Monday, April 17, 2017

Flying By The Seat Of His Pants

Michael Anton says of Niccolo Machiavelli, of whom he is an aficionado, "I think he would like the president's unpredictability. I think he certainly would like his focus on putting the citizens of his own country first; he would like his small r-republican spirit."

That's hardly surprising given that Anton is described by Politico interviewer Susan B. Glasser as "head of strategic communications for the National Security Council in Trump’s White House, a provocateur turned policymaker with a front-row seat in the ideological fight underway to define Trump’s presidency."

Anton does, however, reflect the current wishful- and adoring- perception of the President when he argues

he definitely-the only thing maybe predictable about his foreign policy is that he says to the world, I'm going to be unpredictable. He's said many times-he said he thinks that America has been too predictable, and I think he relishes that, to keep adversaries, competitors alike, sort of off balance.

Slate's Fred Kaplan seems to have a similarly benign view of the President's approach when he writes

It may well be that certain world leaders, most notably Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, watch Trump in motion and, as a result, start acting cautiously—as well clamping down on their more antic-prone allies—because they just don’t know what this guy might be capable of. Xi, for instance, recently turned away a boatload of coal from North Korea, one of the country’s chief exports, as a further signal of displeasure over Kim Jong-un’s nuclear tests. We will see if Putin cracks the whip on Bashar al-Assad.

Yet, he recognizes a parallel scenario in which

In his 1960 book On Thermonuclear War, the flamboyant nuclear strategist Herman Kahn likened certain kinds of conflict to the game of highway chicken. Two cars speed toward each other, head on, late at night. In the standard version of the game, there are three possible outcomes. One driver gets nervous and veers away; he loses. Both drivers veer away; the game’s a draw. They both keep zooming straight ahead; everybody dies. But Khan posited a fourth outcome and an unconventional way to win: One driver yanks the steering wheel from his dashboard and visibly throws it out the window; the other driver, seeing that his opponent can’t pull off the road, has no choice but to veer away himself.

In this analogy, Trump is the guy who’s thrown the steering wheel out the window, possibly without knowing what the steering wheel does. The other drivers, Russia or China, can’t be sure of his motives, but they’d better get out of the way anyway.

"Trump," Kaplan explains, "may take this analogy as vindication of his approach to public relations" and

he has said that he wants to foment uncertainty in the minds of adversaries (or, sometimes he’s suggested, in the minds of all foreigners), to throw them off-guard. That may be happening to some extent, but the effect will likely wear off soon—or if it persists, the results will be grim for global stability and American interests.

Notwithstanding recent comments about Korea, China, and the Middle East, Trump seems to grasp insufficiently that

The United States is fundamentally a status quo power. It helped create the international system that took hold at the end of World War II; and so it becomes stronger as the values, institutions, and processes of that system spread. (It has become weaker in the last quarter-century, since the end of the Cold War, in part because the system has broken down.) This being the case, America thrives, in large part, by being a guarantor of that system—and a guarantor of the security of the system’s members. In this role, an American president must appear to be reliable.

There is a place for unpredictability. Also

There is a place for strategic ambiguity but not for uncertainty.

If no one knows what to expect of the United States, maybe, for a while, adversaries will grow cautious—but for the same reason, allies will get nervous, and they will turn to others for security. Maybe they’ll cut deals with one of the adversaries, or maybe they’ll form their own separate alliances. Either way, the United States will find itself cut out of the action—the basis of its strength and influence eroded.

During the campaign, Trump claimed climate change is a "hoax perpetrated by the Chinese" who are committing "rape" against the U.S. economy, and vowed to declare Mainland China on his first day in office as a currency manipulator. As recently as April 2, the Chinese were the "world champions" of "currency manipulation."

But after one short visit with President Xi Jingping Pong Ball, Trump discovered China does not manipulate its currency and "after listening for 10 minutes, I realized it's not so easy" to solve the problem of North Korea. (There was no word whether Korea is still a rapist; someone should ask Trump that. No one will.)

"Unpredictability," as Anton and others see it, can be strategically deployed. Nevertheless, as Kaplan concludes

Xi sees that the American president can be played. Trump is erratic in part because he knows so little and he has failed to build an administration that systematically fills the gaps in his knowledge. So Xi will fill them at key moments. Other leaders will follow suit if they can. Maybe Trump will learn enough that he screws the steering wheel back into the dashboard. The question, at that point, will be whose directions he takes on where to drive the car.

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