CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS - Suppose U.S. President Donald Trump’s foreign policy is random. I mean really random: Like random luck, designed only in so far as to fluctuate wildly between different, opposing strategic views.
In this thought experiment, it’s not a bug but a feature that the United States is pulling away from a nuclear nonproliferation agreement with Iran even as it seeks to negotiate one with North Korea. Similarly, it’s an intentional accident that Trump might replace the realist National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster with the conservative idealist John Bolton.
The point of this experiment is to ask what are the benefits and costs of a random luck foreign policy. It’s worth considering, because Trump himself has hinted that his oscillation might be intentional. As he put it recently, “there will always be change” and he wants “to also see different ideas.”
The key feature of a nonprincipled, fast-alternating foreign policy is no one knows exactly what you are going to do next. That makes it hard for your enemies to plot against you.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has used a version of this strategy to great effect. Almost no one anticipated the invasion of Ukraine. Even fewer thought that Putin would seek to make Russia into a Middle Eastern player again by intervening extensively in the Syrian civil war.
Trump and the U.S. could theoretically benefit from similar unpredictability. If North Korean leader Kim Jong Un genuinely fears that Trump could destroy his regime and thus country by force, against the conventional wisdom of the U.S. interest, that should weaken Kim’s bargaining power against Trump. We rightly fear that which we cannot predict.
In the same vein, Trump may gain an advantage over China by announcing tariffs and other trade sanctions in what seems like a nearly random way. China would suffer as much or more than the U.S. from a trade war. So China must proceed with some caution when responding to Trump’s initiatives so it doesn’t unintentionally trigger a drastic response. In contrast, presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush followed a highly cautious, predictable set of strategies toward China. And arguably, this rationality enabled China to exploit the Americans’ eagerness to avoid escalating conflict.
At the metalevel of choosing a foreign policy vision, Trump might conceivably see some upside from his tendency for randomness. Like the three previous U.S. presidents, he came to office with very little foreign policy experience. The others all scrambled to find a coherent vision, and managed to do so within the first couple of years of their presidencies. That made them predictable. Trump, in contrast, seems genuinely uninterested in settling on, say, a preference between isolationism and interventionism, or realism and idealism. That means other countries that are trying to select their visions in response can’t be sure what direction he will take next, or even whether that direction is durable.
To the extent other countries are seen as strategic opponents, engaged in a zero-sum struggle with the U.S. for global position, randomness actually has some passing benefits.
But, if you see other countries as American allies or potential allies, the picture looks very different. The very same unpredictability that makes life difficult for opponents also makes coordination much harder for nations that want to cooperate. Your friends need to know what you plan to do next, or at least know which option you’re most likely to take, in order to act in concert with you. It’s not realistic for allies to consult the U.S. about every last detail of their foreign policy conduct. Coordination demands some implicit confidence in the group direction. Allied countries don’t operate like soldiers drilling in lockstep. They are more like infantry men out on patrol, who need to know the mission, the general direction and the assigned role of each member of the group.
Consider the American allies who recently signed a scaled-back version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership that was originally teed up by the Obama administration and rejected by Trump. One way to interpret their decision to go forward with the agreement is that they actually expect the U.S. to come out of the Trump presidency with a renewed interest in pursuing free trade. If they are correct, their action is actually serving long-term U.S. interests. It is certainly seen that way by the mainstream foreign policy and trade observers and commentators.
If the erstwhile allies are wrong, however, that’s probably bad for them — and it’s certainly bad for the U.S. The regional trade agreement that excludes the U.S. will become a long-term prize for China, which could eventually seek to co-opt the group. In any case, the U.S. won’t be served by a free trade agreement that it was never going to join.
A random foreign policy has theoretical benefits only to a country that sees most of the world as enemies rather than friends. This is where things get tricky. In the post-Cold War period, the U.S. benefited tremendously from the fact that much of the world could be counted as allies — or such is the conventional view among observers at home and abroad. Trump, however, appears to believe that the post-Cold War epoch has not been a good one from the U.S. perspective. He seems inclined to believe that U.S. leadership of global allies is less a good thing than a bad one. From his perspective, it may not be so crazy to act randomly. If in the process he alienates allies, Trump may not care. By the time a new president takes office, randomness may have done its work — and the U.S. will have to change course in order to start building alliances again.
Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter.