Maybe President-elect Donald Trump is a madman. No, that’s not a crack about his mental stability. It’s a reference to a famous theory of presidential negotiation. Act mad and other countries won’t dare trifle with you.
Richard Nixon’s aides tried this strategy when they sent nuclear bombers to the Soviet border and spread rumors that the president was volatile. But Trump may be an even better candidate for the madman approach, having made unpredictability a cornerstone of his candidacy.
“We must as a nation be more unpredictable,” he said during an April address. “And we have to be unpredictable starting now.”
Already, Trump’s penchant for unpredictability has begun shaking up the diplomatic world. He has angered China by reopening questions about the status of Taiwan, and he has offered high praise to several governments with less-than-stellar records on democracy and human rights, including Pakistan, the Philippines, and Russia.
And remember, Trump still hasn’t taken office yet.
Trying to foresee Trump’s foreign policy may be a kind of fool’s errand (if you could predict it, it wouldn’t be unpredictable). But here are some of the ways a madman strategy might disrupt the existing diplomatic balance.
Straight-talk with China
Shaking up the US-China relationship was easy. Trump accomplished that by taking a call from the leader of Taiwan’s government and tipping the sacred cow that Taiwan is part of China. In response, a state-run Chinese newspaper called Trump “as ignorant as a child.”
Here’s the wager Trump seems to be making: It’s better to start from scratch with China, calling every diplomatic norm into question. Existing agreements are just too constraining.
If he’s wrong, though, the results could be calamitous. China and the United States have deep economic ties but also real geopolitical frictions. China has been aggressively expanding its influence over East Asia, even claiming new territory by building artificial islands in the South China Sea. And no country has more influence over nuclear-armed North Korea.
Should China decide to match Trump’s tough line with its own, it could cause a lot of trouble, including through economic sanctions, provocative military escalation, its widening web of regional influence, or its hold on over a trillion dollars of US national debt.
Friendly relations with Russia
“If we can get along with Russia, that’s very good,” Trump said last March. And in the months since, he has regularly praised Vladimir Putin and cast continuous doubt on the CIA conclusion that Russia tried to boost Trump’s presidential chances.
What’s still unclear is whether there’s a broad geopolitical goal behind Trump’s turn toward Russia — much less a full reckoning with the risks.
One area where the United States and Russia might conceivably cooperate is in Syria, where Russia has been helping President Bashar Assad regain territory. Now that Assad has taken Aleppo, he may turn his attention to ISIS in the east. And that could give Russia and the United States new reason to line up behind him.
Elsewhere, though, Russian and US interests don’t align in the same way. Take the Baltic states in Eastern Europe, which are increasingly concerned about the possibility of Russian interference, even a possible incursion (as happened with Ukraine in 2014 and Georgia in 2008).
Because these countries belong to NATO, an attack on any one of them would normally be considered an attack on all NATO members — to be met with a coordinated response. But when Trump was asked about this scenario last July, he played coy: “I don’t want to tell you what I’d do because I don’t want Putin to know what I’d do.”
This may be part of his madman strategy — keeping all options on the table, from the most conventional to the unthinkably risky. But Russia poses a unique challenge, because Putin has pursued his own madman approach, using provocation to project strength and maintain his strongman image. In the worst case, this could turn the US-Russia relationship into a game of diplomatic chicken.
Re-escalation with Iran
The United States and Iran don’t have good relations, but they do have a fresh nuclear agreement, under which Iran is dismantling its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
Trump has promised to rip up this agreement. But is that a policy commitment or just the opening gambit in a new round of dealmaking with Iran?
Assuming Trump is serious about abrogating the deal, he’ll face tremendous backlash. At least one key Senate Republican now favors it. European nations would be under no obligation to reinstall sanctions, and Iran itself might be emboldened to restart its nuclear activities.
But if it is just a negotiating gambit, threatening to walk can indeed be a powerful ploy. Witness the recent deal between Colombia and the country’s FARC rebels. When voters rejected the first version of that agreement, it didn’t spark new conflict. It led to a tougher new deal.
Against the EU
The European Union is foundering. British voters want out, anti-EU parties are everywhere on the rise, and the inflexibility of the euro currency is doing serious economic damage to countries from Portugal to Greece.
Still, despite these problems, there persists the dream of a United States of Europe, the whole continent knit together as a single polyglot power, unified in defense of human rights, Western values, and the end of centuries of European warfare.
But Trump doesn’t seem invested in this European dream. Indeed, his closest European relationships tend to involve euro-skeptic right-populists like Nigel Farage in Britain, Viktor Orban in Hungary, and Geert Wilders from the Netherlands.
If more and more countries threaten to leave, Trump could well take sides with the departing, turning his back on Brussels as Europe unravels.
The one-state solution
For a dealmaker like Trump, there may be no trophy greater than finding an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
“A lot of people think that’s the hardest of all deals to negotiate,” he told The New York Times. “But I would say that I would have a better chance than anybody of making a deal.”
During the campaign, Trump took a pretty stiff pro-Israel line, promising to move the US embassy to the disputed city of Jerusalem and abrogating the longstanding US position that Israeli settlements are an impediment to peace.
Perhaps he’s betting that this tough stance is the best way to inspire Palestinian partnership. But the clock is ticking. For several years, US Secretary of State John Kerry has warned that the facts on the ground are making it impossible to create side-by-side states; Israeli settlers are just too widely dispersed through the West Bank.
If Trump fails to achieve this deal-to-end-all-deals, he may preside over the death of the two-state solution.
The ultimate risk
Playing a madman really can provide a negotiating advantage, keeping adversaries on their fearful toes. But it’s a risky strategy.
When you act unpredictably, people around you never know what’s acceptable and what’s not. And that jeopardizes one of the most fundamental purposes of diplomacy: clear guidance.
All the endless deliberation that comes with diplomatic communiques — including the careful calibration of every word — is designed to ensure that all parties understand the rules.
With Trump, clarity is a secondary concern. He goes out of his way to avoid saying what he’ll do. That creates ample opportunity for accidents — where other nations act in ways they believe Trump will support, only to discover that he won’t.
In international relations, countries need to know how their acts will be interpreted by other world powers. Otherwise, they may stumble across some war-provoking red line without even knowing it.