One part of the discussions surrounding President Trump’s approach to dealing with his allies and opponents, concerns his propensity for being unpredictable. His apologists argue that this unpredictability puts his opponents on their heels, and that this gives him an advantage in his dealings. This argument has a certain amount of “common sense” feel to it. In military tactics, the group with the initiative and surprise has a tactical advantage. However, this advantage is not universal. It is highly context dependent.
Consider an encounter with authority. Neither surprise nor unpredictability is likely to work in your favor.
Consider the game of chess. It is a highly sophisticated and structured game of conflict. In chess, surprise is a small factor at best. This is because no single move results in a major change by itself. Each move is a part of a larger strategy. Its value is in minimizing options for the opponent, and projecting stable power onto the board. Because there is time for analysis, opponents can anticipate consequences, and plan counter moves.
Consider a negotiation over a purchase. Here surprise as a tactic can be of more value. When time frames are short, forcing your opponent to react without preparation can produce a favorable result for you. To be truly effective in this type of negotiation, preparation with regard to positive and negative aspects of each side can make you the dominant participant, or can keep you from losing the advantage. For example, negotiating away cost of production can be worth more than negotiating a rise in purchase price. This type of negotiating style requires that you know the costs of production as well as the purchase price. Ignorance of those details both makes you unable to make that proposal, but also leaves you vulnerable to your trade partner’s suggestions. Simple surprise is not enough, but preparation with surprise can be very effective.
Consider our trade relationships with other countries. Negotiating a trade deal is like a cross between the chess example and the purchase example. These are very complex deals. Frequently they will require thousands of pages of documents with the details. It takes a large staff to read and appreciate the details of these documents. It usually takes months and years to get all the details right. It simply does not get concluded because one of the participants is a “good deal maker”, or because one of the participants is unpredictable. There is too much time to evaluate the details which are examined by experts.
As we consider our saber rattling with North Korea, we should look at the expected consequences of this strategy of unpredictability. Taking military action is greatly affected by surprise and unpredictability. This is due to the consequences of surprise aggression. For the US, there was Pearl Harbor. During the Cold War, both the US and Russia agreed that any deployment of force or technology that decreased the time to initiate aggression was very destabilizing. In situations of unbalanced force postures, the side that is overmatched is highly incented towards a first use policy. It is obvious to them that their only chance to use their weapons is if they are used first. Balanced against this is the hope to avoid a conflict. However, when the overmatched side feels that war is inevitable, you can count on them to strike first.
In the case of North Korea, Kim Jong Un is in the middle of an unstable domestic political situation. He is reputed to have killed his own brother to consolidate his power. He is still in a threatened position. Nothing helps him consolidate his power like an external threat. The US seems currently happy to play the role of external threat for him. Further, as we convince him that war is inevitable, we can be sure that he will use his weapons against South Korea first. Twenty million South Koreans live near Seoul, as well as over 25,000 American military personnel. While the threat of North Korea developing a greater nuclear capacity is a high priority for the world, it must be considered in the context of the possibilities of 20 million dead in the short term.
The United States managed a hostile relationship with the USSR for almost 50 years. While the relationship with the USSR/Russia improved slightly for a while after the Cold War ended, it has been growing hostile again. There is no way to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle, and we cannot allow our problems with Russia to escalate to nuclear war. If North Korea should gain an intercontinental nuclear capability, we will have to manage North Korea as we do Russia. This is far from ideal, but there seems to be no practical alternative.
China has been using North Korea as the bad cop in the world for its own benefit, and is not likely to do much to antagonize them. If North Korea is not afraid of the US military, why would they be afraid of China’s military? China’s best avenue of influence with North Korea is economic. However, considering the ruthless dictatorial control of North Korea, a downturn in their economy is likely only to kill North Koreans, not to change North Korean policies.
A real estate deal maker who is unpredictable is not going to help United States trade deals. He will not help the effectiveness of our State Department or our foreign policies. He has shown so far that the king of “The Art of the Deal” is not able to convince the Republican House to pass legislation for any of his signature campaign promises in health care and tax reform. People who continue to think that there is a day just around the corner where we will all see some new wave of effective governance are engaged in the wildest speculation. Not only is there no evidence to support this speculation, but even a casual consideration of the nature of trade, legislation, and military realities shows that Donald Trump’s signature qualities are either irrelevant or are counterproductive to effective negotiations, legislation, foreign policy, and military strategy.