As we go from one tweet to the next, there’s a strong urge (and it would seem for some an irresistible urge) to find a logic to Donald Trump’s tweets, threats, promises on the foreign policy front. It is highly reminiscent of the early Obama years when Obama diehards saw ’12 dimensional chess’ whether Obama was winning on an issue, losing on an issue or maybe not even paying attention to an issue.
It would be wrong to say that Trump has no idea what he’s doing. Or to be more specific it would be wrong to say there’s no overriding logic or impulse to Trump’s actions. On virtually every front there are threats, promises of a stronger and more aggressive America, promises to beat other countries, etc. One key recurring theme is that America won’t be ensconced in international treaty agreements or institutions meant to create ‘rules of the road’ of international behavior. America will do whatever it wants. It will cut deals with individual countries if its suits our interests.
This is in line with who Donald Trump is and the advisors he’s chosen to surround himself with. It might be summed up as we’ll kick ass and do what we want. But within those very broad parameters, it’s clear that Trump is mainly making things up as he goes along. Strategic partnership with Russia or arms race with Russia? Modernized nuclear arsenal or bigger nuclear arsenal? F-35 or F-18?
President Nixon famously told his advisors to tell foreign governments he was a bit hot-headed and crazy, that he might do anything. But for all his faults, Nixon was a deliberate and calculating person who wanted to keep adversaries and friends off balance. In some cases, the net effect with Trump may be the same. But the specifics are quite different. Trump is simply making up most of what he says as he goes along.
Nixon was also big on strategic ambiguity – again, keeping his counterparts off balance by keeping his plans opaque and changing. Trump does Nixon one better by not only keeping his true plans hidden even from those closest to him but even keeping them from himself. It’s the ultimate strategic ambiguity. My true plans are unknowable because I haven’t even shared them with myself.
There’s no logic to the details besides whatever details are at hand to suit the self-assertion and aggressive positioning of the moment. But all those details will end up mattering.