If things feel chaotic since Donald Trump was inaugurated, there is a reason for that. Jonathan Swan has a story that tells us a lot about this president’s approach. He relays an exchange that happened during a meeting Trump held with senior officials and cabinet secretaries, including his top trade negotiator Robert Lighthizer, about whether or not the U.S. should pull out of the trade agreement with South Korea.
“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.”
That probably explains how things unfolded over the weekend between the president and Sec. of State Tilerson. During a visit to China, Tillerson said this to reporters:
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged on Saturday that the United State is maintaining direct channels of communications with North Korea even as tensions rise over the North’s nuclear and missile programs and the countries’ leaders spar through bellicose name-calling.
Tillerson said the U.S. was probing North Korea’s willingness to talk, and called for a calming of the situation on the Korean Peninsula, adding it was incumbent on the North to halt the missile launches.
Almost immediately, the president took to Twitter to conduct foreign policy.
Let’s break that down. First of all, against the advice of his foreign policy experts, Trump continues to attempt to inflame the situation with name-calling. Secondly, in suggesting that his predecessors were “being nice to Rocket Man,” the president demonstrates his total ignorance of history, which was documented most thoroughly in this Washington Monthly story by Fred Kaplan. Thirdly, Trump makes it sound like he wasn’t aware of what his Sec. of State was doing in talking directly to North Korea. Otherwise, why would he tweet that it was a waste of time almost immediately following Tillerson’s remarks? One has to wonder how foreign policy decisions are made in this administration. Rather than discussing options in the situation room and agreeing on a course of action, it sure looks like members of the administration are free agents and Trump reacts on Twitter.
But the message the president is sending is that foreign leaders shouldn’t put any stock in what his Cabinet members do or say. These few tweets completely undermined anything Tillerson was attempting to accomplish and ensured that, if there was ever the possibility for diplomacy with North Korea, that is a dead end at this point. By saying, “we’ll do what has to be done,” Trump signaled that he’s the madman who can’t be trusted or predicted. To paraphrase what he told Lighthizer, “this guy is so crazy, he’ll do anything.”
The foundation of this madman approach to foreign policy was laid during the presidential campaign when Trump said, “We must as a nation be more unpredictable.” Given that I have always been skeptical that this president actually has a strategy for anything, I suspect that he gravitates towards this approach in order to avoid committing to a policy for which he might be held accountable. In other words, it keeps all of his options open at all times. It’s also a perfect cover for his ignorance. He doesn’t ever outline what he will do because he doesn’t know what he will do. Finally, being the unpredictable madman who never commits to a particular course of action, but might do anything, gives Trump the illusion of dominance.
In the end, this Trump doctrine means that diplomacy, which is always based on building trust, will never be a possibility with this administration. In Trump’s delusional world, our adversaries must either submit or fight back. That is the game of chicken this president is playing with Kim Jong-un.