This adds to my recent post where I cited news accounts of how Mr. Trump’s negotiation gambits about building a border wall and withdrawing from NAFTA are backfiring with Mexico. Mexican officials interpreted his threats as bluffs and hardened their positions – the opposite of Mr. Trump’s goals in the negotiations.
The problem of taking extreme positions and surrendering them quickly and without apparent benefit is not limited to the negotiation counterparts in a particular negotiation, such as Mexico in this case. If these tactics are widely known, they contribute to a reputation of weakness and lack of credibility in negotiations with others.
Consider the situation with North Korea, where Mr. Trump is trying to restrain its nuclear weapons capability. North Korean leaders undoubtedly are aware of his negotiation behavior with others and could reasonably doubt whether he would carry out his threats against them. This could lead to a global boy-who-cried-wolf scenario in which North Korea misreads Mr. Trump’s intentions, resulting in an escalation of conflict and possibly even a nuclear war. As the bumper stickers say, that could ruin your whole day.
This dynamic is illustrated in a New York Times article, Trump on North Korea: Tactic? ‘Madman Theory’? Or Just Mixed Messages?
“It was only a few hours after his secretary of state cracked open the door on Thursday to negotiating with the North Koreans that President Trump stepped in with exactly the kind of martial-sounding threats against the country that the White House, until now, had carefully avoided.
““There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea,” he said to Reuters during a round of his 100-days-in-office commemorations. “Absolutely.”
“Viewed in the most charitable light, Mr. Trump was, in his own nondiplomatic way, building pressure to force the North into a freeze of its nuclear and missile tests, the first step toward resuming the kind of negotiations that Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson had spoken of earlier in the day. Or, perhaps, he was engaging in a bit of the “madman theory” that he and many of his aides reportedly admire about President Richard M. Nixon, who tried to convince Ho Chi Minh, the wily North Vietnamese leader, that he might be crazy enough to drop “the bomb” if they could not find a way to end the Vietnam War.
“But the most likely explanation is that Mr. Trump, who until now has largely avoided taking the bait that the North Korean propaganda machine churns out with its own warnings of imminent war, simply reverted to an old habit: sounding as tough as the other guy. The problem is that it clashes with the message his administration has been sending out in recent days that no pre-emptive strikes are planned and that there is plenty of time and space for diplomacy.”
An analysis by former national security official Michael McFaulsuggests that Mr. Trump may be improving his decision making in foreign policy because he is learning on the job, getting good advice, and/or just ad-libbing based on the last thing he hears. In a model of understatement, McFaul says that this last explanation is “less comforting.”
North Korea is led by dictator Kim Jong-un, who “has worked to burnish his own madman credentials,” according to the NYT article.
To make the situation more interesting, shall we say, consider Mr. Trump’s recent statements about South Korea, our ally against North Korea. According to another NYT article, “President Trump’s comment that he wants South Korea to pay for a missile defense system being set up in the country jolted its presidential race on Friday and surprised the government, leaving it scrambling to figure out the intentions of a close ally. … He also said that he wanted to renegotiate or terminate what he called a “horrible” trade agreement with South Korea because of a deep trade deficit. … Mr. Trump also raised some eyebrows in South Korea by saying that Korea used to be “part of China.”” The article describes how his statements have upset the South Korean political situation, which was already in disarray in the wake of its drawn-out presidential impeachment saga.
Imagine that you are a North Korean military leader getting news through your regular information sources. You might wonder, in Mr. Trump’s words, what the hell is going on. Given the dynamics within your regime, would you back down in response to threatening statements by the US government or would you continue developing your nuclear weapons systems and threatening the US and our allies?