Trump Doesn’t Deserve Any Credit for His Disruptive Foreign Policy
There’s no substance behind arguments that the U.S. president is using his unpredictability to the country’s advantage.
The collapse of U.S. President Donald Trump’s summit in Hanoi with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last month has rightly generated withering critiques from across the political spectrum. The near-consensus is that Trump showed up in Hanoi with no plan, no preparation, no coordination with allies, and, unsurprisingly, he left with no deal. This moment—the latest in a series of such failures—should signal the death knell of a persistent myth: that Trump’s disruptive style of foreign policy is an asset rather than a liability.
On the campaign trail and in office, Trump has done his best to propagate this myth. As candidate Trump said in 2016: “We must as a nation be more unpredictable. 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.” Trump has continued in this vein, tweeting his policy goals with abandon because, as one administration official told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, “permanent destabilization creates American advantage”—or, as another official put it, “We’re America, bitches.”
Trump’s followers inevitably praise this approach—including Fox News’ Sean Hannity, who attempted to salvage Trump’s Hanoi disaster by comparing it to President Ronald Reagan’s decision to walk away from his Reykjavik summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986. But Trump’s followers aren’t the only ones defending his approach. Observers within the traditional foreign-policy world—aligned with both major parties, but hardly fans of Trump—have also touted the president’s supposed unconventional wisdom. The Atlantic Council’s Frederick Kempe credits Trump for a “refreshing willingness” to take on issues, including Iran’s malign behavior, North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and China’s unfair trade practices, that his predecessors “ineffectually kicked down the road.” Ivo Daalder, former President Barack Obama’s ambassador to NATO, concedes that Trump’s disruptions are “leading to some very healthy debate about what are our goals” for U.S. relations with the world.
To be sure, Trump has garnered more consistent criticism than admiration from foreign-policy experts, and proponents of the disruption narrative often hasten to acknowledge Trump’s flaws, even when giving him credit. But the myth of the efficacy of Trump’s disruptions isn’t incidental to his policy failures. After all, Trump’s unpredictable approach didn’t deliver in Hanoi and has failed elsewhere. There are clear reasons why.
First, even adherents to “madman theory”—the idea that unpredictability can be an asset in international affairs, historically tied to President Richard Nixon’s foreign policy—admit that erraticism is not an effective end in itself; it must be connected to a larger objective. By most accounts, Trump either doesn’t set end goals or else changes them constantly, leaving members of his negotiating teams in the dark (when they aren’t fighting with each other, or with Trump). The initial North Korea negotiations are a perfect example. On the eve of last year’s summit in Singapore between Trump and Kim, Trump’s team was instructed to get a deal at any cost, resulting in a paper-thin declaration that downgraded the nuclear issue and actually took a step back from prior negotiations with North Korea’s leaders. By the time of last week’s Hanoi summit, after months of Trump’s love letters to North Korea’s brutal dictator, the two sides still failed to even agree to a definition of denuclearization—and North Korea may actually be expanding its arsenal.
Second, even when intentionally using it as a technique, Trump has mishandled the element of surprise. The president made his abrupt Afghanistan withdrawal announcement last year just as his own team was seated at the negotiating table with the Taliban—pulling the rug out from the effort to achieve the very outcome Trump was apparently seeking. Similarly, he shifted his Syria policy without notifying allies, partners on the ground, or even the United States’ own Defense Department, which is responsible for protecting U.S. service members in an ongoing war against the Islamic State. The United States took four casualties in Syria just after the Trump announcement, double the number of deaths in combat over the prior two years, a tragedy that Brett McGurk, the president’s former special envoy for the coalition to counter the Islamic State, wrote “coincide[d] with uncertainty in Washington about the mission.” Trump’s subsequent backtracking on these announcements simply reinforced the sense that behind them was an undisciplined decision-making process, rather than a purpose-driven strategy to surprise the country’s foes.
Finally, Trump’s cavalier approach comes with the profound assumption of risk. Mistake and miscalculation risks are ever-present in international affairs, even if difficult to measure, and each of Trump’s disruptions—from “fire and fury” rhetoric on North Korea to his brinkmanship with Iran and Venezuela—risk far more than an angry tweet in return. Case in point: Trump’s abrupt order to withdraw the family members of U.S. military forces in South Korea, which his subordinates slow-walked and ultimately ignored. Had it been implemented, it could well have initiated an escalatory spiral into conflict with North Korea.
Questioning the orthodoxies of foreign-policy making is never a bad thing, but recklessness is not a substitute for competence. For too long, Trump has been allowed to perpetuate the myth of being an effective disruptor in chief—and for too long, he’s come away with little if anything durable to show for it. On some issues, including Trump’s so-called trade deals, the president has won not much more than tweaks to prior negotiations that he himself previously denigrated. On others, including Iran’s nuclear program, U.S. allies have gone their own way, even taking steps that could erode sources of the United States’ long-term influence. Overall, Trump’s approach may be eroding the trust needed to ensure that America’s friends have its back when it needs them. Vice President Mike Pence, speaking to a room full of the United States’ closest European allies last month, had his applause lines met with awkward silence.
As Trump looks ahead to yet another summit, this time with China, Democrats and concerned Americans more broadly should not hesitate to call out his unpreparedness for what it is, instead of allowing him to continue to flaunt claims of purposeful unpredictability. In the end, it may be the very security of the United States that Trump is likely to disrupt.
Jeffrey Prescott is senior fellow at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement and the executive director of National Security Action. He served as a special assistant to the president and senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the Persian Gulf states on President Barack Obama's National Security Council and as Vice President Joe Biden's deputy national security advisor and senior Asia advisor. Twitter: @jeffreyprescott