By his own account, Donald Trump does not like to do much reading, especially not for the purposes of informing his policy views. Even so, he might find one (very) short story useful to his potential future presidency.
It is Aesop’s fable of the hound and the hare. And it likely reflects how our NATO allies are feeling about now.
In it, a hound chases a frightened hare, but when the long pursuit comes to a close, the hound offers mixed signals. Alternately, he viciously bites and lovingly licks the hare, disorienting his target.
Aesop’s moral: “A doubtful friend is worse than a certain enemy. Let a man be one thing or the other, and then we know how to meet him.”
Trump, like the hound, loves to give mixed signals. Or, to use Trump’s preferred terminology, he fetishizes “unpredictability,” in both domestic and foreign policy.
“Unpredictability” is how he justifies his imprecision in response to questions about torture and the use of nuclear weapons; his incoherence and inconstancy on economic issues; his inability to disclose his allegedly brilliant but secret plan to defeat the Islamic State; his possible willingness to default on the U.S. debt; and his evasive answers on how he would respond to turmoil in the South China Sea, or in South Asia, or really anywhere in the world that looks to the United States for stability and moral guidance.
Citing “unpredictability” may have begun as a convenient way to dodge hard questions. It has since been elevated to the status of political doctrine. Far from an unfortunate byproduct of smart dealmaking or good governance, uncertainty itself is the objective. It is a feature, not a bug.
Including, most recently and dangerously, when it comes to how we treat our allies.
Last week, in a conversation with New York Times journalists, Trump was asked about our military obligations within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He indicated that under his presidency, the United States might not honor those obligations if Russia decided to invade its Baltic neighbors.
Further, he added, our commitment to our allies might be contingent on how much cash those allies are willing to pony up for their defense — regardless of our strategic interest in assisting them, their past assistance to us in military endeavors and of course the signed declarations of our loyalties. Contra the advice of Melania Trump (by way of Michelle Obama), our word is no longer our bond.
When allies around the world and U.S. policymakers flipped out over these comments, the Trump campaign initially claimed its candidate had been misquoted. But once a transcript materialized, Trump doubled down on his threats to our military partners.
Maybe we’ll come through for our friends, and maybe we won’t, he told Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press” on Sunday. Any acknowledgment of unconditional commitment to our sworn allies just reveals us to be “the stupid country.”
I kind of get it. In a war, or a sports match, or even a reality show, there’s something to be said for unpredictability — for keeping enemies (and audiences) on their toes. But in a friendship, this is deadly.
No one wants a friend whose core diplomatic principle is flakiness.
Trump is not just subscribing to President Richard Nixon’s madman theory, that we want to convince our foes that we are capable of doing just about anything. He is also keen on convincing our friends that we are capable of doing just about nothing. Maybe in our allies’ hour of need, we will lick their wounds, but maybe we will sink our fangs in instead. Or maybe we’ll just stand idly by as they are devoured by another predator altogether.
Of course, walking back legal commitments is a strategy that has served Trump well in his business endeavors. There are many stories of his refusal to cough up contractually agreed-upon payments for services rendered at his casinos, golf courses and other properties. In Trump’s worldview, a signed business contract, like a signed international treaty, is never the binding culmination of a deal but rather just another bid, subject to constant relitigation. And a counterparty in a signed agreement is never an honored friend or partner but always an opponent from whom one should continually extract maximum value.
Perhaps it makes sense, then, that Trump’s foreign policy aims to destabilize and disorient not just our enemies but our allies as well. Because in Trump’s world, even our friends are foes. Or at the very least, potential prey.