From the very beginning, Donald Trump has always contended that the best way to conduct foreign policy is to keep the other side guessing.
That approach fails to take into consideration the fact that unlike the business world, everyone is not an adversary. It makes no sense to keep America’s allies in a constant state of perplexity as to what the U.S. intends to do on critical issues related to things like trade and, more crucially, defense.
You’ll recall the following exceptionally absurd soundbite from Trump’s first solo presser as President when he did his best impression of someone (although it wasn’t entirely clear who) discussing the strategy for retaking Mosul from ISIS:
There you go. Even if you’re a believer in preserving the element of surprise, there are better ways to communicate it than that.
Well since then, it’s become unclear whether Trump’s unpredictable foreign policy is strategic or merely a byproduct of gross incompetence.
For their part, the North Koreans are just as clueless as the rest of us. Recall that earlier this week, the Washington Post reported that Pyongyang has now taken to basically begging Republican strategists to help them avoid a nuclear war. Just read this and try to keep yourself from laughing:
North Korean government officials have been quietly trying to arrange talks with Republican-linked analysts in Washington, in an apparent attempt to make sense of President Trump and his confusing messages to Kim Jong Un’s regime.
The outreach began before the current eruption of threats between the two leaders, but will likely become only more urgent as Trump and Kim have descended into name-calling that, many analysts worry, sharply increases the chances of potentially catastrophic misunderstandings.
“Their No. 1 concern is Trump. They can’t figure him out,” said one person with direct knowledge of North Korea’s approach to Asia experts with Republican connections.
Yes, Pyongyang’s “No. 1 concern is Trump” and they “can’t figure him out.” Welcome to our world, Kim – welcome to American hell.
Again, Trump would undoubtedly say this is all part of the plan. He’s always promised to be unpredictable when it comes to foreign adversaries. That was initially welcomed by voters of a war-hawk-ish persuasion, but something tells us this wasn’t what people had in mind.
But it’s not just military strategy. As Axios reports on Sunday evening, Trump recently instructed Robert Lighthizer to deliberately deceive the South Koreans on trade. To wit:
In an Oval Office meeting earlier this month, President Trump gave his top trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, an Art of the Deal-style coaching session on how to negotiate with the South Koreans.
Trump’s impromptu coaching came in the middle of a pivotal conversation with top officials about whether or not to withdraw from the U.S.-Korean trade deal. Sources familiar with the conversation paraphrased the exchange for Axios, and the White House did not dispute this account.
A number of senior officials and cabinet secretaries were present for the conversation, including Defense Secretary Mattis, Agriculture Secretary Perdue, and Secretary of State Tillerson. At issue was whether the U.S. would withdraw from the Korean trade deal — an action Trump threatened but still hasn’t done.
“You’ve got 30 days, and if you don’t get concessions then I’m pulling out,” Trump told Lighthizer.
“Ok, well I’ll tell the Koreans they’ve got 30 days,” Lighthizer replied.
“No, no, no,” Trump interjected. “That’s not how you negotiate. You don’t tell them they’ve got 30 days. You tell them, ‘This guy’s so crazy he could pull out any minute.'”
“That’s what you tell them: Any minute,” Trump continued. “And by the way, I might. You guys all need to know I might. You don’t tell them 30 days. If they take 30 days they’ll stretch this out.”
Clearly, that is not the way you “negotiate” with an ally, especially when that ally is in a precarious security position itself partly the product of Trump employing the same “strategy” in the standoff with Kim.
As Axios drying notes, “the downsides [to this are] obvious: the rhetoric can unnerve allies and has the potential to provoke enemies into needless, unintended war.”