National Security & Defense

Trump and His Strategy of Ambiguity

President Trump with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, November 2017. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)
He has reintroduced it, to create diplomatic, economic, and military options for America in its interactions with the outside world.

President Donald Trump’s rhetoric has shocked the diplomatic world. His size-of-nuclear-button tweets, his observation that China had been caught “red-handed” giving illegal aide to Kim Jong-un, his blunt talk about the defense spending of U.S. allies, all go against the trends of the past 25 years. But, the odd thing is, his words are having a positive effect. North Korea, for the first time in a generation, has opened talks with South Korea. China has increased its pressure on the Kim regime, and NATO members are spending more on their own defense. Critics, repulsed by Trump’s impolitic language and mannerisms, are reluctant to give him credit, ascribing improvements to processes in motion prior to his arrival in office or broader systemic forces. Thoughtful analysts and academics ought to consider, however, that the reappearance of “strategic ambiguity” as an approach to foreign relations is once again having a positive effect.

“Strategic ambiguity,” which refers to an approach that seeks to inject uncertainty of outcome into diplomatic dialogue to destabilize a nation’s enemies or competitors, is the term of art coined by historians examining President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s public statements during his eight-year administration, especially those that addressed the relationship between the United States and Taiwan, as well as those relating to his willingness to use nuclear weapons in Korea and Vietnam. Eisenhower’s deliberate vagueness, his obvious desire to introduce doubt into the minds of his enemies, carried extra weight given his reputation as a wartime commander and his willingness to throw the dice of chance during the invasion of Normandy. Opposing nations found themselves at a disadvantage simply because they were not certain what Ike would do and they knew that he was capable of doing anything.

Ronald Reagan was the next occupant of the Oval Office to use doubt as a weapon. His bellicose “Evil Empire” rhetoric and offhand, mic-check “We begin bombing in five minutes” in 1984 had the Soviets convinced that they were dealing with a man who willing to engage in a nuclear war with them. Reagan’s commitment to a large defense buildup and his unwillingness to abandon his “Star Wars” missile-defense initiative, even when it caused a breakdown in nuclear disarmament talks with Mikhail Gorbachev, were largely responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union and for the end of a generations-long Cold War. Reagan’s critics opposed him viciously during his presidency, but his communications skills, honed on Hollywood’s movie lots, and his reputation as a fierce ideological Cold Warrior allowed him to destabilize the international environment and bend it to his will.

Both Eisenhower and Reagan were non-politicians who came to the presidency late in life, much as Donald Trump has. Most of their adult lives were spent in other professions, learning and practicing other skills, which they then brought to bear on the presidency. Eisenhower was a soldier and a strategic planner. Reagan was first an actor and later a public speaker and industry advocate for the General Electric corporation. While Reagan did serve two terms as governor of California, that was after he had worked for 30 years in Hollywood. Donald Trump’s skills were honed through 45 years as a real-estate developer in the brawling New York City market. Trump’s success hinged on his self-described “art of the deal,” promoting the ideas, among others, of maximizing options and forestalling the close of negotiations until maximum advantage was realized. Trump methodically eschewed predictability throughout his professional real-estate career, which was predominantly successful, despite a few notable failures.

This is counter to the trends of the past generation, since the end of the Cold War, when the United States has sought to codify diplomacy through a series of treaties, agreements, norms, and doctrines. In doing so, U.S. policymakers purposefully have sought to eliminate ambiguity and bring increased transparency to the global diplomatic environment, to ensuring stability and peace. The U.S. military even went so far as to establish and describe its methods of war for all to see. But in recent years a problem emerged; the U.S. military’s enemies read what it wrote and began to exploit seams and loopholes in its doctrines. Knowing that kinetic warfare would commence only after certain steps had been taken, Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea created hybrid, or “gray zone,” warfare tactics that operated just below the semi-permeable barrier that separated pre-war activities from full combat operations. The United States, the bulwark of the global international system of laws and norms it had created, found itself hamstrung by its very adherence to rules that simply did not apply to everyone else. Trump has changed all that.

This is not to say that president Trump is pursuing a formal strategy of strategic ambiguity on purpose. He does not have any formal education in the arcane nature of American diplomacy. What he does have is many years of active negotiations and brinkmanship within the sharp-elbowed New York real-estate environment. He approaches negotiations with a basic question of whether they are “fair” or “unfair.” If he perceives that the competition is exploiting a loophole, he recognizes the negotiation as unbalanced and seeks to level the playing field. If that means departing from established norms to reestablish an equilibrium, he has no problem. He seeks only the best deal for his company, which currently is the United States. Anyone who makes more than a cursory examination of the new National Security Strategy can recognize this new application of a “fair” Trump Doctrine to the nation’s diplomatic, economic, and national-security interactions with the world.

The new National Security Strategy makes clear that Trump is not an enemy of the global international system. In fact, it states that he supports it as a mainstay of U.S. influence throughout the world.

The language of the new National Security Strategy makes it clear that President Donald Trump is not an enemy of the global international system. In fact, it states that he supports it as a mainstay of American influence throughout the world. What he opposes are competitors and non-adherents to the system who use it to disadvantage the United States. To this end, he has reintroduced strategic ambiguity and uncertainty, to create diplomatic, economic, and military options with regard to the nation’s interactions with the outside world, to the degree that they are needed. If competitors seek unfair advantage, they invite increased uncertainty as to American reactions to their initiatives. As they move toward a level playing field in their negotiations, they will be met with increased strategic certainty as to Trump’s responses.

The United States in the era of Trump, just as during the times of Eisenhower and Reagan, can no longer afford the foolish luxury of guaranteeing predictability to its enemies. To the degree that critics charge that these tactics of ambiguity are not applicable to a world populated by nuclear weapons, the answer is that these are the responses our enemies have asked for. To those allies and partners who are discomforted by uncertainty, the onus is on them to draw nearer and listen more closely. The world is reentering a new, dangerous phase of history where great-power competitions will play out. The American people understand this. It is only natural that they would elect a leader, as they did with Eisenhower and Reagan, who chooses not to show his hand and constantly seeks advantage.


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