January 08, 2018

Trump and His Strategy of Ambiguity

By Jerry Hendrix

President Donald Trump’s rhetoric has shocked the diplomatic world. His size-of-nuclear-button tweets, his observation that China had been caught “red-handed” giving illegal aide to Kim Jong-un, his blunt talk about the defense spending of U.S. allies, all go against the trends of the past 25 years. But, the odd thing is, his words are having a positive effect. North Korea, for the first time in a generation, has opened talks with South Korea. China has increased its pressure on the Kim regime, and NATO members are spending more on their own defense. Critics, repulsed by Trump’s impolitic language and mannerisms, are reluctant to give him credit, ascribing improvements to processes in motion prior to his arrival in office or broader systemic forces. Thoughtful analysts and academics ought to consider, however, that the reappearance of “strategic ambiguity” as an approach to foreign relations is once again having a positive effect. 

“Strategic ambiguity,” which refers to an approach that seeks to inject uncertainty of outcome into diplomatic dialogue to destabilize a nation’s enemies or competitors, is the term of art coined by historians examining President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s public statements during his eight-year administration, especially those that addressed the relationship between the United States and Taiwan, as well as those relating to his willingness to use nuclear weapons in Korea and Vietnam. Eisenhower’s deliberate vagueness, his obvious desire to introduce doubt into the minds of his enemies, carried extra weight given his reputation as a wartime commander and his willingness to throw the dice of chance during the invasion of Normandy. Opposing nations found themselves at a disadvantage simply because they were not certain what Ike would do and they knew that he was capable of doing anything.

Read the full op-ed in National Review.

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