Trump’s foreign policy unpredictability isn’t new — but it seems to be increasing. What can we expect in the future?
Trump probably won’t start a diversionary war
In the past, the president has suggested starting a war could be an electoral strategy. The threat of impeachment only intensifies fears he might in fact pursue this approach.
More importantly, Trump has repeatedly made clear he opposes starting a conflict. He campaigned on ending the United States’ “endless wars,” a theme that has still shot through his rhetoric on Syria and Afghanistan, and he has put that into practice this past week when he pulled the United States out of northern Syria.
There’s another option: Trump might seek a diversionary peace with North Korea, the sort of foreign policy coup that could bolster his domestic support. Trump has made clear he covets a Nobel Peace Prize, and apparently he even asked Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to nominate him.
But Trump is unlikely to succeed in brokering a peace deal with North Korea, with or without love letters. North Korea doesn’t want anything the United States is willing to give.
But his foreign policy may get more chaotic
We are, however, likely to see Trump’s foreign policy become increasingly chaotic, for three reasons.
1. Trump is narrowing his inner circle.
This can result in a dangerous phenomenon called groupthink, in which a desire for in-group consensus encourages members to reject information contradicting a preconceived worldview, discourages careful deliberation and increases their tendency to over-optimistically evaluate their policies’ chances of success.
Without dissenting voices in the White House, Trump may be more willing to act on his own foreign policy whims without considering broader consequences. Hunkering down will probably further limit Trump’s access to or willingness to hear advice that might temper his intuitions and stabilize U.S. foreign policy.
2. Trump believes the “madman strategy” is a good tactic.
During the Vietnam War, President Richard M. Nixon believed that acting like a “madman” would convince the Soviets and North Vietnamese of his resolve, producing a settlement more favorable to the United States.
Trump seems to buy this logic. During his 2016 campaign, he explicitly argued that the United States needs to be more “unpredictable.” In February 2019, Trump argued that his bombastic rhetoric helped bring North Korea to the bargaining table.
His tweets further reveal he believes the “element of surprise” is essential for catching opponents off guard, making them more susceptible to pressure. Trump may try to justify future foreign policy whiplash in these terms.
This can undermine their credibility and ability to achieve their goals. Acting unpredictably leads others to doubt someone’s commitment to a particular course of action.
Furthermore, Trump’s “madman” logic assumes he is still building his international reputation. But Lupton shows leaders acquire reputations early during their tenures that are difficult to change later on. It might be too late for Trump to change his reputation for using harsh rhetoric with little follow-through.
3. Trump needs foreign policy wins — real or apparent — to bolster public support.
Given the impeachment inquiry, Trump wants to consolidate domestic political support. He is in “survival mode,” scrambling for positive outcomes to highlight.
But few real “wins” are in sight. North Korea is unwilling to discuss denuclearization unless the United States first abandons what its negotiators call the Americans’ “hostile policy.” Trump’s abandonment of the United States’ Kurdish partners is plunging Syria into “chaos.” And the sanctions on Iran and China don’t seem to be accomplishing the administration’s goals.
But Trump supporters appreciate his reputation for being unpredictable and his bold pronouncements as much as actual results. His base expects him to “shoot from the hip” and values the resulting chaos. That may well encourage more of the same.
As the temperature of the impeachment inquiry and the 2020 election heats up, Trump is likely to play even more to his base, doubling down on his erratic foreign policy behavior.