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Trumpian Unpredictability Remains a Foreign Policy Liability

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I’m not terribly consistent when it comes to promoting, at LGM, pieces that I’ve published elsewhere. Unfortunately, a Foreign Policy article that I wrote with Dani Nedal on Trumpian unpredictability has aged well.

I suppose it’s fitting that we wrote this piece back in April, when various enablers last claimed that Trump’s unpredictability would solve the North Korea problem.

Dani and I spend some time working through the differences between the so-called “Madman Theory” of deterrence and Trumpian unpredictability.

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.

And:

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.

To some degree, Trump’s talk of “fire and fury” is more consistent with all of this than with being unpredictable (note that Nixon’s gambit didn’t actually work). But it would need to be conjoined to some indication of what might trigger him. Trump’s original stipulation—”North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States”—is so obviously not credible that Pyongyang has already blown right past it. Given this, it’s not surprising that Mattis tried to rewrite Trump’s statement as a more traditional threat: the regime should stop its pursuit of nuclear weapons and return to diplomacy, as North Korea has no hope of defeating the United States and American allies.

Indeed, as we wrote:

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.

As we go on to argue, the problems with Trumpian unpredictability are compounded by the fact that the United States enjoys, at least for now, an extensive network of alliances and strategic partnerships.

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.

You should read the whole thing when you get a chance.

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  • NicknotNick

    I believe ‘we’re boned’ is the executive summary of this analysis, can’t really find anything to argue with. Who among us ever thought there might be real-world consequences to electing a narcissistic bigoted ignorant loon with ADHD and an inferiority complex the size of a galaxy? Not I, friends, certainly not I.

    • Charles S

      Combined with the fact that the adversary “leader” shares similar qualities and throw in a heaping helping of cultural “misunderstanding” and ignorance: Yeah, “we’re boned.”

    • Captain_Subtext

      The only thing that gives me any consolation at all is that Trump appears to also be a coward. I think the international community has already figured this out, which is why he is such a weak president.

      That being said, he is still unpredictable.

  • BobOso

    12th dimensional pick up sticks- or something. I would not put it past him to start a military action just to divert attention from the Mueller investigation. Trump is playing a very dangerous game.

    • NicknotNick

      maybe 2 dimensional

    • Cheap Wino

      12th dimensional pick-up sticks is brilliant.

      • It’s trivial as long as the sticks have dimension at most 5 (with no restrictions on the individual sticks’ geometry). For sticks of dimension 6 through 11, it’s probably progressively more complicated (but my guess is it can always be won); for 12 dimensional sticks of standard “stick-like” geometry, I decline to guess (much less to actually think about the problem).

        • Hogan

          ‘The box exists in ten or possibly eleven dimensions. Practically anything may be possible.’

          ‘Why only eleven dimensions?’

          ‘We don’t know,’ said Ponder. ‘It might be simply that more would be silly.’

    • At least he’ll get to go down as the man who destroyed the world, so there’s that. How many people can mount that claim on their wall?

      • wjts

        Hold my beer, Herostratus.

    • dhudson2728

      I’m not sure Trump is that clever. He’s much more likely to start a war in a fit of pique.

  • StrokeCityFC

    Trumpian Unpredictability Remains a Foreign Policy Liability
    May I suggest the next story? “All-Fried Chicken-diet” may be bad for you.

  • Van Buren

    I’m so old I remember Obama being castigated for all the uncertainty he was creating in the markets.

    • NicknotNick

      dark days those were, dark days

  • Robbert

    OT, but have you seen this?
    http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/poll-more-than-half-republicans-support-postponing-next-election

    Let that sink in. A majority of Republican voters support ‘postponing’ the next presidential election for transparently fraudulent reasons.

    Democracy, we had a good run, you and I, didn’t we? We had some mighty good times. Think of those when you quietly go into that good night.

    • NicknotNick

      I saw that — when the history of the decline if the United States is written, Fox News is going to have much the same role that that radio station played in the Rwandan genocide.

    • Joe Paulson

      Saw that and what came to mind was that we managed to have a local election here in NYC after 9/11 (it was primary day, so that itself was postponed to later in the month, but Giuliani left office on time).

      • Putting on my own worry hat, lots of people are very certain that 9/11 “changed everything.”

      • osceola

        If I recall correctly, Ghouliani offered to stay a little longer past his term to “help.” The residents of New York wisely told him to GTFO.

    • McAllen

      Half of me is outraged, and half of me is surprised it’s only 52%.

      • CP

        Most of the other 48% are people who don’t support it because they believe it’s unnecessarily drastic: the same result can be achieved much better through vote suppression, media pressure, and misbehavior by high-ranking officials like Comey in 2016 and the Nine in 2000.

        • TJ

          I think you could probably get a similar reaction from the same percentage of Democrats. Were you to ask them “Would you support postponing the presidential election because of Russian hacking of voting systems and planting of massive amounts of fake news?” I think half of Dems would probably say yes.

          The psychology is this: You’re not thinking if postponing an election is “right” . You’re thinking “Am I going risk those jerks on the other getting in office because of illegal tampering in our election?”.

          • David McWilliams

            The difference is that the things Democrats are concerned about actually happened.

            • TJ

              Sure but it’s perceptions that differ, not support for democratic norms. How much did Russia’s campaign actually change the outcome of the election vs Comey’s presser, or lackluster/poor campaigning by Clinton? Said another way, How many Pennsylvania voters chose Trump because they didn’t like Debbie Wasserman Schultz?

    • Wonder how many people change their opinion from “unthinkable” to “hm, maybe” after being exposed to polls asking for people’s opinion as if it was on the same level as raising the minimum wage.

      • NicknotNick

        I’ve wondered that too, sometimes — though I think the larger effect is the constant drumbeat of hysterical outrage and apocalyptic news from Fox (and worse), that makes any lunatic opinion seem on the normal spectrum.

        How long can you listen to someone announcing that the President (Obama) hates America and is trying to destroy it, without starting to question the system that put such a monster in place? I guarantee you, people on the left feel the same way because of Trump, there are days that I ponder that myself.

        • Well, it is on the normal spectrum now. We now know about 15% of Americans (actually Rs as 30% seems a little high) believe that it’s okay to suspend elections, presumably because they believe voter fraud is so pervasive as to make elections illegitimate, and though they might not do something like write a letter arguing it should be policy, would “support” suspending the Constitution if the President called for it. Presumably the pollsters took care to inform the people they questioned of the significance of the statement they were being asked to agree with.

          (I suppose the assumption is that 75% percent of Rs believe elections are illegitimate because we’re overrun by illegal voters and it would be even more dangerous to be explicit about that belief in a state or emergency.)

    • this is perfectly expected of a party that is all about "the rule of law" and which still calls Obama a "tyrant".

      • And for whom the fact that Crooked Hillary got away with Benghazi just cannot, will not stand.

    • DJ

      Bear in mind that for many (most?) respondents, these sorts of questions are really just stand-ins for partisanship. They (rightly) view polling questions like these as mostly psychological exercises designed to plum the depths of their support, or lack of support, for their party or politician.

      Which isn’t to say they wouldn’t actually support postponing the election if it came to that, but simply that their answer does not indicate a reflection on the actual question, but is more of a general statement that should be interpreted as “I really support Trump a lot!” Which means that the response is highly circumstantial, and most likely mutable.

      • NicknotNick

        People always say that — ‘they don’t mean what they say they mean, it’s just a signaling device’. The thing is, I’m not certain that most people are reliably able to identify, within their own thoughts, the difference between a signaling device and something that they truly think.

        • DJ

          I agree and I didn’t mean to imply that it’s a conscious thought process on their part. But I strongly believe that answers to questions like this are more likely related to “I really support Trump a lot” than they have anything to do with the actual question being asked. Pollsters do understand this, mostly, and also love to over hype the responses in the press for marketing reasons.

      • CP

        The key phrase is this –

        Which isn’t to say they wouldn’t actually support postponing the election if it came to that

        The point is, they will support it if it actually comes on the table, because their party is suggesting it and that overrules all other considerations in their minds. Whether this is something they’d have thought up on their own or something they only support because the Party Is Always Right is immaterial, really. If you have no loyalty to anything but your party, of course you’re going to support things like canceling elections that you might lose.

        • their party is suggesting it

          Do you have a link for this?

          • CP

            Admittedly, no. (Though as I said, similar topics when discussed among conservatives generally produce this kind of response). It just seemed fairly clear from the way the question was posed that “yes” was what they perceived as the proper Republican response.

            • Yeah, I guess I’m trying to find the line between “will do whatever the R Pres says” and “will primary R reps who don’t campaign on election suspension.” In addition to “will support the R Pres” (or will troll naive libs) and “actively believe suspending elections within the normal range of things to do.”

              I mean, any R pol could say “no that’s not the proper R response.” But now? Now the people have spoken!

            • Hogan

              The question was whether, if Trump believed the election should be postponed to make sure only eligible citizens can vote, they would support that. (They were also asked whether they would support it if both Trump and Congress said the election should be postponed.) The party supporting it was pretty much built in.

          • NicknotNick

            I think his point might be that it doesn’t matter if the party supports it or not, that the same process that causes people to respond in this manner will also cause them to assume that their party does support it — that when extremism is used as a signalling device it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

        • DJ

          But I also said the answer was circumstantial and most likely mutable. Which means that if we see Trump’s support continue to fall, we’d expect to also see the numbers that answer yes to this falling (since the answers are really about support for Trump, not about postponing elections). It would hardly be surprising if Trump fails in some spectacularly embarrassing manner (not unlikely), these same 52% would be the first to say, “Postpone elections? No way!!!”

        • addicted4444

          Also, their party supported Donald Trump, and they voted for him.

          I think the fact that Donald Trump is President has blunted people to the absolute ridiculousness of the fact that Donald Trump is President.

          Also, we know Republicans don’t have a bottom. We knew this when Cruz supported the guy who insulted his wife and his dad. We knew this when McCain supported the guy who demeaned pretty much the only decent thing he has done in his life. We knew this when the Republicans continued to support a senile idiot for President.

      • That also gets at part of what bothers me about it, though. A poll like this could give people, who previously didn’t have a strong opinion, the idea that their support for their side actually requires them to support the idea of suspending elections.

        That short book by Timothy Snyder goes on and on about his belief that because it happened in Germany under Hitler, and we have certain parallels, it WILL happen today and our only option is to resist when it comes. This poll seems like a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy for that worldview to me.

        • DJ

          A poll like this could give people, who previously didn’t have a strong opinion, the idea that their support for their side actually requires them to support the idea of suspending elections.

          Yes, very much. The very asking of the question is dangerous. It’s an act of normalizing the unthinkable.

      • I think a lot of people, and maybe pollsters are (paradoxically) extra prone to this, think of statistics as variable manifestations of a single thing. So worries about the nuances of the question, or whether polling might even affect opinions, seem beside the point: there is an essentially solid clump of people who have the same underlying opinions, and polling just shows how many are in that clump. I think this is a mistake.

    • CP

      I’ve been saying it for a while now: any extended stay in the Republican blogosphere will confirm that, while it’s not something they say in general public forums most of the time, the average politically-aware Republican firmly believes that liberal demographics should not be allowed to vote, because liberals are evil and harmful and going to destroy America. So no, I’m not at all surprised that they’d want to suspend elections if given the chance. This is who they are.

    • You’re free to vote any way you want as long as it’s Republican. What could be more democratic than that?

  • The problem with ‘Trumpian unpredictability’ is that there is absolutely no strategy behind it. Trump lives totally in the moment, and tweets out exactly what he’s ‘thinking’ in that moment. Nixon merely wanted people to think he was a madman. Trump is the real deal.

  • Bloix

    I don’t think our adversaries (and allies) view Trump as unpredictable. He’s a paper tiger who makes a lot of meaningless threats. The North Koreans know that (i) there’s no point in negotiations, because Trump will agree to nothing they might want, (ii) militarily, Trump holds no high cards that he would be willing to play, and (iii) the only stick the US has is sanctions. How could he be more predictable than that?

    • He’s definitely unpredictable about what he’ll say (though, bombast and self promotion are safe bets): he goes off script at surprising moments.

      Now whether this indicates a wider unpredictability of action is harder to say: our baseline isn’t long. Feels long, but isn’t long. Thus far his more extreme random comments have been walked back or otherwise rendered moot.

      Will this hold? Firing Comey shows he’s capable of outlier significant yet counterproductive behavior.

      • N__B

        Surely he learned from the Comey fallout that he must act in a reasonable manner.

        • dhudson2728

          If that statement were any drier it could be used to make a martini.

        • Captain_Subtext

          Does Poe’s Law apply here? Why wasn’t that in the font?

          • N__B

            The supply of sarcasm font has been interrupted; the supply chain of sarcasm includes rare-earth minerals form North Korea.

      • D_J_H

        I’d guess that the circumstances are different enough that the Comey firing can be treated as an outlier. Comey seemed to be an existential threat to Trump and the Trump/Kushner family, so he had to go, damn the consequences. I think (hope) we can count on cooler heads prevailing over North Korea, because Trump won’t conceive of it as a threat in the same way Comey was. Probably wishful thinking on my part, though.

        • I don’t think he fired Comey because he was an existential threat but because Comey annoyed him. There’s little evidence that he conceives the Russia investigation as a threat per se rather than an affront.

          Then we have the attacks on Sessions which make even less sense.

          • slavdude

            I think it’s because Sessions hasn’t been cruel enough yet.

            • Bloix

              Sessions has his own agenda, which is to stop non-white people from voting. This is his life’s passion and it’s within reach. He’s not about to let the problems of a doofus like Trump get in his way. Trump can see that Sessions has things he cares about other than polishing Trump’s golf shoes with his tongue and he doesn’t like it.

              • slavdude

                And he’s also trying to refight the failed War on Drugs, too. Next up: taking Ashcroft-era prudishness to the extreme. Watch this space.

                • Bloix

                  He likes the WOD because it turns black people into felons who can’t vote. He’s 100% about white supremacy.

              • Bloix

                And yea, DJH is right. Trump is involved in criminal money-laundering for Russian mobsters. Sessions’ job is to stop the investigation. What’s so hard about that?
                But Sessions isn’t going to jeopardize his shot at white supremacy forever just to save Trump’s orange hide.

          • D_J_H

            That’s a fair point, and there’s a lot of recommend the simpler explanation that Trump is just petty, irrational, and unpredictable.

            I suspect that the Russia-election stuff is likely tied up with financial crimes (involving Russian and other money), and I think Trump didn’t want Comey, who personified that danger, pulling at the Russia thread, lest the whole thing unravel. Part of the reason I think this (though certainly it’s not original to me) is that his attacks on Sessions in July came right after he would have found out that the Mueller investigation could expand into personal/corporate finances (and also after the raid on Manafort). In this narrative, he blames Sessions for the recusal that allowed all of this to proceed instead of being quashed from the beginning.

      • Drew
    • (ii) militarily, Trump holds no high cards that he would be willing to play

      I don’t feel confident making predictions about what cards he may or may not be willing to play. I hope your confidence is warranted.

      • Bloix

        His actions in Syria and Afghanistan show that he likes to make big Booms that have no military effect. NK would like one of those, I would think.

      • I don’t feel confident making predictions about what cards he may or may not be willing to play.

        I don’t even feel confident predicting that he’ll play cards at a card game. He reminds me of some character or other in Pogo (probably Wiley Catt) who, when the bats invite him to join their poker game and ask him to cut the deck, hauls out and uses his hatchet.

        • Trump is sitting at the poker table but he is playin 3-card monty.

    • D_J_H

      I really agree that other countries see Trump as a paper tiger who will bluster but, a key corollary, really only cares about what makes him look good and enriches him further. Clearly the Saudis had that figured out this spring.

    • our allies probably see Trump exactly as they see KJI : a reckless loudmouth who could start something terrible.

  • CP

    I always thought the Madman Theory sounded like a transparent bullshit after-the-fact justification for people who simply enjoy being abrasive assholes, and are trying to make it look like they’re following a very smart and thoroughly well thought out plan, as opposed to what they’re actually doing, which is acting on stupid impulse. (If this didn’t apply to Nixon, and I’m not convinced it didn’t, it certainly applies to Trump).

    It’s the equivalent of your kid showing you a room so messy that you can barely see the floor and insisting that there it’s totally organized, it’s just organized the way he prefers it, but everything’s in its proper place and easy to find. What he’s really saying is “I’m too lazy to pick up my shit.”

    (Or, if you prefer, the equivalent of the after-the-fact rationalizations that Sarah Palin fans kept coming up with for every piece of incoherent word-salad that came out of her mouth. Can’t be that she’s simply a fucking idiot. No, there’s a hidden deeper meaning that only us conservatives are sharp enough to divine, and you liberals are just too elitist to see it).

    • Drew

      It sounded like an advanced version of good cop bad cop (where Kissinger played good cop). No sophisticated criminals fall for that, just like I’m sure no actual nation with a semi-competent diplomatic corps was fooled.

  • woodrowfan

    being a bit of an unpredictable loose cannon worked so well for Kaiser Wilhelm II you know…

    • MacCheerful

      And I was thinking how Britain’s unpredictability in July 1914 (would they back France or not?) seemed to have lead Germany to jump wrong.

      • McAllen

        Even looking at more recent history, if I recall correctly a big cause of the South Ossetia War was the Bush administration sending mixed signals to Georgia.

      • CP

        Were they unpredictable? I always thought that, France or no France, it was understood that they’d back Belgium, and so Germany invading Belgium was basically telling Britain “bring it on and do your worst.”

        • D_J_H

          Part of it was the German government misunderstanding British strategic interests. The German leadership was incredulous that Britain would fight a costly war over Belgium, not realizing that Britain would be fighting over a whole lot more than Belgium (i.e. not chancing German hegemony on the Continent through defeat of France and Russia). Bethmann Hollweg infamously called the Treaty of London a “scrap of paper” because he thought there was no way the guarantee from, at that point, almost a century earlier would force Britain to enter the war. He was probably right about the narrow point, but missed the bigger picture.

        • MacCheerful

          A better description might be that they were sufficiently ambiguous about their willingness to join in a conflict initiated between Austria and Serbia, at least based on statements made by Lord Grey, that the Germans, most wanting a war in any case, were able to fool themselves into thinking the English (and Belgians!) would not object to a German army marching its way through Belgium.

          But as the crisis developed, and the idea of the German Navy just off the English coast bombarding French cities, became more real, the English position hardened, though unfortunately too late to usefully effect the German push to war.

          The level of German delusion in all this was of course sizable. The ultimate English move was prefigured when a couple of years earlier the English navy agreed with the French navy that the English would take care of the defense of the Atlantic, leaving the French navy free to concentrate on protecting the Mediterranean. After all at that point Italy was a nominal ally of the Germans.

          • Hogan

            Italy’s alliances in general have been pretty nominal.

            • MacCheerful

              Well as good a time as any to resurrect one of my favorite geopoliticalhistorical quotes:

              The House of Savoy never finished a war on the same side it started on – unless the war lasted long enough to change sides twice.”

  • Hogan

    Holy crap, Jesse Watters is literally paraphrasing Zap Brannigan.

    “In the game of chess you can never let your adversary see your pieces.”

    • N__B

      Watters lacks Zap’s intellect, gravitas, and thigh definition.

    • wjts

      Up next: “If we hit the bullseye of Pyongyang, the rest of the dominos will fall like a house of cards. Checkmate.”

  • Maybe I trust the Deep State too much but it isn’t Trump who worries me right now in terms of unpredictability. From what I know, North Korea has generally wanted to placate the people in South Korea, envisioning a united Korea run from Pyongyang. Maybe Kim Jong Un wants to play a different game. Maybe he thinks nukes are in themselves a different game. But if anyone is likely to play that game along with KJU to the point of no return, I guess it’s Trump (and some of his advisors).

    • slavdude

      I’m not sure China would go along with a united Korea, be it governed from Seoul or Pyongyang.

  • rewenzo

    This plays into the praise for Trump that I consider most perplexing – the idea that he is “blunt,” which is good, as opposing to “speaking diplomatically,” which is for pussies who can’t say what they mean.

    In reality, Trump is not blunt, because bluntness requires a certain amount of directness and coherence, which a typical Trumpian word salad lacks. Trump talk is recursive, self contradictory, and often bares no clear relation to whatever has provided the stimulus for his remarks. Admittedly, it does leave you with the general impression that Trump is a belligerently ignorant goon with a fetish for violence and a love of confrontation, but it leaves you with no idea as to what course of action he will commit the government he leads. It’s easy to be a dick, but actually hard to use your dickishness to achieve world peace.

    So you get farces like “will he or won’t he” commit to Article V, or keep the US in the Paris Climate Agreement, or support Saudia Arabia’s war in Qatar. He will say one thing which gives one impression, and Mattis and Tillerson will immediately have to reassure everyone that “actually, despite what the President said, he will actually do something else, which is reasonable.” What the United States would actually do if Russia invades Estonia is unclear. Can Estonia rely on Mattis’s promise, when Mattis doesn’t have the actual authority? Should Saudi Arabia respond to Tillerson’s urgings for dialogue when every time Trump talks to the King he tells them they’re doing god’s work? This is not bluntness.

    The other reason that Trump is not blunt is because blunt speech implicitly sets up a credibility test – the red line problem. There should be a direct line between the blunt talk and resulting action. If somebody is “blunt” but then doesn’t follow through, then they’re not blunt, they’re just an asshole.

    Speaking diplomatically is hard because it requires you to communicate clearly what you mean to the other party in a way that the other party will understand your meaning and so that the other party will not understand something different. This is even more difficult when your language is not the first language of the other side, and they may not understand the nuance of your idioms or culture. This is why diplomatic jargon exists – using words that have a shared meaning reduces the chance of miscommunication. This doesn’t always look good to a domestic audience, who do not use or understand the jargon and feel it doesn’t sufficiently convey that you’re mad about something. In reality, diplomatic-speak, if properly done, should convey exactly how mad you are about something, so that the other side knows how mad you are.

    • David Allan Poe

      The other reason that Trump is not blunt is because blunt speech
      implicitly sets up a credibility test – the red line problem. There
      should be a direct line between the blunt talk and resulting action. If
      somebody is “blunt” but then doesn’t follow through, then they’re not
      blunt, they’re just an asshole.

      Not just an asshole – demonstrably weak. The frightening thing here isn’t really that Trump will do something on his own inititative – it’s what happens when North Korea or anybody else decides they can push things past words because of that weakness. And we know what happens when weak, insecure narcissists suddenly realize that other people perceive them as weak…

      • dhudson2728

        True, but Trump is also somewhat cowardly and has a tendency to back down when strongly confronted.

        • Captain_Subtext

          Not just somewhat, very cowardly. He won’t even fire people in person, preferring to do it via an intermediary. His TV persona must have been carefully crafted (never watched any of it) to make people think he is much different than he actually is.

    • This plays into the praise for Trump that I consider most perplexing – the idea that he is “blunt,”

      I believe in this context “blunt” refers to not being the sharpest tool in the shed.

  • slavdude

    Amazing how it has become common “knowledge” that the Russians started the war with Georgia. Because no American client would ever start a war. No.

  • addicted4444

    It’s one thing to try unconventional strategies against what was considered then either the greatest or the 2nd greatest power the world had ever seen (Cold War USSR).

    It’s another to employ these tactics against a nonsensical state like North Korea which is simply loving the fact that it is being treated like the big boys, when in reality it is under China’s pinky finger.

  • Threatening a massive overreaction to so-far empty threats… And tens of millions of our fellow Americans love this…

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