Is Unpredictability a Strategy or Merely Incompetence?

A fair and important question arises when observing the almost 100 days of the Trump administration: is the unpredictable behavior of the President, and resulting chaos among his top team members, a smart strategy in international affairs or simply proof that Trump is unhinged and incompetent in understanding one of the most critical parts of his job?

Trump has never been shy in self-promoting his skills as a negotiator, assuring his infatuants that “I always make the best deals, believe me.” He allegedly wrote a book about deal-making which claim is also cited as proof of skill. And, of course, he has made a lot of money developing real estate. Still, it’s a fair question whether those skills, if they exist, translate well to international affairs where there are usually only three options: yield, negotiate or fight.

There are many theories of negotiation. Some hold fast to the trash-and-burn zero-sum approach that says, in essence, ‘what I win, you lose’ and vice-versa. Proponents of that style often negotiate by threats, bluffs and other forms of intimidation. They believe you can win more by being difficult and unpredictable, with one foot always out the door in an effort to convince the other side that you are the dominant party whose needs must be met or the negotiation ends. This approach often leads to litigation, the “peaceful equivalent of war,” in which often both sides lose.

Another major theory of negotiation is “mutual gains,” in which each party evaluates his own and the other party’s interests and seeks to find a way for both sides to gain something from the negotiation. They see the discussion as an opportunity for each side to ‘win’ by recognizing the legitimate interests of the other side and finding ways to compromise conflicts. This approach requires a measure of mutual trust by the parties, defined as the ability to believe what the other side says and what it promises to do.

In international affairs there is no stasis, no situation in which the positions of the parties are fixed over time. If reasonable and mutually acceptable methods of getting along cannot be negotiated, there is a significantly greater risk that the stalemate will lead to violent conflict because the parties, lacking trust, will continue to try to improve their respective positions through unilateral action that may be seen as overtly hostile by the other ‘side.’ For example, if one side believes it has a commanding advantage, it may then act to solidify that position by acquiring new territory or some other hostile act.

If you have ever had the unpleasant and unsettling experience of trying to negotiate with someone that you did not trust and whose words were frequently in conflict with his actions or the words and actions of his support team, you understand how central trust can be to an effective negotiated outcome to any dispute.

The sitting President of the United States is most decidedly not a man of his word. On the campaign trail, he often declared that his policy in office would be one of “unpredictability,” as if this would be a huge advantage. In reality, the opposite is more likely true. It is not plausible to believe that acceptable relationships can be maintained with adversaries, and friends as well, when no one can depend on what you say and when your statements conflict with those of your team leaders. Similarly, when it appears that there is no settled policy, or no policy at all, and that positions are being made up on the fly, uncertainty results and leads to defensive positioning by those who feel threatened.

And that is precisely what the Trump administration has brought to the table.

The evidence is in plain view. There are frequent instances in which the United States representative to the United Nations says things that appear to be in conflict with statements from the President. Even members of his cabinet, including the Secretary of State, sometimes appear to be in conflict with the Commander-in-Chief and either have to withdraw or qualify what they have said. Or they become “explainers” who reinterpret what Trump has said to align it more closely with what they have said or done.

One of the most disturbing incidents of conflict among the President and his team occurred in connection with the claim that the President had ordered a naval task force to a position near North Korea as a kind of warning. Such shows of force are not uncommon in international diplomacy, but in this case the President and his men were wrong about where the aircraft carrier and escort were located and where they were headed. One can only imagine how the North Koreans evaluated that situation once it was exposed.

One day Trump believes that NATO is obsolete and the next day he suddenly appreciates the role NATO plays in maintaining world peace. He often appears to act in response to the last voice he heard. One day that last voice may get the United States into a world of hurt. Trump will then say, as he has before when caught out in a big lie, “I heard it from someone with great credentials. It wasn’t me.” Except that it will be him. He is, as he often reminds us, the President.

This serious deficiency is also having an impact domestically. One would have thought that the time between the election and the inauguration would have been spent studying the government and the governing environment, resulting in at least a rough outline of a plan of action once in command of the Executive Branch resources. Instead, the Trump administration has been so obsessively focused on making a big splash for Trump’s ego that it evidently has no plan. It has only ideology and is making up its governing strategy as it goes along. One of the results of this is the President’s budget plan that proposes to eliminate entirely the small but highly beneficial U.S. Trade & Development Agency. This group reportedly returns $85 in exports for every $1 spent. See “Trump wants to kill an agency that is accomplishing one of his biggest goals” at

Defunding this agency is plainly a self-destructive act that shows the administration has not studied and has no coherent plan for addressing its own stated goals. Instead it is shooting itself, and the country, in the head. Similarly, Trump’s interference with the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations reflects a lack of study and a total lack of understanding of the work of the agency to protect the air and water. Similarly, there is no evidence that the Trump administration has studied rationally the relationship between environmental protection and job creation. The administration’s policy appears to be arising from inputs by favored industries who want a free hand to act as they please, with no actual evidence that enabling such behavior will have meaningful job-creating outcomes.

Mr. Trump appears still to believe that being “unpredictable” is a positive quality. He seems incapable of learning from mistakes, partly because he won’t recognize any mistakes, and thus continues to manage his position with chaos and failure as the principal results. The new and seemingly desperate rush to post a victory of some kind before the 100-day mark arrives is likely to result in more failures, as illustrated by the federal court opinion enjoining the Executive Order on Sanctuary Cities. Once again, Trump and his team are at odds with each other. Read here, in conclusion, an excerpt from the court’s opinion (italics added):

“The Government does not respond to the Counties’ constitutional challenges but … explained for the first time at oral argument that the Order is merely an exercise of the President’s “bully pulpit” to highlight a changed approach to immigration enforcement. Under this interpretation, Section 9(a) [the enforcement section of the Executive Order] applies only to three federal grants in the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security that already have conditions requiring compliance with 8 U.S.C. 1373. This interpretation renders the Order toothless; the Government can already enforce these three grants by the terms of those grants and can enforce 8 U.S.C. 1373 to the extent legally possible under the terms of existing law. Counsel disavowed any right through the Order for the Government to affect any other part of the billions of dollars in federal funds the Counties receive every year. 

It is heartening that the Government’s lawyers recognize that the Order cannot do more constitutionally than enforce existing law. But Section 9(a), by its plain language, attempts to reach all federal grants, not merely the three mentioned at the hearing. The rest of the Order is broader still, addressing all federal funding. And if there was doubt about the scope of the Order, the President and Attorney General have erased it with their public comments. The President has called it “a weapon” to use against jurisdictions that disagree with his preferred policies of immigration enforcement, and his press secretary has reiterated that the President intends to ensure that “counties and other institutions that remain sanctuary cites don’t get federal government funding in compliance with the executive order.” The Attorney General has warned that jurisdictions that do not comply with Section 1373 would suffer “withholding grants, termination of grants, and disbarment or ineligibility for future grants,” and the “claw back” of any funds previously awarded. Section 9(a) is not reasonably susceptible to the new, narrow interpretation offered at the hearing.

Although the Government’s new interpretation of the Order is not legally plausible, in effect it appears to put the parties in general agreement regarding the Order’s constitutional limitations. The Constitution vests the spending powers in Congress, not the President, so the Order cannot constitutionally place new conditions on federal funds. Further, the Tenth Amendment requires that conditions on federal funds be unambiguous and timely made; that they bear some relation to the funds at issue; and that the total financial incentive not be coercive. Federal funding that bears no meaningful relationship to immigration enforcement cannot be threatened merely because a jurisdiction chooses an immigration enforcement strategy of which the President disapproves.”

It seems the President and his attorneys have entirely different strategies regarding the meaning and defense of the Executive Order that Trump signed. Given the public statements of the President and the Attorney General, the administration cannot get away with “I didn’t mean it” as a defense to constitutional challenges.

I conclude that the chaos of the administration is the result of incompetence and that incompetence is not a good strategy for any purpose. Where exactly the source of all this internal conflict resides is, until the memoirs are written years hence, only a matter of speculation. But it is still a fair assessment that many serious thinkers saw this coming. Would that the voters had listened.

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