Donald Trump stated in his recent speech on foreign policy that the US “must as a nation be more unpredictable. We are totally predictable.” Unpredictability might be a good negotiating tactic for a businessman such as Mr. Trump. But unpredictability is not appropriate for the most powerful democratic nation in the world.
(I wondered about using the phrase “most powerful, democratic nation”. Would I be implying that there might be a more powerful nation that was not democratic? I would be perfectly justified in changing the adjectives to only the “most powerful” and leave out the “democratic”. But I didn’t change the words because America’s power is derived from our democratic principles. But I digress.)
Unpredictability is a great thing in a poker game. If you can predict when a player is going to bluff, you can win a lot of money from him or her. But poker is a zero sum game. If one person wins, everybody else must lose. World affairs cannot be a zero sum game because, if it were, then the nations of the world would be in constant war. The only way to have peace is to make world affairs win/win. After World War One, the winning allies imposed the Versailles Treaty on defeated Germany. The allies won and Germany lost. So the allies imposed onerous war reparations on Germany. The Germans resented and hated the reparations, feelings that led to the rise of Hitler and the Second World War. After the Second World War, the United States helped Germany (and Japan) to recover. Now Germany and Japan are our good friends, allies and trading partners. That is the difference between a win/lose scenario and a win/win scenario. Win/lose is domination: win/win is partnership.
There is already too much unpredictability in the world. Unpredictability is the same as unreliability. If you cannot predict what a person will do you cannot rely on that person. Nations want their allies to be reliable and predictable. They want their allies’ actions to be consistent over time. Mr. Obama has caused much consternation among our allies because he has been unpredictable and unreliable. In uncertain circumstances people must react quickly, often without knowing the facts or what exactly is going on (the fog of war). In a nuclear-armed world, the uncertainty of rival nations can quickly cause massive retaliation. Those who remember the Cold War (I know some of you don’t) remember the policy of mutually assured destruction (MAD): the assurance of retaliation to a first nuclear strike. The perverse predictability of MAD kept the Cold War rivals at bay until the collapse of the Soviet Union. With unpredictable North Korea and increasingly unpredictable Russia, each nuclear-armed and each becoming more aggressive, the addition of an unpredictable United States would create an extremely dangerous situation.
Mr. Trump is also against transparency. “We tell everything,” he complains. In Syria, unexplained movements could trigger tragic events. We have to communicate with our friends in the region as well as some that are not our friends. We also have to communicate with the American people. Transparency is essential for democracy. The American people deserve to know if the president is deploying troops. Of course, they don’t necessarily need to know tactical movements in advance and the president’s press conference announcement of 250 more troops to Syria was probably more about politics than transparency. The necessity of transparency is derived from the democratic principles on which our nation is founded. Is there a potential cost to being so transparent that even our adversaries know what we are doing? Yes, of course there is a cost and we have to recognize that. But these costs are the burden of standing by our founding principles. Abandoning our principles means we become like every other power. We aspire to be better than that.
Mr. Trump needs to realize that America is not a business and our foreign policy is not a poker game. Bringing business-like efficiency and an innovative spirit into the White House could be a good thing, but it is critical the next White House occupant know how to utilize these attributes and not be bound by them. Based on its founding principles, has a duty to be predictable and transparent. Presidential candidates need to embrace our principles in order to truly make America great again.