As Spoiler Alerts noted Wednesday, Donald Trump tweeted out a pretty explicit threat directed at Syria and Russia:
There are several weird thing about this threat. First, maybe the younglings are used to this, but to me a threat like this via tweet remains bizarre. Second, it has all the panache of a fourth-grader who has been denied a third helping of dessert. Third, candidate Trump would have ripped President Trump for telegraphing an explicit threat.
Finally, the threat has not been carried out yet. It may very well not be. The secretary of defense is playing it cool. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders walked back Trump’s tweet later in the day, saying that no decisions had been made on Syria. This morning Trump suggested that an attack “could be very soon or not so soon at all.” Or maybe never. Who knows?!
The Syria muddle seems emblematic of how this administration appears to not game out foreign policy. On Wednesday, my colleagues at The Washington Post noted the rather odd policymaking process of this White House:
Senior U.S. officials describe a president who is operating largely on impulse, with little patience for the advice of his top aides. “A decision or statement is made by the president, and then the principals — Mattis or Pompeo or Kelly — come in and tell him we can’t do it,” said one senior administration official. “When that fails, we reverse-engineer a policy process to match whatever the president said.”
Needless to say, this is not how the foreign policy community would recommend running the railroad. Usually, when presidents issue threats or promises, they should carry them out. Political scientists suggest that leaders who back down after ratcheting up a crisis are likely to suffer “audience costs.” In the political science literature, it is presumed that domestic audiences judge a vacillating president harshly.
We are already seeing signs of this in Trump’s erratic Syria threat. My Post colleagues caught up with Sen. Bob Corker for his thoughts, and his response was pretty telling:
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said Wednesday afternoon that he had yet to hear from Trump or other administration officials about impending action in Syria.
“I have no idea. So far, it appears to me to be bluster,” Corker said. “Then I saw a tweet come out about us working with Russia right after we’re getting ready to bomb them, so I mean, who knows? Unfortunately, there are a lot of things announced by the administration that never come to pass or evolve.”
Political scientists have also noticed that threats like these, when not carried out, seem pretty empty.
The audience cost argument can be discomfiting at times, because it suggests that presidents need to always follow through on their threats, no matter how rash and reckless those threats might be. That is particularly true of this president, who issues reckless threats on a regular basis. But I take Dan Nexon’s warning about “analytic normalization” to heart. As Nexon puts it, there are dangers to “the act of explaining and assessing Trump’s presidency as if we were dealing with a typical president and a typical administration.”
To put this more bluntly: What if Trump and political polarization have changed the dynamic about audience costs?
Kenneth Schultz wrote a great essay this year in the Washington Quarterly about the effects of polarization on foreign policy. Among other things, “political polarization can … impede the country’s collective ability to learn and adapt from foreign policy failures.” This is because partisans on one side interpret big events like the Iraq War differently from partisans on the other side. With different narratives about what happened, it becomes impossible for the country collectively to learn from foreign policy failures — or even agree on what was a foreign policy failure.
Schultz argues persuasively that polarization prevents learning, but I’d go further and suggest that it dilutes the effect of audience costs. Simply put, if the president’s supporters do not believe he has issued an empty threat, then there are no costs to his backing down. Or, as the completely cynical “deal” on steel and South Korea suggests, the president’s supporters will interpret even token concessions as the greatest deal ever (so will the president). This president can accelerate this trend by deploying one of his few political skills: applying “truthful hyperbole” to the outcome of a negotiation.
We might be in a world where Trump’s base will swallow whatever he tells them about foreign policy. Similarly, his opponents will deny that any tangible successes are real, or attribute them to luck. Polarization shrinks the audience that might change its mind about the president if he backs down during a crisis. In the process, polarization also shrinks audience costs.
Of course, other audiences are important beyond the domestic one. Trump’s hollow rhetoric creates problems for him internationally. But here Nexon is right: Trump doesn’t care. Polarization and Trump’s own political style explain why he does not care about audience costs or reputation in the same way that his predecessors did.
It’s a new world in international relations theory. We just live in it.