Once when I was serving in the federal government, in the early 2000s, the Treasury Department was ready to issue an obscure communique. Just before it was set to be released, someone noticed a stray punctuation mark. The picayune typo could have led some to interpret the communique as a U.S. policy reversal on some territory where sovereignty was disputed. This mattered: Historically, foreign officials and the press parse every word that presidents and policy principals say to decipher any changes in policy. Even minute shifts in language can send important signals to the world.
In this case, the moment the typo was detected, we fixed the problem before it went public. A minor kerfuffle was averted.
Now imagine trying to clean up President-elect Donald Trump’s statements.
From both the campaign and the first few weeks of the transition, we know that Trump will pop off at anyone he perceives as crossing him at any moment. Trump didn’t like a tough question from Megyn Kelly in an August 2015 debate, and for months on end he railed about her on Twitter. When Judge Gonzalo Curiel ruled against him in fraud litigation over Trump University, he spent the next week openly questioning the judge’s impartiality because of Curiel’s ethnicity. The mainstream media has been an object of Trump’s ire for the past 18 months. And since winning the election, Trump has communicated with the public mostly through Twitter — and has devoted far more tweets to lambasting “Hamilton” and “Saturday Night Live” than to his thoughts about which policies he’ll implement. This week, he declared that “many people would like to see” Brexit champion Nigel Farage, a Trump ally, as Britain’s ambassador to the United States.
That prompted an icy reply from the office of Prime Minister Theresa May that Britain already has an ambassador in Washington.
Beginning on Jan. 20, we will have a president who is so all over the map that it will be difficult to parse his remarks the way the world has, up to now, combed over what his predecessors have said. The search for meaning in Trump’s word salads won’t be easy. Indeed, an adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told Reuters that Trump’s aides informed him that “we don’t have to take each word that Mr. Trump said publicly literally.”
Trump’s short fuse could win him some near-term foreign policy accomplishments. And the ambiguity of a president who contradicts himself frequently could sow confusion among rivals of the United States. The problem is that it will also sow confusion among key allies and partners. Ultimately, Trump’s bluster and impulsiveness will hurt our national interest. If allies — or enemies — stop believing what they hear from the White House, Trump is likely to blunder into conflicts that are not of his own choosing.
* * *
Part of the problem with trying to identify the meaning of Trump’s words is that Trump himself does not put too much stock in them. From his very first book — which he didn’t write — Trump proclaimed his faith in “truthful hyperbole.” His rise to political prominence came from lying about President Obama’s citizenship status. During his presidential campaign, Trump and his aides gaslighted on a regular basis: In one debate, Trump flatly denied that he had called global warming a Chinese hoax — when he very clearly had . According to every reputable fact-checker, Trump lied far more frequently than Hillary Clinton.
During the campaign, Trump’s spin was the same as what his advisers reportedly told Abe. As Salena Zito put it in the Atlantic in September, Trump’s voters took his rhetoric seriously but not literally; the press, meanwhile, took it literally but not seriously. (“Now, that’s interesting,” Trump told Zito when she put that theory to him.)
But after a campaign in which he faced almost no consequences for lying or exaggerating, Trump will be moving to a far different arena. Getting caught bluffing in international politics is embarrassing. Getting caught in an outright lie is more dangerous. When it comes to foreign policy, American presidents have had a habit of telling the truth. Sure, they sometimes lie — John F. Kennedy lied to hide the fact that Soviet removal of nuclear weapons from Cuba in 1962 was contingent on the United States withdrawing Jupiter missiles from Turkey. But that was a lie to the American people. In his book “Why Leaders Lie,” political scientist John Mearsheimer came to the surprising conclusion that foreign policy leaders rarely lie to other governments.
There are sound reasons to believe that lying is not a viable strategy in the long run. The United States is the most powerful country in the world, but it is not all-powerful — it still needs friends and partners. For example, short of an all-out war, the Trump administration cannot pressure Iran to do anything without buy-in from European allies. Those allies will want U.S. commitments to be credible, and that’s the toughest thing for a lying president to proffer.
On the other hand, it’s not always clear that Trump knows when he’s lying. He simply doesn’t care at times whether he’s telling the truth or not. But even if he’s just winging it rather than lying, that will be a marked change from past commanders in chief. As the Atlantic’s David Frum noted this week, “It’s really a terrible thing that the word of the president-elect of the United States cannot be believed or trusted.” Trump’s lack of concern for facts, and his tendency to parrot whichever adviser spoke with him last, will pose a challenge for diplomats and foreign heads of state.
Trump’s impulsiveness alone won’t pose as much of a problem as it will in conjunction with his inability to tell the truth. He will hardly be the first president with a questionable temperament and a tendency to anger quickly. The rhetorical contrast between Trump and Obama is stark, but Obama’s temper is the unusual one in the post-1945 era. Trump’s Twitter tirades seem petty, but they are more restrained than Harry Truman’s nasty, threatening letter to music critic Paul Hume, who had found a recital by the president’s daughter lacking. Presidential historians can attest to the volcanic tempers and massive insecurities of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.
Furthermore, for all Trump’s fits of pique, it is worth remembering that he also reverses course frequently. Trump raged against Kelly but eventually sat down for a one-on-one interview with her. He started his campaign bashing Mexico but nonetheless managed to pull off a meeting with the Mexican president. According to “Frontline,” Obama’s 2011 roasting of Trump inspired his presidential run, but since winning the election, the president-elect has been nothing but complimentary toward his predecessor. Just this past week, Trump tweeted that he had canceled a scheduled meeting with the New York Times, only to reverse course later in the morning and show up for an on-the-record interview . In that interview, he backed away from some of his core campaign promises, which only underscores how hard it is to know when Trump means what he says.
* * *
These habits could be a conscious strategy, especially with regard to foreign policy. Trump and his brain trust clearly believe that candor is a sign of weakness. Throughout the campaign, Trump criticized the Obama administration for publicly announcing military operations. When the government outlined the current ground offensive against Mosul, Iraq, Trump blasted it as forfeiting “the element of surprise.” His preference was for a “sneak attack ” (despite doubts among military experts that such an operation would be possible). He exhibited the same belief in his first major foreign policy speech of the campaign, declaring: “We must as a nation be more unpredictable. We are totally predictable. We tell [them] everything. . . . We have to be unpredictable. And we have to be unpredictable starting now.” This sentiment echoes what Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, told the Wall Street Journal this week: “Politics is war. General Sherman would never have gone on TV to tell everyone his plans. I’d never tip my hand to the other side.”
Maybe Trump’s alchemy of anger and ambiguity can net him some foreign policy victories in his first year in office. One can imagine Kim Jong Un sitting in Pyongyang, genuinely confused about how to handle someone like Trump.
But most presidents have been slow to anger and reluctant to lie in world politics. And there are pretty good reasons for that.
When foreign policy leaders get angry as a theatrical tactic, the idea is to get more in negotiations. What happens the first time the president loses his cool — and then just plain loses? Then the anger will be seen as a bluff. Credible commitment is far more important in international negotiations than the ability to engage in truthful hyperbole. As political scientist Anne Sartori argued in “Deterrence by Diplomacy,” leaders don’t bluff much in world politics because they want their promises to be believed by other countries. That is the nature of deterrence. Trump pilloried Obama during a debate for not following through in August 2013 on his declaration that using chemical weapons would be a “red line” for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (though Trump supported Obama’s decision at the time ). To many in the foreign policy establishment, that decision signaled American weakness in the Middle East. The more the Trump administration makes threats it doesn’t carry out, the more other countries will not take subsequent promises seriously. They will be perceived, as Trump put it, as “just words.”
As for Trump’s newfound friendships with kindred leaders such as Vladimir Putin, one should expect them to be about as long-lasting as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Russia and the United States share some common interests, but not a lot of them. Given the temperaments of Trump and Putin, it would not be hard to envision the relationship spiraling out of control if one of them thinks he’s been wronged. Being hot-headed as a tactic only works if other leaders are not hot-headed in response. The very leaders most like Trump — Putin, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan — are the ones most likely to respond to anger with anger, escalating any dispute.
It is possible that Trump doesn’t know yet that his words will matter. Or it is possible that he does know and is trying to use his words to achieve a tactical advantage. As with most improvisers, however, the president-elect doesn’t seem to have thought about what will happen after other countries adjust to his bluffing and dissembling. If he finds himself cornered on a foreign policy issue, he will no doubt try to talk his way out of it. Whether he can so is another question entirely.
There is an upside for the foreign policy bureaucracy, though: With Trump making policy statements on the fly, maybe typos in communiques won’t matter so much anymore.