Thoughts On Keith's "Man In A Cage" Thesis

               I can't tell with any certainty whether Keith is making a serious case here (American Counterpoint 12/14/16) or if he's being facetious, as is his wont at times. However,  for the sake of argument I'm going to take the bait and respond.
The Power Of Crazy

               The point would be, if I'm getting it right, that international adversaries might approach Donald Trump in something of the way, say, that urban pedestrians will typically cross the street to avoid confrontation with a ranting schizophrenic.   This is an interesting idea and reminds me a of an argument that a friend of mine used to make about the advantage George W. Bush's reputation for crazy unpredictability gave him in the Middle East.  My friend, who was a Bush supporter,  believed that enemies would bend over backwards not to cross Bush,  out of fear of a disproportionate response
               Thinking about the array of potential current enemies that Keith mentions, I think that Trump's unpredictability could indeed possibly give him an edge in dealing with someone like Vladimir Putin, who is (a) rational (b) given to aggressive and convoluted strategies and (c) playing from a relatively weak position. Putin values predictability because it gives him the handle he needs to manipulate and outmaneuver stronger opponents. Putin achieved his victory in the Crimea, for example, because he knew with a high degree of confidence that the Western leaders, including President Obama, were bluffing in their campaign to restrain him and would never intervene militarily to block annexation. That was predictable.  Locking horns with Mr. Trump in similar circumstances, the rational Putin  would not be so sure and might thus be inclined more towards self-restraint.
When Crazy Becomes Reckless

               Keith's argument works less well vis-a-vis rogue states, which tend by definition to be irrational.  Kim Jong Un, for example,   would probably love nothing better than an excuse for violent confrontation of the type Trump might be apt to provide, even if it risked Kim's own self-destruction. To continue the analogy, there's nothing more dangerous and explosive, as all New Yorkers know,  than two angry schizophrenics on a City street suddenly up in one another's  faces. They may have nothing to gain, but usually nothing much to lose either. America has plenty to lose and never wants to be in the position of becoming one of those schizophrenics.
               Keith's thesis  doesn't work so well vis-a-vis China either. China is the ultimate long-range player on the world stage today, and as such cannot be easily bullied or bluffed. China also values predictably, but for reasons different from those motivating Mr. Putin. China's carefully assertive posture in the world is based on its view that it has time as an ally, and that the controlled and steady expansion of its power will eventually force a rational United States to come to terms peacefully with the new geopolitical balance.  Such, in my own opinion, is probably in America's long-range interest as well.  However, any sudden lurches towards American revanchism might prompt China to re-evaluate and lock us onto a one-way path to a place none of us ever want to see.

               China has always been particularly touchy on the subject of Taiwan, and many years of bi-partisan American foreign policy have forged a shaky but seemingly viable modus vivendi  with China on this issue. However, while not even yet in office, Trump managed to blunder onto this fraught territory on December 2 when he spoke privately by phone with the President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan. He didn't initiate the call, only received it, but in the tortured world of diplomatic niceties, this was apparently an explosive faux pas. It's not clear whether Trump didn't know he was violating protocol, or if he knew and didn't care.  Either way, the incident would appear to signal the beginning of a dangerous new era in our relations with our most important rival in the world.

               Given that Trump expended large chunks of his campaign rhetoric bashing China for "stealing" American jobs, the Chinese no doubt went to work on a strategic re-grounding for themselves the moment they realized Trump had won the U.S. election. And it's my guess that they set about this not so much from a defensive posture either, but rather with the idea of capitalizing on new opportunities likely to come their way now as the result of blunders to which the impulsive Mr. Trump will be prone. All of us should be watching for what their next moves are going to be in the treacherous chess game now underway in the South China Sea and how a newly-inaugurated President Trump responds.
The Man In The Cage Grows Small

               Keith's "man in the cage" metaphor pictured an indomitable litigator whose argumentative prowess allowed him to steamroller over any lawyer daring to take the opposing side. This picture is no doubt consistent with Donald Trump's self-image as the grand "Master of the Deal" or the tough-guy boss firing losers on his reality TV show. The world, however, is not a courtroom or a business.  It's certainly not a TV show. The Man In The Cage quickly loses his power once he finds himself outside the controlled environment he knows.  Thrown out into the world at large, he confronts new problems without any enforceable legal code to guide him, and really without any rules at all other than ad-hoc protocols that change before he has time to consider them fully.  The Man In the Cage becomes small and stays that way unless he learns to adapt.  Even then, he's only a player and not the master of anything.
               I'm trying to give Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt at this point, but I can see few signs that an ability to adapt is among his core competencies. The power to simplify complex problems is a strength, but only to the extent  the problem-solver is under no illusions that his simplified picture gives him anything more than a starting point.

               I've followed Trump's business career for years, and I have to admit again that I never believed he could win the Republican nomination or, having achieved that, the general election. Yet here we are. So, ipso facto, there's more to the man than I ever gave him credit for.  I can only hope now that he has more rabbits in his hat he can deploy wisely in a world where the likes of Putin, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong Un, and the many unpredictable Islamic opponents are eagerly awaiting his first mistakes. This is not even to mention the legions of his own countrymen and countrywomen who will soon be emerging from their shock at his election victory to collaborate around plans to undermine him.

               So while I can't  feel much in the way of optimism, I can and will keep open eyes and an open mind. Soon we'll start finding out what's in store.


  1. Although I mean my "man in a cage" post seriously, I cannot at this point claim that I believe it will go well that way. I do think there is a non-negligible possibility that Trump and his foreign policy team might succeed in the way I indicate. My posture is hopeful, rather than optimistic. I will post another brief essay on the same idea.

  2. Mark, I was not lauding Trump for being crazy and unpredictable, but for the possibility that his aggressiveness might be timely and effective. Obama's major mistakes as President were his failures to attack sworn enemies. He inexplicably tried to work with Mitch McConnell and the Republicans long after it had become obvious that they wanted only to defeat him. He thereby lost the 2010 midterm elections. He worried about innocent casualties of war, even while Putin, Assad, ISIS, and al Qaeda were seizing lands and cities and massacring hundreds of thousands of people. If Trump had been President five years ago, perhaps he would have killed a few hundred Syrians in Damascus by sending a cruise missile to Assad, but that might well have saved many more. Anyway, that's the possible--if not exactly probable--scenario that I am considering.

  3. I never saw much evidence that Obama tried very hard to work with Republicans until maybe after the 2014 elections, at which point he didn't have much choice because he'd lost control of the entire Congress and at which point it was thus too late