Call it “disruption.” Call it “chaos.” Call it “anti-establishment.” Whatever label you choose to append, whether by design or otherwise, the practical effect of the Trump administration’s foreign policy is unpredictability. Ironically, this outcome was entirely predictable: President Trump signaled it throughout the 2016 campaign. Since then, members of the national security establishment have been variously rationalizing or bemoaning this reality. And while American elites struggle with the shift from diagnosis to prescription — and for some, from grief to acceptance — friends and foes overseas are adjusting rapidly. It’s past time for America’s foreign policy elite to likewise adapt to the reality of unpredictability. Doing so is not an admission that this is how our foreign policy should be or will be in the future, but it is an acknowledgment that this is how it is, and if not managed effectively, it is dangerous for America.
Donald Trump is not the first world leader to embrace unpredictability. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s volatility was legendary . Richard Nixon openly admired Khrushchev’s rashness, and he embraced the value of a “madman theory” to extract gains at the negotiating table. Russia’s Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte are current “disrupters” on the international stage. Surprise can be a valuable tactic in pursuit of a clear foreign policy goal. As a strategy, however, gross unreliability can lead to abject failure. The Allies’ successful D-Day operation is a fine example of the former. The failure of France and Great Britain to live up to their agreements in support of Czechoslovakia and Poland during the 1930s is a clear example of the latter. Unpredictability can also take the more sinister form of a strategic campaign of deal-breaking and aggression, as the Axis powers undertook in World War II. This manifestation of unpredictability runs completely counter to America’s principled support for the rule of law in international relations, however, and as such would be considered a national failure however well it might be executed.
In Trump’s case, the president’s personal penchant for unpredictability is reinforced by wide variations in expressed policy positions across his administration. Further compounding U.S. policy incoherence is the din of drama swirling around the White House. Any administration would be challenged to successfully execute its foreign policy amid such distractions. Trump’s deputy national security adviser, K.T. McFarland, made this point herself before the election. “A Hillary Clinton administration,” she warned, “is likely to be haunted by investigations, corruption, indictments and even a constitutional crisis. I worked in the West Wing during Watergate and saw firsthand what how such a crisis can destroy a president, the administration and test the mettle of the country.” The fears McFarland expressed for a Clinton administration have been realized in the Trump administration, and U.S. foreign policy is suffering.
Other world leaders aren’t standing by to see how our unpredictability might affect them. Rather, they are moving quickly to shape outcomes as best they can. Coming from friends of the United States, such initiatives will often accord with America’s long-term economic and security interests. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s positive engagement with President Trump at Mar-a-Lago, for instance, did much to repair the strain on the relationship caused by comments from then-candidate Trump, even as the Japanese and others similarly targeted live under the modern Sword of Damocles that is the presidential tweet. We should assume, however, that others are seeking to exploit the mixed signals of U.S. policy to their advantage. If the shoe were on the other foot, the United States certainly would. China, for instance, worked hard to win over Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to its preferred characterization of nonconfrontation and mutual respect after Tillerson’s far more assertive statements during his confirmation hearing. China will likely remind the United States of this shift to the non-confrontation formulation the next time Asian tensions rise over disputed Chinese territorial claims. In yet other cases, actors may be taking advantage of the distraction created by Washington’s many spectacles. In recent months, Russia has significantly advanced the Assad regime’s prospects and squeezed Ukraine through military action with seemingly little notice from the United States. Finally, American unpredictability could be used by an adversary as an excuse to preemptively escalate crises. Kim Jong Un is the international player most likely to engage the United States in an adolescent game of nuclear chicken. The number of recent North Korean missile tests may attest to it seeking a perceived first mover advantage against any possible U.S. effort to threaten the regime. Iran may also decide it should quickly and substantially ramp up its missile, maritime, cyber threats, and support to terrorist proxies as a hedge against a potential major shift in U.S. policy or even perception of impending U.S. military action.
The United States cannot fully overcome the weaknesses of an incoherent foreign policy. With a few strategies, however, Washington can reduce and repair the damage such confusion causes. First, the United States must live up to commitments vital to our own security. Priority should be placed on ensuring coherent and convincing messages — in word and in deed — where confusion could lead to military conflict through miscalculation, such as with North Korea, Iran, Russia, and China. Case in point are the efforts of several leaders to strengthen the deterrence message with Russia in the first several months of the administration. From U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley to Senator John McCain to Defense Secretary James Mattis, among others, key U.S. foreign policy voices have used their national platforms to reassure NATO allies and deter Russian actions that might threaten the Alliance. Second, Congress can wield its powers, particularly as appropriator of federal dollars, to help guide foreign policy, including ensuring adequate funding for both military and non-military tools for achieving our national goals. Third, those inside and outside government can help educate the American public about the positive ways in which the United States can engage abroad in support of economic, security, and democratic interests at home.
One need not have a bully pulpit to contribute to these stabilizing efforts. Messages critical to reassurance and deterrence can be reinforced in routine diplomatic and military interactions. In some cases, it may be best to push engagements into these lower-profile channels to reduce the risk of errant statements or interactions that might provoke miscalculation and threats to U.S. interests. Lying low is a time-honored tradition in U.S. foreign policy, usually undertaken when there is confusion or instability in a foreign government but equally useful when uncertainty is projected from within. However, leadership should be mindful that dark corners can beget mischief. Absent clear guidance, policy entrepreneurs can do as much harm as good. Discipline has not, to date, been a word associated with this administration, but leaders, especially cabinet officials, can significantly reduce entrepreneurial instincts among staff by engendering trust and loyalty. This generally requires one to show how their actions — military, diplomatic, economic, law enforcement, and intelligence — support enduring U.S. principles and interests, which these professional staffs have been trained and motivated to protect. Strong working relationships across the interagency enterprise, with Congress, and with outside experts will also help prevent internal and foreign actors from working the seams within the national security enterprise.
It is easier to reduce the likelihood of self-inflicted damage than to attempt to repair damage after the fact. There are nevertheless some mitigations the United States could employ to advance its foreign policy goals. A practical strategy is to improve attention paid to damage control and rapid response. Personnel might even be shifted from policy development to response. The United States cannot be successful if it is reduced to simply reacting to the next crisis, but it is fair to assume that for at least the next year, policy development work in many areas is likely to stall or should be put on hold. A second way to mitigate unpredictability is to prioritize contingency planning. Miscalculation and other missteps that could draw the United States into unwanted conflict are more likely in an uncertain environment. The degree to which there are “plan Bs” in place to de-escalate or, if needed, win the war and the peace in those crises will be vital.
Thomas Schelling once commented, “A government obliged to appear responsible in its foreign policy can hardly cultivate forever the appearance of impetuosity on the most important decisions in its care.” It is foolhardy to predict whether the current high degree of foreign policy confusion will continue throughout the remainder of President Trump’s tenure. More certain is that the risk of wrongly assuming the conduct of U.S. foreign policy will normalize has implications too profound to warrant assuring interlocuters abroad and ourselves at home to wait for a change. But we must not only overcome denial, we must also overcome despair. It’s time to move to that final stage of grieving — acceptance — not because we want to or because it’s fair or right, but just because it is. And, as long as it is, we have a professional obligation to try to advance U.S. foreign policy as effectively as we can, even as we argue for a better approach to secure Americans’ future.
Dr. Kathleen Hicks is Senior Vice President, Henry A. Kissinger Chair and Director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She previously served in the Department of Defense as the Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Forces.