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Trump is delivering on his promise to be unpredictable on foreign affairs. Not everyone's convinced that's a good idea

Trump is delivering on his promise to be unpredictable on foreign affairs. Not everyone's convinced that's a good idea
President-elect Donald Trump's telephone call with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen was a prime example of his unpredictability, a strategy that carries a lot of risk, foreign policy experts say. (Evan Vucci, Chiang Ying-ying / Associated Press)

For eight years, many of President Obama's critics denounced what they saw as excessive caution in dealing with foreign governments.

No need to worry about that anymore.

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President-elect Donald Trump has already begun obliterating the current administration's "no drama" approach. He sees unpredictability as a valuable tool, which keeps adversaries off-guard, softening them up to cut good deals.

Many foreign affairs veterans from across party lines see danger ahead.

Trump's view is born of his disdain for Washington's expert class and his career in real estate, where a psychological edge can be worth millions of dollars by weakening an opponent.

There is even some precedent in foreign affairs for what President Nixon dubbed the "madman theory," one of several tools he used in hopes of negotiating an end to the Vietnam War.

But even Nixon – who believed that if others thought him volatile, they would be more likely to back down -- never employed the tactic as a blunt instrument.

Among foreign policy experts, there is deep concern that Trump's behavior during his transition – highlighted by moves that angered China -- indicates that he lacks the broader strategy, nuance and careful planning needed to successfully pull off the strategy.

"Trump looks as if he's got the madman, but not the theory," said one such critic, Charles A. Stevenson, associate director of the American Foreign Policy Program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a former Democratic Senate aide.

Experts say unpredictability can work in specific circumstances: when the goals are narrowly targeted and known in advance, and the tactic is used against relatively weak opponents; and where the threat of radical action is credible and when the president understands what he's risking if the other side calls his bluff.

"The comments that he has made about foreign policy do not seem to be consistent or coherent," said Richard Lugar, a former Republican senator from Indiana who led the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and continues to be active in efforts aimed at reducing the threat of nuclear weapons.

"I'm not certain whether on some occasions he's given a lot of thought to it and is hoping to get a reaction, or on other occasions, it's simply from the top of the head, or anger or simple misunderstanding," he said.

Trump argued in his campaign that America has suffered from its predictability, particularly in military endeavors.

"We must, as a nation, be more unpredictable," Trump declared during a major foreign policy address in April. "We are totally predictable. We tell everything. We're sending troops: We tell them. We're sending something else: We have a news conference. We have to be unpredictable. And we have to be unpredictable starting now."

As a campaign tool, the sense that Trump would do, say or tweet anything helped him immensely, diverting from controversies and persuading voters that he would set Washington ablaze. It fit in well with the celebrity persona that he honed in reality television, where suspense and drama build an audience.

"People are tired of the blow-dried, poll-tested position of every single politician," Jason Miller, Trump's communications director, said in an interview.

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Miller said that Trump's style had served him his entire life and remains crucial to his success in negotiating with foreign leaders.

That desire to be unpredictable doesn't contradict "making sure that our allies know that we stand with them, and our adversaries know that we stand against them," he said.

But many allies have been concerned with just that, given that Trump has courted Russia, a foe, while questioning longtime alliances in Asia and Europe, calling treaties obsolete and demanding more money to offset the United States' military budget.

Stephen Krasner, director of policy and planning at the State Department under President George W. Bush, said the uncertainty could prompt South Korea, a major trading partner and military ally, to move closer to China's orbit or trigger discussions in Japan about building nuclear weapons.

It's unclear to many observers which of Trump's comments and actions are motivated by deeply held convictions and which are spontaneous. He has participated only intermittently in security briefings and has spoken with many foreign leaders without consulting the State Department.

After winning the election, Trump conducted calls with several foreign leaders that seemed to shake delicate balances long in the making. He praised Pakistan's prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and told him he'd love to visit, a move that rattled archrival India, a U.S. ally. He had a warm conversation with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has spoken profanely about Obama and waged a deadly anti-drug war against his own citizens.

Most significantly, Trump antagonized China by holding a phone conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. The call broke with decades of U.S. practice. It came without warning, digging at a core tenet of China's definition of its sovereignty, which holds Beijing as the one and only capital of all of China, including Taiwan.

Trump did not stop there, casting the call as a deliberate negotiating ploy during an interview on "Fox News Sunday."

"I fully understand the 'one China' policy, but I don't know why we have to be bound by a 'one China' policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade," Trump said.

That prompted further recriminations from the Chinese, as well as from Taiwan, which didn't like being cast as a pawn.

Policy experts are doubtful that China would allow its government's legitimacy to be used as a bargaining chip in discussions over its currency and trade barriers. They note that even if the relationship is complicated, it's one the U.S. needs to take seriously, given mutual interests in containing North Korea's nuclear capacity, maintaining global economic stability and combating climate change.

China may not want a trade war. But if it's forced into one, both countries would probably suffer.

"He thinks he's somehow upping the ante to get a better deal," said R. Nicholas Burns, who has served in top diplomatic posts for both parties and advised Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. "They will shut down the relationship if they think we are deviating from the one-China policy."

Burns said Trump's transactional business beliefs are at odds with the culture of diplomacy, where even rivals need to operate from a position that they will need each other long after a single deal is signed, and predictability from allies is bedrock.

Trump's unpredictability could also force him to confront thorny diplomatic issues that have been successfully set aside by diplomats.

Dimitri Simes,  who leads the Center for the National Interest, the think tank Trump addressed in his foreign policy address in April, pointed to Trump's recent suggestion that he might recognize Russia's annexation of Crimea.  Trump appeared to be thinking out loud, something a practiced diplomat would have avoided.

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Having now raised the question, he'll be pressed to provide an answer. If he says yes, he would undermine European allies who depend on the United States to push back against Russian aggression. If he says no, he would anger Russia over an issue that he did not need to open, Simes said.

"There is really no upside," he said.

Simes is one of a small group in the foreign policy community who sees an advantage to Trump's provocative move with China. But he said it remains unknown whether Trump's unpredictability is a result of calculation rather than ignorance or confusion.

"There clearly may be an advantage if you play your cards right," he said. "If you go too far, if you are not aware of this minefield, then you may bump into something very serious and very consequential."

Twitter: @noahbierman

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