Saturday, August 13, 2016

Political science and craziness Part IV: Actually pulling the trigger on the threat

In the "Political science and craziness" series, we are talking about threats, self-inflicted wounds, and the process of trying to bargain with someone who might do something reckless and stupid.  Thomas Schelling gave us the key observation that appearing but not actually being crazy can give a person bargaining leverage by making it credible that one will carry out threats that wouldn't otherwise be credible.  If you can convince me that you are crazy enough to blow us both up if I don't give you my watch, I might give it to you.

We ended Part III with three areas in which Donald Trump is threatening to carry out actions that would actually harm, not just our adversaries, but the U.S., if Trump were elected and followed through on his threats:  using nuclear weapons against non-nuclear powers, refusing to protect NATO allies, and starting trade wars.  If Trump were to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear powers, he would make the U.S. a rogue state and destabilize the world.  Refusing to protect NATO allies would effectively nullify all of our treaties and take away any credibility we have in the world arena, and trade wars, by definition, are economically destructive.

So, let's go back to Thomas Schelling's The Strategy of Conflict, the book I told you to read way back in Part I.  Come on.  Dude won a Nobel for it.  Read it.

The problem for a threat, when it is self-destructive to carry it out, is to make it credible.  Can Donald Trump make these threats credibly?

As a point of reference, let's remember Obama and Bashar al Assad's use of chemical weapons in Syria.  Remember how that was supposed to be a red line years ago?  Then Assad crossed it years ago?  Oops.  That was a threat that Obama wasn't willing to carry out.  That's a problem.  Threats that we aren't willing to carry out create a problem.  In contrast, consider Trump.

And in that contrast, consider why Trump is running for president.  Does he want to be president?  No.  He wants to win a presidential election so that he can brag about it.  Evidence?  Remember the offer to Kasich to run both foreign and domestic policy?  Trump has no interest in governance.  He just wants to win and brag.  Trump had a history of teasing the concept of a presidential run, but by 2015, everyone got sick of the game, and stopped taking him seriously.  So, he had to run for real.  Did you catch that?  Everyone said he was bluffing, so he had to carry out the threat.  He is running this year because the commentariat said he wouldn't.  And he is losing.  Embarrassingly badly.

Once the credibility of his threat is challenged, then, he must carry it out, no matter how self-destructive.  If he threatens to nuke a country if they don't do X, then, and they don't do it, kaboom.  If he threatens to withhold military support from a NATO ally unless a condition is met, and that condition is not met, no support.  Otherwise, he will feel as though his... credibility... is challenged.  For Donald Trump, the end goal isn't the point.  The credibility is the point.  We'll get to the trade war stuff momentarily.

Donald Trump will carry out his threats.  This puts him in a different category from Obama.  During the initial Syria mess, Obama found himself in a tight spot because he had made an implicit threat that he had no intention of carrying out, and everyone knew it.  Yes, liberals, Obama is, in that sense, weak.  The problem was that he made a threat casually, without thinking through the implications, and wasn't so committed to the credibility of his threats that he would carry it through no matter what.  In this sense, Trump is stronger.  He is so committed to being seen as strong that he will carry out any threat once his credibility is challenged because the credibility is the point, not the end goal.  That's why he is running for president-- because everyone said he wouldn't.

By Schelling's reasoning, that commitment to the credibility of his threats would give him more leverage.  What could he get with that leverage?  We'll save that for Part V, but let's also address the trade war issue.  Could an increasingly hypothetical President Trump carry out a trade war if his demands from other countries are not met?  Not so much.  He would be constrained in most ways by Congress.  Could he block TPP?  Sure.  Beyond that, though, the basic constitutional framework, combined with the free trade leanings of the Republican Party would block him, and this presents another Schelling challenge.  Making threats that one is incapable of carrying out is truly self-defeating.  And this is where that increasingly hypothetical President Trump would face his greatest difficulties.  Tariffs ain't gonna happen.

The next question, then, is what a President Trump could get in exchange for the threats to use, shall we say, excessive military force, or to withhold military support from our NATO allies?  Stay tuned for Part V in Political Science and craziness.  And have you gotten your copy of The Strategy of Conflict yet?

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