Friday, April 28, 2017

Think North Korea is Scary? Not As Scary As This.

You don't ever want to hear somebody with serious psychological issues and his finger on the nuclear trigger say this about his new job: "I thought it would be easier."

Yes, Donald Trump keeps showing how ill-prepared and ill-suited he is for the American presidency. It began with health care reform when he let slip that changing the existing system was a "lot more complicated" than he had imagined. America's relations with China likewise flummoxed the Cheeto Benito with their complexity. Daily governance is a lot more complicated than Trump ever realized. He expected to be the CEO of the government of the United States of America. He dreamt of a position not all that far removed from Mussolini's.

It's not like any of this stuff should have taken Trump by surprise. The basic functioning of the American government with its vaunted checks and balances is standard fare in any grade school curriculum. Yet it took him by surprise. The workload demands on a president are well documented. The histories of the presidencies of FDR, John Kennedy, Clinton, Bush and Obama are no state secret and yet the reality of becoming president took him by surprise.

Barely a hundred days in office and Trump has revealed himself to be as ignorant and misinformed as he is incurious. That is a formula for reactionary government. Unable, through sheer ignorance, to formulate any effective vision there's little else Trump can do other than to react to whatever is going on at the moment which is a great way to paint yourself into a corner which is a proven way to back yourself and your nation into wars no one wants. He wouldn't be the first hapless leader to initiate a war to mask his own failings. A little war, of course, with a high probability of "mission creep."

Now, with Congress rejecting Trump's requests for funds to build his sacred cow, the wall along the Mexican border, he is sounding dispirited.  He promised to achieve so much in his first hundred days in office and has delivered precious little. He and his closest associates are under investigation by the FBI as well as the House and the Senate intelligence committees. For a guy obsessed with ratings, his approval numbers are appalling. With the exception of Theresa May, European leaders thumb their noses at him. Eager to be seen to be doing something, Trump is massing forces at North Korea's doorstep and launching a trade war with Canada.

If there's one thing the world doesn't need it's Donald Trump in the throes of depression.


As if Trump's mood issues aren't enough to worry about, Thomas Homer-Dixon explores another of his character predilections, turning every issue into a game of chicken.

In the classic representation of the game, two teenagers in fast cars race toward each other on a long straight road, each straddling the centre line. If only one swerves to avoid a crash, the other gets bragging rights for having guts, while the driver who swerved is labelled a wimp. If both swerve, neither has bragging rights, but each lives to tell the tale. But if neither driver swerves, both die in a head-on crash, and each looks, frankly, pretty stupid.

Theorists of conflict and negotiation find the game fascinating, because it models a particular approach to negotiation – one in which each party is locked into a logic of escalation that risks calamity for both. But threatening escalation to calamity is usually a horrible bargaining strategy. For one thing, it takes all possible win-win outcomes off the table (if both drivers swerve, neither really wins). Also, in any bargaining process that continues over time, a game-of-chicken approach by one party almost always makes the other party angry and recalcitrant, because they’re forced to choose between humiliation and annihilation.

But some people tend to approach all negotiations this way, especially those who want to demonstrate their dominance over others and who don’t have the motivation or ability to get into the nitty-gritty details of the bargaining process. Anyone come to mind?


Mr. Trump built his public brand around his deal-making abilities. We’ve now had three months to observe his approach to bargaining – over Obamacare’s repeal, with Russia over Syria, with North Korea over its nukes and recently with Congress when he tied financing the Mexican border wall to ongoing government funding. It turns out he’s a terrible negotiator.

In each case, he’s revved his engine, smoked his tires on the pavement and roared at high speed down the centre line toward his opponent. In the two cases where a crash has become imminent – Obamacare and the wall, both domestic – he’s swerved at the last moment, because he’s recognized the staggering political cost of a crash. There’s no doubt that both Russia and North Korea have watched these domestic melodramas and are now tempted to regard Mr. Trump as a blowhard and a wimp.

And that’s the problem with having a reputation for using an escalatory strategy in bargaining: to sustain your credibility with the strategy, sometimes you can’t swerve. Sometimes you simply must go straight down that centre line while throwing the steering wheel out the window.

Mr. Trump and his advisers know it’s true. So, at some point the President will have to re-establish his alpha-gorilla credibility at the expense of a bargaining counterparty. That counterparty will likely be another country, because Mr. Trump has his greatest latitude for independent action on the international stage. If he chooses North Korea, a regime led by a dictator who seems quite ready to risk it all, woe awaits the world.

Homer-Dixon argues that Canada has to be ready to play chicken with Trump and Trudeau has to be ready to play for keeps. Sometimes you simply must go straight down that centre line while throwing the steering wheel out the window.


Toby said...

The worst part is that Trump has surrounded himself with people who are as unstable as he is.

The Mound of Sound said...

There's certainly truth to that, Toby. The Bannon/Miller brigade constitute a pretty dark, nihilistic element.

Anonymous said...

I'm having a hard time thinking of any campaign promise that Trudeau has delivered in the face of opposition. The guy leads a majority government and he still can't pass core promises like electoral reform, rejigging the NEB, rolling back C-51, evidence-based policy making, and the list goes on. Trudeau doesn't have Trump's bluster and love of BS, but when it comes to negotiation, wimp's the word that springs to mind.


Anonymous said...

Trump failed on things he wished to do.
Trudeau just lied about what he wished to do.


Northern PoV said...

What happened to the impeachment party? The Russian gambit fizzled?

The Mound of Sound said...

NPoV, patience. If anything the investigations have expanded. In addition to the FBI, both the House and the Senate intelligence committees have investigations and now the Pentagon has opened an investigation into Mike Flynn's dealings with the Russians and Turkey. It's becoming apparent that Flynn sought immunity but not because the optics of his foreign dealings were bad. It's something more serious.

Owen Gray said...

He's a coward at heart. But, in a tight spot, he's dangerous.

Northern PoV said...

"If anything the investigations have expanded"
No doubt - and they will cause as much havoc as the Iran/Contra/screw-the-hostages investigations that got Reagan impeached. ;-)

Funny, now that the Donald is behaving - bombing all the right people, appointing judges and apparatchiks to the right of Attila, planning massive tax cuts - he looks quite secure. Just another Republican presidency - w/o the good manners.

Purple library guy said...

"If there's one thing the world doesn't need it's Donald Trump in the throes of depression."

I beg to differ. I shudder to think what would have to be happening for him to be happy.

Purple library guy said...

On the game-of-chicken, ultimatum-based approach to international diplomacy, giving the other party a choice between humiliation and annihilation: That's actually the normal United States approach. Trump just provides an even more gauche example than the typical US diplomat.

Northern PoV said...

"That's actually the normal United States approach. Trump just provides an even more gauche example than the typical US diplomat."

in the spirit of you words I'll update mine:
Just another American presidency - w/o the good manners.

and for Mound from his favourite source....
"Russia-gate’s real dark story, for all the hysterics, is actually about the Orwellian surveillance powers of the US deep state"

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