Politics & Policy

Donald Trump and the Art of Strategic Ambiguity

President Trump salutes as he boards Air Force One at John F. Kennedy Airport, December 2, 2017. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
By keeping friends and foes alike off balance, he upholds the United States’ interests.

Donald Trump has disturbed the world. His policy of strategic ambiguity has destabilized friends and foes alike. It has forced enemies such as North Korea to the bargaining table and made allies question the United States’ commitment to their security. For these reasons, ambiguity has been downplayed as a tool of U.S. diplomacy. It makes people uneasy, a feeling not embraced when dealing with global superpowers.

It is also true that anti-Trump sentiment among Western intelligentsia is so strong that few serious foreign-policy or national-security analysts are willing to openly examine the concerns his election highlighted or the success he is having in their sphere. Their belief in President Trump as a manifestation of ignorance or evil is so overwhelming that they are unable to perceive the heightened concerns and respect for the America’s position in the world that have emerged in centers of power in the Asia-Pacific, the Middle East, and African regions where China’s rise had, up until a year ago, appeared inevitable. So consumed are American and European practitioners of foreign policy with their Never/Anti-Trumpism that they have never stopped to consider that his approach is working.

Until recently the United States ceaselessly pursued the advantages of a global system built on the foundation of the rule of law. Theoretically, such a system creates an environment where everyone understands what is right and what is wrong. Economic development advances, crime decreases, stability rises, and conflict declines, except when the system becomes too stable, too ossified, where peace becomes so prevalent as to be assumed. Under those conditions, cynicism rises even among adherents, war is dismissed as a mere potential outcome, and faithfulness to norms becomes the exception and not the rule.

One need only look at numerous nations’ trade practices or underinvestment in their own defense to see the manifestation of such cynicism. Under those conditions, the global leader becomes the only consistent actor, valued primarily not as a leader but as a target for those in trail. Certainty emerges that it will be only a matter of time until the leader is overtaken by the inevitable forces of history. In any struggle, on a playing field or on the world’s stage, solid predictability is not a winning strategy.

For more than a generation, the United States has attempted to lead the world toward a stable, rules-based order. In its creation of diplomatic institutions (the United Nations), economic entities (the World Trade Organization), and mutual-security treaties (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization), America has attempted to establish a series of norms by which all nations can coexist in predictable prosperity and security. Even within the confines of war, the U.S. military attempted to define and circumscribe military operations tightly so as to contain escalation and prevent full regional conflagration, as had occurred in World Wars I and II.

Lastly, the United States attempted to strictly and transparently adhere to the rules it had helped establish and to serve as the guiding standard for others to follow. Some nations did follow for a time, until, feeling so secure in the open environment thus created, and perhaps a bit resentful at the advantages of leadership that accrued to the United States, they began to seek exceptions or to simply not adhere to the rules. And those were U.S. allies.

These nations made it clear that Western concepts of the rule of law simply did not apply to them, and obedience to such rules, in their minds, was for the weak. They choose to pursue their own course toward power.

Those who would make themselves enemies of the United States, however, did not even wish to create the semblance of adherence. Be it Russia’s invasion of Georgia, the Crimea, and Ukraine or China’s claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea and willful disobedience of a ruling from the international tribunal at The Hague, these nations made it clear that Western concepts of the rule of law simply did not apply to them, and obedience to such rules, in their minds, was for the weak. They choose to pursue their own course toward power. It is a pattern not unfamiliar to students of 19th-century great-power competitions, or even the Cold War.

Some citizens of the United States, after a decade of “nation building” during the 1990s and another decade of fighting terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq, began to question whether the United States itself, with its strong sense of exceptionalism, might not be the source of instability and unrest in the world. The nation therefore retreated during the tenure of Barack Obama into eight years marked by apologies, the opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba, and engagement in agreements with Iran — both brutal authoritarian regimes. Foreign adversaries, for their part, were confident of the course the United States would adhere to. The Obama administration’s seemingly mystical belief in a rules-based order made it an easy mark for those who desired power but were unencumbered by morality.

The election of Donald Trump can be correctly seen as the rejection of the previous generation of U.S. diplomacy. Be it Bill Clinton’s idealistic nuclear deal with North Korea, George W. Bush’s preemptive war in Iraq, or Barack Obama’s bowing tour, reset button, and moveable red lines, the rejection of this generation of diplomatic initiatives by the American people was clearly indicated by Donald Trump’s elevation to the presidency and the subsequent return of a strong exceptionalist foreign policy.

Despite some Cassandra calls by informed observers, it has become evident that the people of the United States did not seek withdrawal into isolation, reject their alliances, or even want to walk away from the rules-based order that they had helped establish. Instead the election’s results demanded that all nations should be called upon to uphold all their commitments and obey the same rules equally and fairly. If they did not, however, then the people wanted their representatives to take a realistic look at the United States’ interests, just as other nations sought to promote theirs. The election was essentially a call for a fair and equitable system of global governance. For all the biting criticism, objective practitioners and scholars should recognize that Donald Trump’s policy of engagement is not altogether discontinuous with modern American history and the policies and methods of some of our greatest presidents.

Donald Trump’s policy of engagement is not altogether discontinuous with modern American history and the policies and methods of some of our greatest presidents.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, for all his commitment to founding the governing global institutions of the modern era, conducted his foreign policy independently. Despite Churchill’s desire to form an Anglo-American alliance going forward, FDR had no problem humiliating his great ally in front of Stalin. Roosevelt needed to fracture the imperial global system that Great Britain had created and maintained in order to create space within the negotiations between the great powers to pursue America’s more liberal global interests.

Dwight Eisenhower, FDR’s great combat commander in Europe during World War II, understood the importance of maneuver space and set about creating it even before he assumed the presidency. As a candidate, Ike promised to go to Korea and bring that war to an end. In the process of negotiations, he introduced the idea that he would use nuclear weapons if China chose to escalate combat operations on the peninsula again. It was a threat he made obliquely on one other occasion, regarding Chinese threats against Taiwan. Eisenhower’s use of what has now come to be known as strategic ambiguity had the aim of keeping U.S. defense spending low while maximizing the bargaining power of nuclear weapons as tools of deterrence. His approach worked for him because of his tremendous reputation as the man who had made the call to invade Normandy. No one wanted to play poker with Eisenhower.

Ronald Reagan, the victor of the Cold War, also understood the importance of fluidity in negotiations. As the longtime head of a trade union, the Screen Actors Guild, and later a two-term governor of California during a period of great social unrest, Reagan understood the importance of creating opportunities for negotiations while also pursuing principled strategic goals. As president, he pursued a simple strategy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union: “We win, they lose.” He used antagonistic rhetoric, actively supported anti-Communist movements around the world, and deployed the U.S. military aggressively in exercises. His maximum-pressure strategy destabilized a fixed environment by setting aside a generation of détente’s containment diplomacy and instead pursued a rollback of Soviet influence. Amazingly, it worked.

Much like his noted predecessors, Donald Trump, a billionaire real-estate developer from New York, arrived in the White House without preconceived notions of diplomatic norms. It is clear from his public statements that he views foreign relationships realistically as “good deals” or “bad deals,” and he doesn’t feel the need to strictly adhere to those that disadvantage his client, the United States. In nearly every case, from China to Europe to North Korea, Trump has attempted to use rhetoric, often in the form of tweets, to introduce doubt and instability into ongoing conversations, using the subsequent uncertainty to create space for new dialogue. It is a page right out of his 1987 book The Art of the Deal, in which he advanced the concepts of “maximizing options” and “using leverage” in negotiations. The current president wants to solve the nation’s big problems but does not wish to be hemmed in by the mistakes of his predecessors. His decision to pursue direct negotiations with North Korea over the denuclearization of that nation is simply the latest example of his hands-on approach.

Much like his noted predecessors, Donald Trump, a billionaire real-estate developer from New York, arrived in the White House without preconceived notions of diplomatic norms.

Adherence to rules is an important civilizational norm that has characterized the West for centuries, but when one nation finds itself to be the only entity obeying the rules, those rules are not “norms.” President Trump understands this, and future historians will look back and almost certainly recognize him as a realist who first sought to clearly identify U.S. national interests and then pursued them while also seeking balance with external commitments. His use of strategic ambiguity is not unlike Eisenhower’s. His rhetoric is not unlike Reagan’s, and his independence and personal confidence are not unlike those of his fellow New Yorker, Franklin D. Roosevelt. These men each came to the presidency with perspectives that were unconstrained by national politics, based as they were on their own unique, private professional backgrounds.

By his own methods, President Trump has created space for diplomatic, economic, and military maneuver. His method of employing strategic ambiguity gives him room to practice his “art” of high-end negotiations in the service of the American people. Thus far, he has successfully taken significant actions in key areas of deregulation, court appointments, tax reform, the expansion of the military, and diplomatic negotiations. That others might not view his initiatives as successes at present says more about their perceptions than about his actions.

Jerry Hendrix — Jerry Hendrix is a retired U.S. Navy captain, an award-winning naval historian, and a senior fellow and director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security.

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