Unpredictability isn’t a virtue in foreign affairs

Brian Gongol
6 min readOct 20, 2016
Always the prize, but never a toy. (Author’s original photograph, 2005)

Every President in the modern era seems to have a foreign-policy “doctrine”. The Bush Doctrine openly favored intervention in foreign affairs when that could be seen to favor American values, while there is a vigorous debate about what the Obama Doctrine really is — some might argue that it is best defined by the ways in which it is the opposite of the Bush Doctrine.

In the long run, American foreign policy should acknowledge a seemingly simple but important core truth: We will have a safe world only when our values are voluntarily adopted worldwide. What we do to promote, protect, and preserve those values doesn’t happen in a vacuum — it often creates feedback loops, both positive and negative.

Regrettably, discussion that should be taking place in this election cycle about our role in the world is largely being overshadowed by the most extreme and extraordinary things being espoused by just one candidate, Donald Trump. That is a grave loss for America. As one of the leading executors of the Obama Doctrine during her time in the State Department, Hillary Clinton has a great deal to contribute to the debate that should be taking place.

But we have failed to get to that debate because at seemingly every turn, the Trump Doctrine has taken center stage. What is the Trump Doctrine? He says it is “America First”, but that isn’t the truth. His doctrine, fundamentally, is one of confusing our friends and lending credence to the wildest claims of our enemies.

Trump’s foreign policy originates from the same narrow mindset that has shaped his reputation in business. He has programmed himself to see the world as nothing more than a web of zero-sum interactions. Everything is a “deal”, and every deal contains “winners” and “losers”. (This is no abstract argument. A search of his Twitter account in late August 2016 produces hundreds of instances in which he has tweeted the words “loser” or “winner”. He ordinarily uses these words in a highly concrete sense.)

This worldview may be suitable to real-estate negotiations, in which just two parties are usually involved (seller and buyer) and in which one is usually out to “win” by buying something for less than it is worth or selling it for more than it is worth. But most of the world — including the world of most commercial transactions as well as the universe of international affairs — is vastly more nuanced than that.

In most business interactions, the objective isn’t winning versus losing, but rather finding a “win-win” outcome. Partnerships, including favorable relationships with vendors, suppliers, and customers, are the standard — not zero-sum outcomes.

Similarly, in the relationships among nations, instances of voluntary cooperation and mutual benefit are far more attractive than simple binary win/lose interactions. Wars are won and lost, but trade and migration and mutual defense pacts and international agreements are all driven by what is in the common interest.

What exacerbates this trouble is that Trump has extrapolated a frightening conclusion from his zero-sum worldview. In simple zero-sum interactions, unpredictability can be a major advantage.

Suppose you’re involved in a high-stakes negotiation to buy or sell an office building. If you view your counterparty as an opponent, and your opponent isn’t sure what you are thinking or planning, then you may gain an advantage in your negotiations if you can be thoroughly unpredictable. Go through enough negotiations where you are rewarded for unpredictability, and you may begin to believe that it is a superior strategy, suitable for use in all situations.

But unpredictability is suitable only to zero-sum games. Most of the important decisions in life — and in the White House — are not zero-sum.

Trump’s worldview and decision-making system are built entirely on zero-sum thinking. He lacks the capacity for abstract thinking as well as the ability to conceive of cooperative solutions. This is not an armchair-psychology observation; he has a long trail of public statements and behavior, and there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that he can assess any set of circumstances in any framework more sophisticated than “winning” and “losing”.

That would be unsettling in anyone’s interpersonal relationships: Imagine having a co-worker or neighbor who were similarly incapable of seeing anything outside the framework of a zero-sum game. But it is downright reckless to imagine when it involves the powers of the Presidency.

For all her shortcomings, Hillary Clinton clearly demonstrates a capacity to understand things like cooperation. She did, at the very least, experience classic “horse-trading” deals in the Senate and as Secretary of State. At the very least, she can behave within a framework that is appropriate to international affairs.

But even better is the choice of Gary Johnson, who is positively advocating for a clearly cooperative approach to international affairs. Johnson’s approach reflects his experience as an independent business owner and as a former chief executive of a state government with an international border. He has embraced “non-intervention” as a guiding standard for his foreign policy.

While some Libertarians are thoroughly pacifistic, Johnson has appealed to a policy more suitable to America’s inherent role as the world’s sole indisputable superpower. In an interview with the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times, he stated plainly, “We need to honor our treaty obligations.” Contrast this with Trump’s careless undermining of the NATO alliance. The entire value of an alliance such as NATO derives from the steadfastness of resolve its members maintain to come to the mutual defense of one another. To broach even the idea of backing out on those alliances is feckless and fundamentally undermines the protections they are intended to create.

Moreover, in making a cornerstone of his campaign platform out of attacks on the Mexican government (and/or the Mexican people, depending on how one chooses to interpret his profoundly inexact statements on the matter), Trump has not only neglected the facts, he has made it harder to achieve the kind of cooperation that is in the common interests of both countries. He carelessly bashes immigrants and accuses the Mexican government of all kinds of implied malfeasance, ignoring the real facts — that net migration is actually into Mexico from the United States, rather than the other way around, and that the United States has a role to play in reducing the impact of things like cross-border violence tied to the drug trade.

Rather than demonizing immigrants, Gary Johnson has taken the opposite course, saying, “We should be embracing immigration” and standing for a policy of much-needed immigration reform.

Thoughtful, cooperative engagement isn’t possible with every country. We’re not about to have friendly sit-down sessions with the governments of North Korea or Syria. But as voters, we have to draw the line: It undermines our national security to threaten long-established defense agreements like the NATO pact. It ignores reality to categorically demonize immigrants or to threaten our international neighbors. And it is unacceptable to center our foreign policy under the long-discredited notion of isolationism.

We deserve to know more about what would emerge under a Clinton Doctrine; we have seen a campaign promise that it will include robust national defense and ongoing international engagement, but there is reasonable cause for concern that the former chief administrator of the Obama Doctrine may give us more of the same.

We have no evidence of any serious Trump Doctrine, but the preponderance of the evidence suggests that he is temperamentally programmed to see the entire balance of world relations from a dangerously flawed perspective. The world is not made of zero-sum games, very few matters in international affairs involve a binary outcome of winner-versus-loser, and unpredictability and antagonism are not useful qualities in the character of a President.

What we can read into a Johnson Doctrine is a projection of strength not just through the possession of a powerful military, but also from cooperative engagement around the world. Non-interventionism is not the same as isolationism or pacifism. We have to continue to believe that the world will be safer when other countries voluntarily adopt the values that we embrace. Constructive engagement with other countries — not antagonism — is the way to nurture that outcome.

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This is a lightly-modified chapter from my book, “The Honorable Alternative: A Conservative Case for Johnson/Weld in 2016”. The full book — which you can read in about an hour — is available on Kindle for 99 cents.