Trump’s ‘Unpredictable Starting Now’ Foreign Policy Is Here

  • Calls to leaders of Taiwan and Pakistan shatter precedent
  • Trump’s strategy compared to Nixon’s ‘madman’ approach

Donald Trump's 140 Character Foreign Policy

More than six weeks before his inauguration, President-elect Donald Trump is already carrying out his promise to make U.S. foreign policy less predictable with a series of moves that are keeping America’s adversaries, as well as its friends, off-balance.

In the span of a week, Trump slammed China over currency and trade, had an unprecedented call with Taiwan’s leader, praised the Philippine president’s violent war on drugs and promised to visit Pakistan, effectively upending years of foreign policy. Even when new presidents want to change policies, they are usually careful to adhere to the strict and deliberately stilted language of diplomacy, which exists to prevent misunderstandings that can lead to unintended consequences. 

The president-elect is showing “a pretty dramatic departure” from traditional practice, said Aaron David Miller, vice president for new initiatives at the Wilson Center and a former adviser at the State Department. “When I look at what appears to be the emerging Trump foreign policy, I see a lot of unpredictability when it comes to process,” he said.

Read Bloomberg Intelligence on Trump’s call adding to trade risks

What most concerns some critics is the possibility that Trump, who claimed to know more about Islamic State than the Pentagon’s generals, may be making decisions hastily or without thinking about the broader consequences of decisions such as taking the call from Taiwan.

“In dismissing the significance of this exchange they failed to recognize that process and people are policy when you’re president of the United States,” said Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and Asia policy coordinator for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. “A phone call to interact with a particular figure, especially of this significance, is going to be interpreted as policy.”

No Top Diplomat

Trump is also doing all this without a nominee for secretary of state to advise him -- or to explain his thinking to foreign governments and their advisers behind the scenes. While former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and retired General David Petraeus have both been on a short list to serve as the top U.S. diplomat, his closest advisers remain divided over the two men, and other names have emerged, such as former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, a Republican who served as President Barack Obama’s envoy to China.

Some experts say Trump’s strategy echoes that of President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, who served as his national security adviser and then as secretary of state. They sought advantage in world affairs by keeping other leaders guessing about Nixon’s intentions.

“Nixon toyed with the idea that he could affect international relations with his madman theory -- the idea he could convince overseas leaders that he was unpredictable and irrational," said Nicholas Eberstadt, the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute. “Donald Trump is in a lot better position to leverage the madman theory than Nixon was.”

Trump’s chat with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen on Friday initially prompted a muted protest from Beijing, which regards the island as its territory. The president-elect escalated his criticism of China on Sunday in a Twitter posting asking, “Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into their country (the U.S. doesn’t tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don’t think so!”

Lu Kang, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, told reporters in Beijing on Monday that “we have no comment on what motivated the U.S. team to make such tweets.”

“We do not comment on his personality,” he said of Trump. “We focus on his policies, especially his policies toward China.”

Read more: Taiwan’s trade minister discusses Trump with Bloomberg BNA

Trump presaged his own actions during the campaign. He lambasted Republican national-security experts and criticized Obama’s slow-and-steady approach when he outlined his foreign-policy strategy in a speech in April.

‘More Unpredictable’

"We must as a nation be more unpredictable,” Trump said in the speech. “We are totally predictable. We tell everything. We’re sending troops? We tell them. We’re sending something else? We have a news conference. We have to be unpredictable, and we have to be unpredictable starting now."

Vice President-elect Mike Pence said world leaders already are finding Trump’s candor a refreshing change from timidity in U.S. foreign policy.

“There’s a great sense of enthusiasm and optimism around the world, because they’re encountering in President-elect Donald Trump a strong leader with broad shoulders who’s going to advance America’s interests,” Pence said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “But he is also going to be engaging the world on behalf of America.”

‘Timid State Department’

Trump adviser and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was similarly unapologetic when asked about Trump’s phone call with the Taiwanese leader.

“Beijing does not dictate who the president of the United States speaks to,” Gingrich said on Fox News Channel’s “Sunday Morning Futures.”

Gingrich said the “old, timid State Department” would have advised against taking the call from Taiwan’s president, adding, “We elected him not to listen to the current State Department.”

Indeed, the State Department said it hasn’t been asked by Trump’s team to provide the traditional briefings that would normally be a part of discussions between a president-elect and foreign powers. The White House, while generally avoiding comments on Trump’s transition efforts, encouraged him last week to take advantage of those briefings.

“We have not been contacted before any of these conversations,” Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday. “We have not been requested to provide talking points.”

Populist Movements

Trump’s election last month over the expectations of most polls, the Washington political establishment and perhaps the candidate himself, is one more sign of how unpredictable global events are these days, with populist movements on the rise at the expense of traditional parties. The British vote to leave the European Union fueled huge swings in global markets, while Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s bet that he could push through constitutional changes failed, prompting his resignation on Sunday.

The first sign that Trump was taking a nontraditional approach was the list of phone calls he’s held, as when he told Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif he was a “terrific guy” -- according to a summary provided by Sharif’s government -- and promised to come to the country. Obama never visited Pakistan, which has a complicated relationship with the U.S. given its historic support of the Afghan Taliban and the renewal of tensions with neighboring India over the disputed Kashmir region. Former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. special forces in 2011 while living near an elite military academy in Pakistan.

Read about Pakistan’s Challenges as a Fragile State -- Quick Take

Then came a call when Trump praised new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte for his war on drugs, which has killed more than 3,000 people and raised concerns about human-rights violations. He also seemed to invite Duterte -- who has reached out to China, ordered U.S. forces out of the southern part of his country and told Obama to “go to hell” -- to visit Washington, according to a readout of the call from officials in Manila.

Read about Duterte’s praise of Trump after their phone call.

Finally, there was the phone call with Taiwan’s president, which violated 40 years of delicate diplomacy designed to honor the U.S. commitment to “unofficial” relations with the island while maintaining diplomatic ties with China, which claims ownership over it.

‘The Apprentice’

More than anything else, though, the freewheeling nature of Trump’s approach has played out with the search to choose a secretary of state. ‘We’ve been winnowing the list, but it might grow a bit,” Pence said on Sunday.

The very public process -- with Trump, his surrogates and the contenders all commenting -- has been compared to episodes of Trump’s former television show, “The Apprentice,” rather than the selection of the nation’s top diplomat.

“I’ve never seen anything like that before,” Miller said, “and I worked for half a dozen secretaries of state.”

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