Even figures in the opposition Labor Party conceded that Turnbull was in a difficult position trying to persuade the new president to uphold a promise made by the Obama administration. “I don’t believe Turnbull did the wrong thing,” Graham Richardson, a senior cabinet minister in a previous Labor government, told Sky News. “I think we are just facing a normal Trump tantrum.”
What’s striking about Richardson’s words is that an experienced foreign politician is basically comparing Trump to an angry toddler. (As the parent of a toddler, I can tell you that’s not a compliment.)Even more striking, Richardson is explicitly saying what many foreign leaders are beginning to grasp about Trump: that his unpredictable tirades at close allies (on Wednesday, Trump also kinda sorta maybe threatened to invade Mexico) are the rule, not the exception.It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: That’s not a good thing.
“I suspect our allies will probably try to smooth it over and just accommodate the fact that the president is somewhat mercurial, because they have a long-term vested interest in the relationship with the U.S.,” said Tom Nichols, a former Republican Capitol Hill staffer and a professor at the Naval War College (who stressed he was speaking only for himself).One veteran Republican operative with close ties to the GOP foreign policy apparatus put it more bluntly: “It’s absurd, but it is what it is. The good news is, we’re still America, everyone has to shut up and take it, but it’s absurd.”
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. … 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.” …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.