Early Monday the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts argued that, despite mountains of evidence that the commander in chief thinks and acts like a toddler, the odds of him starting World War III were ridiculously low.
I didn't say anything about other countries starting trouble, however, and this is the area of concern that is worth focusing on for today.
Way, way back in February of last year I warned readers that Trump's blowhard rhetoric was making him more predictable and less credible at the same time:
There are two massive downsides to how Trump’s rhetoric affects the rest of the world. The first problem is that most non-Americans are pretty annoyed by it, particularly in democratic allied states. And that leads to a decline in American standing abroad. ...
The second problem is that if Trump’s fits of temper are seen as exercise of hot air, then no one will believe it when Trump actually tries to issue a real threat. ...
Foreign policy relies a lot more on credible commitment than the element of surprise. Trump, by acting the way he does, seems headed for the worst of both worlds. He’s becoming less credible and more predictable by the day.
And now let's revisit that anonymous op-ed from last week again:
The result is a two-track presidency.
Take foreign policy: In public and in private, President Trump shows a preference for autocrats and dictators, such as President Vladimir Putin of Russia and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and displays little genuine appreciation for the ties that bind us to allied, like-minded nations.
Astute observers have noted, though, that the rest of the administration is operating on another track, one where countries like Russia are called out for meddling and punished accordingly, and where allies around the world are engaged as peers rather than ridiculed as rivals.
On Russia, for instance, the president was reluctant to expel so many of Mr. Putin’s spies as punishment for the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain. He complained for weeks about senior staff members letting him get boxed into further confrontation with Russia, and he expressed frustration that the United States continued to impose sanctions on the country for its malign behavior. But his national security team knew better — such actions had to be taken, to hold Moscow accountable.
These paragraphs are supposed to be reassuring, but their actual effect is, how you say, not good.
The anonymous author is probably correct to surmise that U.S. allies should be able to (barely) endure the current chaos. Precisely because allies have multiple, routinized channels of communication with the United States, they can develop a better signal-to-noise ratio than just parsing out Trump's tweets. Again, let me emphasize that this is not an ideal situation — it is just not quite as calamitous as some commentators exclaim.
The trouble lies with U.S. adversaries. By definition, they do not possess the same multilevel, reliable channels of communication. The Financial Times's Tom Mitchell reports that Chinese officials have hastily assembled a forum of Wall Street financiers as a means of sussing out exactly what the heck the Trump administration is thinking: “People briefed on the planning for the China-US Financial Roundtable said it reflected the Chinese government’s frustrations in dealing with Mr Trump, who has refused to designate a point person for China relations and has increasingly deferred to the hawkish views of Robert E. Lighthizer, the US trade representative.” Mitchell also quotes another interlocutor saying, “The Chinese can’t really get their heads around the fact that there’s nobody to deal with [in the Trump administration]."
One feels some sympathy for the People's Republic of China here: I defy any international relations observer to explain this action in a manner consistent with American foreign policy:
The United States said on Friday it had recalled its top diplomats in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Panama over those countries' decisions to no longer recognise Taiwan.
Washington has expressed concern over the rising number of countries that have cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favour of China.....
Like most other countries, Washington does not have diplomatic relations with Taipei but is the democratic island’s main arms supplier and strongest international backer.
The difficulty of a low signal-to-noise ratio jibes with Susan Glasser's reporting from last year about how North Korea was coping with Trump. Glasser interviewed the New America Foundation's Suzanne DiMaggio, and found that North Korean officials were operating in a huge zone of uncertainty:
Among issues the North Koreans have raised with her in recent months, DiMaggio said, were everything from Trump’s tweet urging Tillerson to give up on diplomacy with North Korea (“Is this a good cop/bad cop that he’s doing with Tillerson?”) to Trump’s decision this fall to decertify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal forged by his predecessor, Barack Obama. That, DiMaggio said, “has sent a clear signal to the North Koreans: Why should they enter a deal with us, if we’re not going to stick with it?”
“They question his erratic behavior, and also his mounting problems here at home, with the investigation being conducted by Robert Mueller, and they are asking, ‘Why should we begin negotiations with the Trump administration, when Donald Trump may not be president much longer?’”
Given Pyongyang's lack of routinized communication with Washington, one can understand how miscommunications could escalate into conflict quickly, and how close the Trump administration has come to severe miscommunications.
I could run through the same exercise with Russia or Iran, but by now you hopefully get the picture. The “two-track presidency” barely functions with allies, but it does not function at all in dealing with adversaries. These countries have no idea how to parse statements coming from the White House or the State Department. To paraphrase a joke that Henry Kissinger allegedly made about Europe: At this point, whom do they call if they want to talk to America?
This is the foreign policy conundrum that does worry me a little bit. Right now all of America's rivals are reading about the “two-track presidency” and the “administrative coup d'etat” and wondering just who the hell is running America's foreign policy railroad. It might be Trump, but he is erratic, easily distracted and may not even have grasped object permanence. It might be Trump's national security team, but they are not elected officials and have a high burnout rate.
Galaxy Brain advocates might argue that uncertainty is a good thing in high-stakes international negotiations, or that Trump and his advisers are playing grand “good cop/bad cop” routine on the world. These things, however, are small potatoes compared with the ability to credibly signal and credibly commit. And this administration has been abjectly awful on both these diplomatic dimensions. It also doesn't jibe with how Trump's closest advisers feel about their boss:
Dowd then explained to Mueller and Quarles why he was trying to keep the president from testifying: “I’m not going to sit there and let him look like an idiot. And you publish that transcript, because everything leaks in Washington, and the guys overseas are going to say, ‘I told you he was an idiot. I told you he was a goddamn dumbbell. What are we dealing with this idiot for?’ ”
“John, I understand,” Mueller replied, according to Woodward.
My hunch is that America's rivals will respond to this low signal-to-noise ratio by biding their time and accruing small advantages in changing facts on the ground. The possibility that they might be tempted to take riskier action, however, is what will keep me up at night for the next 2½ years.