Channeling Sun Tzu: How Trump’s Foreign Policy Makes Sense

Patrick Basham Director, Democracy Institute
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Contrary to conventional wisdom, Donald Trump does have a foreign policy strategy, and he’s rapidly unveiling its tactical instruments. Widespread criticism of Trump’s alleged lack of a grand global vision, replete with mockery of sequential ‘flip flops’ on Syria, Russia, China, and NATO, is the reflexive reaction of a confused political class, accustomed to checkers-playing American leaders being outmaneuvered by their chess-playing foreign peers.

Trump’s foreign policy twists and turns actually channel Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” This Chinese classic, studied since ancient times, is the world’s seminal guide to political and military strategy. “The Art of War” resonates today because Sun Tzu formulated his ideas in an environment characterized by ever-shifting patterns of alliance, the destabilization of interstate relationships, and warfare among aspirants to hegemony.

The lessons Trump’s learned from “The Art of War” apparently include:

Deception: “Even though you are competent, appear incompetent. Though effective, appear ineffective.”

It’s essential that America confuse her enemies at every opportunity. Sometimes, the opportunity presents itself in apparently undesirable yet beneficial ways. Consider President Reagan’s choreographed public persona vis-à-vis the then-Soviet Union. During the 1980s, the caricature of Reagan as an ignorant, warmongering, trigger-happy cowboy had the tangible benefit of keeping the Soviets off-guard, unnerved, and uncertain of potential American responses.

Trump is blessed with the same advantages: a media and an opposition that consider him bellicose, extreme, and ill-considered in his responses to sensitive national security matters. From Beijing to Tehran to Raqqa, there’s now tangible apprehension that he may respond disproportionately to any provocation, which is a very favorable position.

Secrecy: “The business of the general is quiet and secret…His plans are calm and deeply hidden, so no one can figure them out…secrecy and misdirection are essential arts.”

On April 7th, no one from Capitol Hill to Damascus to the Kremlin knew the U.S. would bombard one of the Syrian regime’s airfields with 59 Tomahawk missiles. That’s the way Trump wanted it. No one knows whether this was a one-off action, or a precursor to a full-fledged intervention. And, that’s the way he wants to, and should, keep it.

Subtlety: “Be extremely subtle…Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.”

In international relations, subtle generosity towards an adversary can be beneficial. Nothing confuses a leader more than a kind gesture from his enemy; hence, nothing renders him or her more vulnerable. Witness Trump’s calming rhetoric on currency manipulation and accommodating gestures on future trade agreements that incentivized Chinese President Xi Jinping to help contain the truly urgent matter of North Korea.

Surprise: “The advantages of unexpectedness…The element of surprise, so important for victory…depends on knowing others while being unknown to others.”

President Obama’s publicly explained to Islamic State his strategy to defeat them. The tactics, largely comprising remote control drone and limited air strikes handcuffed by politically correct rules of engagement, were too predictable. To make matters worse, Obama micromanaged his military leaders. Unsurprisingly, the strategy failed.

We couldn’t defeat radical Islamic terrorism until and unless we began to mix things up. A more varied game plan would force the terrorists to second guess their defensive strategies, which would heighten the probability of actual victory.

To date, the surprise under Trump is the assorted and unpredictable approach to combatting terrorism, including a de facto relaxation of the rules of engagement. Trump has also wisely delegated tactical decision-making to his generals in Middle Eastern and African hotspots, such as Somalia, where U.S. Africa Command carries out counterterrorism operations against Al Shabaab, the al-Qaeda affiliate.

America’s war with radical Islamic terrorism is an asymmetrical conflict between a nation and groups that have disparate military capabilities. The problem is that, until recently, our political leadership didn’t know that, or at least chose not to demonstrate it.

No longer. Thursday saw the first battlefield use of the GBU-43/B, the so-called “mother of all bombs.” In an unexpected move, the U.S. military’s largest non-nuclear weapon was dropped on Islamic State’s new beachhead in eastern Afghanistan, killing almost 100 terrorists.

Flexibility: “[T]he keys to victory are adaptability and inscrutability.”

On the campaign trail, Trump had harsh words for those NATO allies not paying their share of the West’s defense budget. Accordingly, he suggested the military alliance may be “obsolete.” President Trump now says NATO isn’t obsolete. And, he now supports Montenegro’s admittance into NATO.

Why the changes? NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, attests that Trump’s focus upon freeloading allies resulted in several member countries increasing their contributions. Trump also appreciates how much eastern Europe’s NATO members unnerve Vladimir Putin. Montenegro is a minor addition, but she’s of tremendous symbolic value. Both moves signal to the Russian president that, rather than Europe’s diplomatic doormat, the Trump administration better resembles a powerful guard dog.

President Obama talked a lot about what little he was going to do to protect national security. America needed less talk from her commander-in-chief and simply more getting the job done. In his presidency’s infancy, Donald Trump’s already doing this. Not too shabby a start for a know-nothing rookie.

Patrick Basham directs the Democracy Institute (www.democracyinstitute.org) and authored the strategic handbook, Scared of US! How an M&M foreign policy can rescue America from Obama & Hillary’s Kumbaya World.