WASHINGTON – Is America becoming a rogue state?
The State Department stopped using the term years ago to describe the likes of Iran and North Korea, figuring it was needlessly provocative. But it would seem the incoming Trump administration plans to handle its affairs – domestic and foreign – in a manner that meets the dictionary definition of a “rogue state” as one “that conducts its policy in a dangerously unpredictable way.”
Even before Donald Trump threw Sino-American relations into a new round of turmoil by speaking with the Taiwanese leader and by trolling a nation of 1.4 billion people on Twitter, Trump and his team set off new chaos between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, with Trump praising the repressive regime of the latter and pledging to visit.
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Trump snubbed our closest ally, Britain, by having post-election calls with nine foreign leaders before granting British Prime Minister Theresa May the honor. He shattered protocol by suggesting Britain name Nigel Farage, the Brexit leader, ambassador to the United States. Meanwhile, NATO leaders meeting in Brussels this week were on edge about Trump’s coziness with Russia and his dismissive words about the alliance.
According to foreign government accounts, Trump praised Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign against drug users and dealers, which has killed at least 4,500 people in five months. And he hailed Kazakhstan dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev for his “fantastic success” that can be called a “miracle.”
The domestic picture is no less chaotic. Trump is now open to keeping the Paris climate pact, after calling climate change a hoax. He campaigned against Goldman Sachs as a symbol of corruption and is now stocking his administration with Goldman bankers. He pledged to reinstate waterboarding and to repeal Obamacare but is rethinking both. He riled supporters with a pledge to prosecute and imprison Hillary Clinton but has reconsidered. He dropped his pledge to ban Muslims or those from terrorism-prone countries from entering America in favor of better vetting of all immigrants. He now says his border wall may be a fence in parts, and he dropped his talk of mass deportation of illegal immigrants.
His nominee to be commerce secretary assures Americans that “tariffs are the last thing” to which the Trump administration would resort – only to be contradicted by Trump himself, who tweeted Sunday that here will “soon” be a 35 percent tariff on imports from companies that offshore jobs.
But for all the promises Trump is breaking, there is one he has kept without wavering: his vow to be unpredictable. “We must as a nation be more unpredictable,” he said this year. “We have to be unpredictable, and we have to be unpredictable starting now.”
Some suggest that there is a method to Trump’s madness, that he is trying to make would-be adversaries think he is irrational and capricious, thereby making foes and rivals wary of pushing him too far. This is why North Korea’s Kim Jong Un gets a wide berth. On a lesser scale, this also underpinned Richard Nixon’s “Madman Theory” during the Vietnam War: If he appeared to be crazy enough to use nuclear weapons, the theory went, North Vietnam and the Soviet Union might back down.
But in Trump’s application of the Madman Theory there seems to be less theory than madman. There may be advantages to keeping foes and opponents off guard, but Trump is baffling friends and allies, too. In foreign affairs, unpredictability spooks allies and spreads instability. And unpredictable policy at home has long been seen as toxic for business.
For these reasons, George W. Bush made predictable leadership a matter of pride. When I covered his White House 16 years ago, I found that the best way to predict Bush’s actions was to listen to his words: He did exactly what he said he would do. Many didn’t like the result, but Bush made it easy for Republicans in Congress to follow his lead.
Now, Trump’s uncertain trumpet is having the opposite effect. The corporate welfare offered to Carrier’s parent company to keep jobs in the United States has some previously supportive conservatives complaining about crony capitalism. His revived talk of high tariffs on imports has GOP congressional leaders worried about a trade war. On his decision to speak with the Taiwanese leader, Trump’s would-be defenders were split: Was it a meaningless courtesy, as some Trump advisers said? Or a well-thought-out shift in U.S. policy, as others claimed?
The widespread chaos suggests Trump isn’t signaling new policies as much as he’s winging it. His unpredictability is not a theory. It’s the absence of one.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.