely convinced by Nixon’s stance. But the madman theory also wasn’t about Trumpian unpredictability. Nixon wanted to convince his adversaries that he was irrational, but consistent, when it came to calculating the downsides of using force.
Consider nuclear brinkmanship during the Cold War. A “rational” leader would never risk nuclear oblivion over an issue of minor importance. It is, in fact, difficult to imagine any particular dispute being worth nuclear Armageddon, especially one that does not directly threaten the American homeland. That left some questioning the value of the deterrent at all.
So how do you make it credible that the United States will risk a nuclear exchange over West Germany or Japan, let alone, as Nixon toyed with, Vietnam or Israel? Nixon thought that it might help create the impression that he was irrational — but in the sense of being prone to impulsive and disproportionate actions without thinking about the costs. There was nothing unpredictable about his underlying policy preferences or goals.
The strategy was attractive, in large part, because some of the situations Nixon faced did not lend themselves to standard solutions. In the context of nuclear deterrence and coercion — which was central to Nixon’s calculations — the textbook approach is to make a nuclear response more or less automatic. Such policies are ways of approximating the act of “throwing the steering wheel out the window” in a game of chicken. They show your opponent that you can’t swerve out of the way — that you will, metaphorically or literally, fight to the death.
There was no guarantee that the United States would go nuclear over Berlin, but the U.S. troop presence in the city made clear that Washington would be under enormous pressure to “do something” following thousands of American deaths. It left multiple pathways through which an attack on Berlin might spiral out of control. As famed nuclear theorist Thomas Schelling noted of the garrison in Berlin, “What can 7,000 American troops do, or 12,000 Allied troops? Bluntly, they can die. They can die heroically, dramatically, and in a manner that guarantees that the action cannot stop there.”
The “tripwire” of an outmatched U.S. presence in Berlin therefore enhanced deterrence. By placing its troops in a place where they might be easily sacrificed, Washington showed it simply had no other option than escalating the conflict. While we might associate such behavior with a crazy person, it is the exact opposite of unpredictability. Throwing the steering wheel out the window makes the outcome of failing to swerve totally predictable.
In sharp contrast, Trumpian unpredictability often undermines coercive diplomacy. What would have happened if the Trump administration had made clear that the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria would result in American military action? Or if Trump and his closest advisors hadn’t repeatedly signaled that they would rather work with Assad than against him? We will never know. But an unambiguous threat to retaliate might have deterred the use of chemical weapons in the first place.
Seen from this perspective, the American strike looks like a failure of coercive diplomacy, not a success. While Trump demonstrated his willingness to use force by attacking the Shayrat air base, the only way that the attack will reduce the chances of the Assad regime using chemical weapons in the future is if it believes that Trump is predictable and that any future use will cause another strike.
Similarly, leaks from the administration suggested that if Pyongyang tested a nuclear device last weekend, then the United States would launch military action against North Korea. Other members of the administration walked back those threats, creating — at least in public — significant ambiguity about possible American actions. On Monday, Vice President Mike Pence warned that North Korea should not test American resolve but that the United States is open to talks. Let’s say that Trump does, in fact, intend to retaliate if North Korea tests another nuclear device. The unpredictability of the situation likely makes Pyongyang more, not less, likely to initiate a test. After all, it cannot be sure that Trump would, in fact, use force.
There are situations where this might benefit American policymakers. If Washington wants to deter an adversary, but does not actually want to use force, then leaving the threat ambiguous reduces the political costs of backing down, stopping opponents at home from accusing you of chickening out of enforcing a supposed red line. If the goal is to keep an adversary from taking any provocative steps — even those short of what you consider worth using force or imposing sanctions over — then introducing some unpredictability about what would trigger a response might be a good idea.
The problem is that ambiguity might encourage the adversary to probe your resolve and test the limits of your interests while making it more difficult to clearly signal that a particular move is a step too far and will credibly invite retaliation. For example, in the absence of clear signals about what the United States is and is not willing to tolerate, and faced with mixed signals about American interests, Pyongyang might be tempted to initiate a series of low-level incidents designed to test the limits of U.S. tolerance. It is easy to imagine one of those actions, like the downing or seizure of a naval vessel or drone, crossing a line that prompts a forceful response to the perceived affront. The irony in such a scenario is that Pyongyang might steer clear of these actions if it could predict with some confidence how the United States would react.
The trade-offs around strategic ambiguity are difficult, but Trumpian unpredictability seems not to take account of them at all. No rational policy calculation for the United States favors sudden policy reversals, a failure to communicate consistent interests or preferences, consistently mixed signals, or any of the other forms of “flexibility” now on the table. Trump’s unpredictability is a strategy that carries more benefits for weak states facing vastly superior foes.
Indeed, Trump might make more sense if he were North Korea’s leader, not America’s. On the classic sitcom Malcolm in the Middle, the father, Hal, explains the strategy of schoolyard fights to his sons: “Crazy beats big every time.” Crazies fight harder and dirtier and care less about consequences. North Korea certainly derives some benefit from the common perception that its leaders are crazy. The United States has the ability to utterly annihilate North Korea a few times over. But the simple risk that “crazy” North Korea would be willing to risk total destruction, carrying large portions of South Korea and the U.S. garrison there with it, has contributed to deterring Washington from preventive action in the peninsula.
But the United States, in this scenario, is one of the big kids on the schoolyard. With the limited exception of the other nuclear great powers, Washington can inflict far more damage — economic, diplomatic, or military — on any other state than they can impose on the United States. Some of that outsized power derives directly from America’s vast network of allies and strategic partners, which no rival comes close to matching.
Thus, for the United States, unpredictability carries enormous risks. That’s true for Nixonian calculated irrationality, too, but much more so for Trumpian unpredictability. Rivals and allies can easily interpret mixed signals from different voices in the administration and frequent high-profile policy reversals as evidence that the president does not mean what he says, that he has no idea what he is doing, or that he can change his mind on a whim. Intentionally fostering uncertainty reduces the credibility of existing commitments.
Unraveling the American alliance network by undermining confidence in Washington is probably the worst way to implement an America First policy. It undercuts a major source of American strength without gaining the benefits that might follow from strategic retrenchment — that is, of making deliberate decisions about what commitments are key to American security and which can be shed, while taking steps to ensure that unwinding those commitments don’t harm vital interests and alliances.
Trumpian unpredictability creates more problems than solutions. Playing crazy may sometimes be an attractive strategy, especially for weaker actors that have a narrow set of minimalist goals — like survival or autonomy. But if a state has more expansive goals, and ample resources to pursue them, as does the United States, unpredictability is a poor approach to grand strategy. It is hard for others to follow your lead when they don’t know what your goals are.
Partners are less likely to stand by your side if they lack confidence that you will stand by theirs. If Trump wants America to remain a dominant power, and wants others to respect American interests around the world, he needs to bolster American credibility. This requires a good measure of predictability, not the attitudes of an unpredictable rogue state.
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