Even in the Donald Trump era, it’s not every day you see the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee publicly accuse a president from his own party of being a mental infant and leading the country down “the path to World War III.” The spat between Trump and Senator Bob Corker has thus generated headlines for the window it has opened onto an astonishing rift between the president and one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress.   

Yet the episode may be even more revealing for what it says about the nature of Trump’s strategy for dealing with the world’s most difficult geopolitical challenges — and why that approach may prove far more dangerous than the president realizes.   

Many of Trump’s core views on foreign policy have remained fairly stable since he emerged as a national figure in the 1980s, and among these is the belief that American leaders need to be crazy like foxes if they are to succeed in a cut-throat world.

Predictability is not a virtue but a vice, Trump has long argued about issues ranging from arms control to trade negotiations; getting the best of adversaries requires keeping them guessing about the next move. Just as a real-estate magnate must be willing to walk away in order to get a good deal, American leaders must be willing to do the drastic and unexpected — to escalate a confrontation, to undertake risky and even dangerous courses of action — to get the best of their opponents in diplomatic or military disputes. “We must, as a nation, be more unpredictable,” Trump declared during the 2016 campaign. 

Today, this belief underpins Trump’s approach to international affairs. The president has publicly threatened to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Act, the U.S.-South Korea free trade pact, and the Iran nuclear deal — all in hopes of gaining leverage over the counterparties in these agreements.   

Most notably, Trump has repeatedly threatened military action against North Korea — promising to “totally destroy” the country with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” and arguing that Kim Jong Un understands only the language of force. No matter that this undermines his own diplomats, who have been seeking to lay the groundwork for diplomacy to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile programs.   

As Trump has reportedly told his advisers, he wants the image of being “so crazy” that he might do the unthinkable.

Trump has probably never heard of Thomas Schelling. But Schelling, an economics Nobelist and seminal nuclear strategist, would surely understand the game Trump is playing today. As he famously wrote in the 1960s, international crises are essentially “competitions in risk-taking,” with the advantage going to the side that appears willing to run greater risks on behalf of its interests.   

A rational statesman might therefore deliberately behave erratically, taking actions that threaten to get out of hand — “boat-rocking,” as Schelling put it — to gain a negotiating advantage. In the late 1960s, Richard Nixon embraced Schelling’s insights by using his “madman strategy,” which included seemingly irrational actions, such as an alert of U.S. strategic nuclear forces, meant to convince the Soviet Union and Vietnam that drastic measures might ensue if they did not accept American terms in Southeast Asia.   

Trump is now doing something similar vis-à-vis North Korea: He is ramping up tensions and issuing chilling threats in hopes of convincing Kim that the alternative to meeting America’s demands is a dangerous escalation. In some ways, this approach is understandable. It’s not as though softer-edged policies have done much good in slowing North Korea’s nuclear program. Perhaps Trump is right that the North Koreans — along with China, which represents Pyongyang’s lifeline to the world — will only change policies if they believe that the alternative is a war that would be catastrophic for their own interests.   

The trouble, though, is that Trump’s version of “boat-rocking” is not likely to end well, and here is where Corker’s comments are relevant.   

The senator’s critique boils down to the idea that Trump is issuing threats he cannot carry out at an acceptable price, that he is too undisciplined and immature to execute his strategy effectively, that he does not understand the risks he is running and the damage he risks doing to America’s global position, and that his approach is thus more likely to cause the U.S. — and the world — grief than it is to resolve the undeniably difficult North Korean problem.   

All of these charges are, unfortunately, accurate — and they illustrate four crucial perils in the president’s statecraft.   

The first is simply that rocking the boat only works if the escalatory threat is actually credible — and the threats that Trump is making against North Korea are not, because they represent the geopolitical equivalent of biting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. The U.S. could, of course, destroy North Korea and its military capabilities, but doing so carries an unacceptable risk of touching off a war that could devastate the Korean peninsula and kill thousands of American soldiers in South Korea.

This is why every U.S. president who has considered preventive war against North Korea has ultimately held back, and it is probably why Pyongyang has mostly ignored Trump’s threats so far. During the transition, President-elect Trump warned North Korea against testing an intercontinental ballistic missile; in August, he threatened to unleash hellish devastation unless Pyongyang ceased making its own threats against the U.S. The North Koreans were apparently not impressed, because they subsequently crossed both of Trump’s supposed red lines.   

Second, rocking the boat requires a leader to be more calculating and disciplined than he appears, and Trump possesses neither of these qualities. Boat-rocking is an exercise in coercive diplomacy. It entails carefully calibrating and blending threats on the one hand with negotiations on the other. But Trump, as Corker rightly noted, is the opposite of calculating and disciplined.

Indeed, he has repeatedly disrupted his administration’s own gambits on North Korea by issuing hollow threats, muddling U.S. messages, publicly contradicting his subordinates, and even — remarkably — haranguing South Korea on trade and other issues. These actions may in fact confuse North Korea, just as they are confusing many global observers. But they hardly inspire confidence that Trump can perform the diplomatic high-wire act his strategy demands.

Third, Trump does not seem to understand that superpowers pay a high price when they bluff and that bluff is exposed. The international system rests on the credibility of U.S. commitments and the sanctity of American red lines, because these promises are what reassure allies and deter adversaries. This is the reason most presidents are reluctant to embrace a boat-rocking strategy — they understand that issuing threats that cannot be fulfilled risks depleting the credibility on which U.S. policy relies.

These issues, in turn, point to a fourth and final danger of Trump’s strategy, which is what Corker seems to have been getting at in warning of “World War III.”    The problem with a president making inflammatory threats that he does not actually wish to carry out is that it may ultimately lead the U.S. into a deadly trap — one in which it must choose between escalation and the humiliating acknowledgment that Trump has simply been blowing hot air. The latter option would be deeply damaging for a superpower whose credibility is its currency in global affairs; the former risks consequences that would be far more appalling still.   

One hopes that Trump is starting to understand the danger in the approach he is taking; one fears that Corker is correct in warning that he does not.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Hal Brands at [email protected]

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at [email protected]

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