Political Economy of Trump’s Predictably Unpredictable Foreign Policy

In one of the most memorable scenes in Black Mass, Johny Depp portraying the notorious South Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, demonstrates the extent of his personal and unpredictable power and control when in the middle of the dinner, he playfully and innocently asks his associate John Morris for the recipe of the steak he was just served. He then makes Morris and the rest of the company squirm in front of him in fear, until relaxing again and laughing out the tense atmosphere, but not without hinting that this might or might not be the last dramatic switch off his take on the situation. No one knows what he thinks, no one can predict what would be his next act. The fear that comes from the unpredictable behavior enhances his personal power. Not surprisingly, unpredictability is a frequent trait for characters in many fiction works, portraying how a leader establishes control in a zero-gravity environment. In an unstructured, anarchic environment, unpredictability keeps both foes and associates alike in constant fear and check.

Unpredictability could be a source of important strategic advantage. Coupled with a carefully measured balancing game that would keep most if not all options for action open, a leader can use the ambiguity in order to maximize his outcome payoffs. The balance of power system that ensured long lasting peace in 19th century
Europe heavily relied on the uncommitted unpredictability of its strongest element – the British Empire. In the middle of the century, the British prime minister Henry John Temple Palmerston famously said, “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies.” It was a system, based on ad hoc alliances based on need, and shrouded in secrecy. Yet, this system came down crashing in the First World War, when Britain, faithful to the principle of unpredictability, for way too long did not commit to a definite position, and instead of discouraging the belligerent parties from hostilities, gave the wrong impression and sent them crashing with each other full speed.

In top business management, perhaps, unpredictability and the ability to set a system of rivals who scramble for the leader’s support, could be a signature of a strong leadership that could potentially generate profits and success. In politics, this is less evident. An over-assertive leader, who relies on personal power-dependency dynamics, and exhibits a blatant disregards for various institutional constraints in favor for an “open to all options” strategy, risks creating shock waves that can destabilize the political system, both domestically and internationally, and not only disrupt the normal flow of the political dynamics, but also inadvertently generate irreversible down-spiral processes of decay, disintegration and conflict. In fact, undoubtedly one of the most fundamental elements of a stable political system is predictability. Historical accounts teach us that predictability is preferred, even when it is harmful. In civil-war ravaged 1920s China, large parts of the country were under the control of various warlords and their bands, who would tax heavily the local population. Yet, along with the excruciatingly high taxation and a high degree of violence, many of these warlords brought in also a sense of stability, as they chased away the roving bandits. Mancur Olson notes that one such warlord, notable for his ferocity and high rate of taxation, Feng Yu-hsiang, was also preferred by most of the local people, over the roving bandits, despite his propensity to violence and high tax rates. The predictability of his extortions was apparently more appealing to the local population than the randomness and fear that the unpredictable raids of the roving bandits generated.
Since his election as a president of the United States, Donald Trump has reversed many of his positions – on climate change, extradition of 11 million illegal immigrants, encouraging Japan to develop nuclear weapons, etc. – and then reversing them again. With his last word being always next to the last, it seems unclear even to his associates what would be his final course of action. Donald Trump is the quintessential master of strategy that is heavily based on unpredictability. That is how he ran his campaign both as a primary candidate and as a GOP candidate. That is how the first signs of his incoming presidency seem to be structured as well. He is staffing his administration with rivals, some former harsh critics, essentially setting them for eternal bickering that at the end would ultimately enhance his personal power and influence. Like the Bulger’s associates, advisors and secretaries will squirm in front of him, uncertain when he will pronounce the hallmark words from his star show, The Apprentice, “You are fired!” This setting may or may not produce efficient policy-making environment. But when it comes to how he will organize his White House, it may be argued that this will be rather a reflection of a personal management style, and thus is really an individual choice that falls within the prerogatives of each president. Thus, it should be given a chance and the benefit of the doubt.

When it comes to international politics, however, unpredictability could be a recipe for disaster. A frequent mistake many make is to confuse the need for predictability with the need for guarantees. It is not. Predictability is simply a keyword, on which the contemporary international system is currently built. Trump’s world, is the world of strategic unpredictability. One can conditionally term the former “the world of norms and rules”, and the latter “the world of wimps”. There are distinct characteristics of both that would – and already do – quickly reverberate throughout the international community. Under the former arrangement, the leader –both in the personal capacity of the U.S. President, and in the collective capacity of the country with all of its formal and informal agencies – provide not just leadership, but also coordination. In the world of rules and norms, the leader steers the political process, watches out for trouble, and offers organizational and action-based initiative. Those, who stand behind the leader know what to expect, and have no second thoughts. Those, who stand against, are aware of the limits and trigger wires, which warrant unequivocal action.

The alliance system in the 19th-century balance of power world happened at ad hoc basis when they were needed, and they disintegrated when they fulfilled their immediate role. This flexibility had its own merits, as no special rationale was necessary to maintain an alliance beyond its natural shelf-life. But, as it happens only so often, the seeds of its destruction were contained deep into its inception. The system stopped to function when, under the external pressure of new bludgeoning ideologies, this alliance system lost its flexibility. What replaced it was a system of rigidity, lack of trust in diplomacy, and misperception. The system of alliances after the Second World War was based on norms and rules. NATO survived the demise of communism for 25 years largely because over a long period of time managed to install an undercoat of norms and values that gave it a longer lasting rationale for its existence, even when its overcoat rationale died out along with communism.

In Donald Trump’s vision about the nature of the future international alliances has no place for this kind of norms-based transactions. It is, in essence, a return to the 19th century system of ad hoc alliances on a need basis, where if the relationship is unequal – and, in reality, it never is, but in the latter part of the 20th century the United States had recognized in the existing system enough self-serving elements to justify its generous investment in it – then the side that is in need should pay the bill or at least its larger part. This is very characteristic for a business transaction in a free market where, as Ronald Coase has unequivocally shown, the most efficient outcome in the presence of (negative) externalities, i.e. unintended consequences, is achieved through an open disregard of the initial allocation of property rights – which in the international politics are either hard to define, or altogether non-existent – and through open bargaining for the best possible deal for both sides. In short, if the United States is in need of the military bases in Okinawa and Yokosuka, it will bargain and strike a deal with the Japanese government. Alternatively, if Japan needs the American protection against China and North Korea, it will negotiate and offer the appropriate payment for this. Putting the two on the scale, and driving a hard bargain – something, in which Mr. Trump prides himself – will result in the best possible outcome, with the best possible allocation of resources. And, in a similar vein, if Lithuania or Estonia need the American shield against Russia, they also have to meet the full extent of the U.S. interests. NATO’s security blanket is no longer unconditional.

This approach, however, is highly problematic and may lead to the further unraveling of the international system, disrupt the already shaky political process, lead to greater encapsulation of the major players, a decline of the global GDP growth, and overall systemic instability. To be fair to Mr. Trump, the process of disintegration of the current system was already in motion for quite some time now, and it was not caused by him being elected president. However, his equivocal commitment, or the lack thereof, to the current system that has provided over 70 years of relative stability and lack of global war, will accelerate the processes of decay and disintegration. Just like in late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the system of alliances based on ad hoc need and interests lost its flexibility, without undergoing deeper systemic change, the current transition from rigid alliances based on norms and values to a transaction-based one, without the necessary structural transformation, may and will lead to a greater risk of instability and more intense global conflicts.

If Trump’s foreign policy is based on the same principles of managing rivalries between potential allies alongside former foes into a giant political gladiator arena, with the goal to compete for America’s momentary benevolence in an outbidding system for protection, the outlook would not be very rosy. Unlike in domestic, and please note – overtly democratic – politics, where political actors have more incentive to work along the lines of the over-assertive leadership of wimps, in international politics states may commit temporarily, and highly hypocritically, to the new system, but will quickly seek alternatives. Domestic elections in the most powerful country in the world may send strong shockwaves across the international system of states, but they cannot produce a tsunami that would fundamentally alter its nature. In international politics talk is cheap, but the hierarchy of needs places survival on the top of any national agenda. If the faith in the current system is lost, states will turn to alternative means of guaranteeing their survival. This will pass through regional fragmentation and geostrategic reorientation, the establishment of new buffer zones, and changing alliances that may prove much longer-lived than Trump’s vision for transaction-based alliances. Once established, they could outlive the initial momentum for their creation, defying the logic of their “transaction-based” rationale, with a point of no return for the United States.

The logic of the norm-based alliances is well founded in the theory of collective action problem, where its eventual overcoming depends on a core interest group or an element, that would bear the initial cost and may allow for free-riders, as long as the benefit from the collective outcome surpasses the investment cost. This was the basis of the post-Second World War, and the post-Cold War systems, which remnants president-elect Trump is fast to put to rest. The alliance system that is founded in transaction-based needs cannot provide a solution to the collective action problem because the aggregation of the individual interests never results in collective good.

And, Trump has signaled that he is ready to sacrifice the security of the Baltic countries, in exchange for a better relationship with Russia. He said he is willing to accept the Russian partition of Ukraine, and the annexation of Crimea, as well as the Syrian-Russian, dominated regime for Aleppo and other parts of the rebellious war-torn country. These are decisions, inherently connected with one another. They all show the transaction-based logic behind such policy decisions. But they fail to grasp the importance of commitment, norms and shared values that play a significant, in not highly visible, role in the current world system, which Mr. Trump is inheriting. His new world order will allow for roving bandits, with less security, and greater risks for the smaller members of the international system, who will need to turn to alternative forms of collective security. The troubling signs for budding “roving bandits” are already there. A revisionist Turkey, with its battered president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has just signaled that may abandon NATO and join the Russia-China ran Shanghai Cooperation Organization, wide opening the door for further disintegration of the current global security framework. Turkey has the largest NATO army outside the United States and is a vital power player in the current security frameworks in both, the Middle East and Europe. Erdogan’s newly found love for Putin should keep the president-elect Trump wide awake at night.

In politics, especially international politics, and unlike in business, neither profit nor loss is clearly defined. The lack of clear separation means also that it is harder to measure these two factors and pronounce a final assessment. The evaluation often depends on the point of view. There are no clear criteria for success or failure. More importantly, there usually exists certain lag in seeing the results, which may be deceiving at times. But when they come, these results hit just as hard as any disaster in the business world. The main difference is that most of the time they involve not just the wealth, but also the lives and subsistence of a great number of people. And, if a great company has the luxury to declare bankruptcy, sometimes over and over again, a great power can do that only once, and usually to a detrimental result. The only type of predictability in international politics that is even worse than the lack of it thereof, is to be predictably irrational. Historically, that has always been one of the integral signs for an upcoming war.


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