Despite months of isolationist rhetoric, President Trump launched a missile attack on a Syrian air force base. He also shelved promises to label China a currency manipulator and reversed his position on NATO seemingly overnight.
As it turns out, this approach may be aiding his foreign policy... at least for now. Fred Kaplan, “War Stories” columnist for Slate (and Brooke’s husband), says that Trump’s unpredictability bears some resemblance to the “Madman Theory,” a strategy employed by Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War.
BOB GARFIELD: Churchill once said that Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, and that may well be how the Chinese view Donald Trump. And this may actually be aiding his foreign policy, at least for now.
Fred Kaplan, “War Stories” columnist for Slate (and, as close listeners will already know, Brooke’s husband), says that Trump’s unpredictability bears some resemblance to the “Madman Theory,” a strategy employed by Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War.
FRED KAPLAN: Shortly after Richard Nixon became president and there were peace talks going on in Paris about the Vietnam War, he told Henry Kissinger, listen, Henry, go to Paris and tell them that this guy Nixon is crazy. He’s obsessed with Communism. When he gets angry, we can’t control him and, you know, he has the finger on the nuclear button. And he said, Ho Chi Minh himself will come begging for peace in two or three days.
BOB GARFIELD: So this was a bluff based on his own reputation for being erratic, maybe even paranoid. He tried to use this as leverage in the Paris peace talks, but the other side didn't buy it because even Nixon, to Ho Chi Minh, wasn't that off his rocker.
FRED KAPLAN: Right, it didn't work. [LAUGHS] The North Vietnamese didn’t believe it. You know, Nixon had been around for a long time and, regardless of his other foibles and eccentricities, he’d shown no sign of being crazy in that regard. Nixon wasn’t really exactly a madman.
BOB GARFIELD: Some people have said that Trump is benefiting from exactly the kind of uncertainty that Nixon was trying to cultivate. How so?
FRED KAPLAN: My guess is that Trump has never heard of the “Madman Theory.” I don't think that what he's doing is strategically thought out but, in the eyes of many people, including foreign leaders, he seems to be genuinely erratic, unpredictable. And so, [LAUGHS] the irony is that maybe this is actually having some effect, the kind of effect that Nixon hoped would work on North Vietnam. But, for real, there are some signs that China is putting a little bit of pressure on North Korea. North Korea, maybe Russia, are thinking, we don’t know what this guy is gonna do and maybe we should be a little cautious.
BOB GARFIELD: So let's just say that Trump is the accidental beneficiary of uncertainty, along “Madman Theory” lines. You say that this benefit does not last forever.
FRED KAPLAN: For example, let's take Syria. Trump launches 59 cruise missiles at an airbase in Syria. What happened the very next day? Syria launched an airstrike on a neighboring village from planes taking off from that very airbase. More than that, Trump didn't follow up. There haven’t been more attacks. There hasn't been the opening of a diplomatic avenue. Trump didn’t follow up because he doesn't even know that you need to follow up. Nixon, at least, had a strategy. It was based on a flawed premise but, if it had worked, he knew what to do afterward.
You know, there was a nuclear strategist in the early ‘60s named Herman Kahn, a very voluble character, and he put it this way: You know, the game of highway “chicken” where two cars zoom toward each other and they play a game of who is gonna veer off the road first.
BOB GARFIELD: Rebel without a Cause, James Dean.
FRED KAPLAN: That’s right. So Herman Kahn said, well, imagine that one of these drivers very visibly unscrews the steering wheel from the dashboard and throws it out the window, thereby forcing the other driver to pull off the road because that driver can't pull off. And so, the other actor is forced to be a rational player. Donald Trump is the guy who’s thrown the steering will out the window possibly without even knowing what a steering wheel does –
- thereby forcing China or whatever to be rational. Now, the problem is this. The entire Kim family, including its latest scion, Kim Jong-un, they’ve been playing this game for a long, long time; they’re kind of masters at it. And Kim Jong-un, he’s interested in one thing, the survival of his regime. He’s been doing this, and his father and grandfather did this, by playing larger powers off one another, and he's been doing it with a rational knowledge that these guys really aren't going to attack me. Kim Jong-un knows this.
So here’s the question. The question that’s going through his mind and the mind of the president of China is, does this guy, Donald Trump, understand the rules of the game by which we've all been playing these years? Maybe he doesn't and maybe, therefore, North Korea has to be less provocative, China has to do more to bring them under control. Again, this might work for a little while but not for very long. In the meantime, what happens with our allies? They’re looking and they’re saying, this guy, I don't know what he’s up to, therefore, I'd better be making alternative arrangements for my security. In the case of countries like the Baltics, small countries near the Russian border, maybe I need to start carving out a deal with Russia. Countries in the Pacific, well, gee, I need to start making trade arrangements with China.
Our influence and power comes in large part from our guaranteeing security to allies for being reliable. If we start acting according to a “Madman Theory,” we’re going to lose the trust of others. They're going to go elsewhere. We’re going to become less powerful.
BOB GARFIELD: Fred, I want to ask you about trajectory. One possibility, I guess, if the scenario is as you’ve described, is that the president will suffer a string of diplomatic and military failures, more or less paralleling his track record thus far legislatively. Another possibility is that this game of “chicken” puts him in a position where he is cornered and realizes that the world is calling his bluff, then something really bad happens.
FRED KAPLAN: That's the dangerous thing about bluffs. The other guy calls it and then you have a choice to make. He has been tweeting, we will ask China to bring the North Koreans under their control. If they can't do it, we will! Exclamation point, USA. This, quite correctly, makes a lot of people nervous, and not just the people that he's trying to make nervous.
Now, it's interesting. The people in his administration have been sending kind of counter messages. James Mattis, the secretary of defense, he's said things like, we will work with our allies. And everybody in the region realizes, okay, whoo, because the allies aren’t going to go for this at all. H.R. McMaster, his national security advisor, said the other day, we hope to apply as much pressure as we can, short of war. That’s a signal to the allies, mainly. But, at the same time, it's a signal to the adversaries that Trump is trying to influence.
BOB GARFIELD: And is it a signal to the president himself?
FRED KAPLAN: This is what really has to be said. He watches a lot of television. Anytime you see one of his officials on television saying something, you should keep in mind that he is saying it as much to President Trump as to the American people. That's why the messages are so mixed. His advisers [LAUGHS] are lobbying the president through the medium of television. And, by the way, foreign leaders are lobbying him too. One thing that any foreign leader has now realized, simply by watching, is that if you sit down with this guy and you treat him with respect, you can gain some influence.
I mean, look at President Xi, the president of China. A few weeks ago, Donald Trump said that he was raping the United States through his trade deals. Now he says, this guy Xi is a terrific fella. And so, Xi tells him, oh, you know, there’s only so much influence I have over North Korea. And, by the way, you know, Korea - that used to be part of China. And [LAUGHS] Trump repeats this in an interview with Fox and the people in South Korea go nuts because this is kind of an old Chinese myth which is designed to delegitimize the sovereignty of South Korea. And everybody in Asia must now be thinking, in the next conversation is Xi gonna to tell Trump why China has rightful ownership over the entire South China Sea, and is that gonna have an influence on US policy?
BOB GARFIELD: We’ve discussed the game of “chicken” and “madman.” I think the scariest way of looking at this at all may be just ad hoc, a president of the United States and his administration just kind of making it up as they go along.
FRED KAPLAN: Yeah, I think that is what's going on. Even some of his most cherished campaign principles, for example, saying, on the first day I’m going to call China a currency manipulator. Then he says, well, it turns out, gee, who knew that they’ve not really manipulating currency? I'm gonna get rid of this Iran nuclear deal, the worst deal ever negotiated. Secretary Tillerson submits his required report the other day saying that Iran has abided by all the terms of the nuclear deal. So, yeah, we should probably hang on to it.
BOB GARFIELD: NAFTA.
FRED KAPLAN: That's another one, and he's now proposing some modest changes to NAFTA.
BOB GARFIELD: Healthcare.
FRED KAPLAN: Yeah, well, it turns out healthcare is a lot more complicated than anybody knew.
Some issues are difficult. Some are even intractable. Some of these deals are actually not bad, compared with the alternative. Maybe he’ll gain wisdom from this over the next couple of years, maybe not.
BOB GARFIELD: Fred, thank you very much.
FRED KAPLAN: Thank you.
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BOB GARFIELD: Fred Kaplan is the “War Stories” columnist for Slate and the author of, most recently, Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, referendums dominate the headlines and inspire arguments. Can democracy handle this much – democracy?
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media.