Friday, August 12, 2016

Political science and craziness Part III: Self-inflicted wounds

In Part II of Political science and craziness, I talked about nuclear deterrence, and the problem that starting a nuclear war kills everyone, so to quote Wargames, "the only winning move is not to play."  Nuclear weapons, then, make no sense.  However, if you can convince people that you are crazy, or at least that the decision to launch weapons will not be made by a sane person (e.g., by an automated machine), you can deter attacks.

Or demand concessions, which is where we are going with this series.

Now, let's talk about Trump.  Trump's platform is to make unreasonable demands.  Particularly in the international arena, and to get those demands met, he is making threats that no sane person would carry out.  Why?  Because to do so would be counter to one's own national interests.  So, let's talk about some of the threats that Trump is making in the international arena, and why carrying them out would be irrational.  We can divide up his threats into several categories, each of which would constitute a self-inflicted wound, if carried out.

1)  Nuclear attacks.  This is probably the most worrying thing to Trump's detractors.  In conversations with advisors, Trump seemingly does not understand the notion that nuclear weapons exist as deterrents rather than first strike weapons in warfare.   But of course, this is where we return to Part I in the series, and the Dennis Hopper-crazy guy with the bomb.  Remember that one can gain a strategic advantage by appearing crazy and not actually being crazy.  That is a key point from Thomas Schelling's The Strategy of Conflict.  If Trump merely wants people to think that he would launch nukes at the drop of a hat, then he can gain concessions.  The point here, though, is that launching nukes is self-destructive.  Obviously, launching nukes against another nuclear power, like Russia, would be self-destructive.  The result would be Dr. Strangelove.  But, even launching nukes against a non-nuclear power would be catastrophically self-destructive.  The question is whether or not Trump understands this.  The problem is the international blowback.  We would become a rogue nation, subject to international sanctions.  The destabilizing effects of a nuclear attack by us would far outstrip any tactical gain we would get by using them against a non-nuclear power.

2)  Inaction on behalf of NATO signatories.  Remember a few weeks back when this was the big story?  Trump stirs up so much shit so often that it gets hard to keep track of how much crazy shit he says, but he really did threaten to withhold defense of NATO allies if Russia invaded them.  Now, he did make that defense contingent on countries paying their share of defense, but we would still be in violation of our treaty obligations, and once we do that, we lose credibility.  We can't get that back.  Self-inflicted wound.  Big one.  Or, should I say, "yuuuuuuuge" one.

3)  Trade wars.  Trump has promised to engage in trade wars in a variety of ways.  Many would actually require congressional approval, which wouldn't happen.  For example, there is no way he would get congressional approval for tariffs.  Regardless, starting a trade war necessarily reduces trade.  To the degree that Trump could act without Congress, he would call into question the credibility of the U.S. and its trade agreements.  Regardless of congressional involvement, though, trade wars are harmful almost by definition.

The questions, then, are a) could Trump credibly threaten these, b) what could Trump get in exchange, and c) would Trump recognize victory when he sees it and not carry out the threat if he wins?

"c" matters a lot.  And it's a key point from Schelling.  It's sort of the distinction between appearing and actually being crazy.  Someone who appears crazy can leverage that for negotiating power.  Someone who actually is crazy will eventually suffer the consequences.

I guess that means we've got more to go for Part IV.

No comments:

Post a Comment