The American public is accustomed to taking politicians at their word. In turn, the country’s political elite has grown accustomed to being cautious about the language it uses—lest they later be handcuffed by their own policy statements. During the 2004 presidential election, U.S. President George W. Bush’s campaign labeled the Democratic nominee, John Kerry, an unreliable “flip-flopper,” in part because he claimed he opposed the Iraq War even though he had voted for the legislation authorizing it. Pundits attribute Kerry’s loss in that presidential race partly to the fact that the flip-flopper narrative stuck. Voters punished Kerry by casting their ballot for the other guy, as they would most politicians who change their stance or undermine their own credibility on important issues.

In the national security realm, officials tend to be even more careful with language because the stakes are potentially much higher. Former U.S. President Barack Obama’s famous 2011 “red line” threat against Syria’s use of chemical weapons, and his unwillingness to follow through on it, still haunts his legacy everywhere, from Syria, where President Bashir al-Assad’s war against the rebels escalated, to East Asia, where allies began questioning the credibility of U.S. commitments on that basis.

What has baffled political pundits about President Donald Trump is that his policy statements, which a group of over one hundred Republican national security leaders has called “wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle,” have left him politically unscathed. But a closer read of Trumpian language reveals why that might be the case. Trump has not necessarily flip-flopped on his policy positions. In fact, it is primarily the inferences made about his remarks that are inconsistent with what he actually says.

Compare Trump’s rhetoric with the media and campaign coverage of it on two major national security issues: alliances in Asia and nuclear weapons policy. Trump never stated that he was closing bases or ending alliances with Japan and South Korea. Instead, he had merely bemoaned that “we defend countries. They do not pay us what they should be paying us because we are providing a tremendous service and we’re losing a fortune.” Elsewhere he had said, “South Korea is a money machine but they pay us peanuts,” continuing, “South Korea should pay us very substantially for protecting them.” And on Japan, Trump said, “It could be that Japan will have to defend itself against North Korea …You always have to be prepared to walk. I don’t think we’ll walk. I don’t think it’s going to be necessary. It could be, though.” In contrast, characterizations of Trump’s position on these allies has included headlines such as “Japan and South Korea Rattled by Trump’s Talk of Closing U.S. Bases” and a press release from the campaign of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that said, “Donald Trump Has Threatened to Abandon America’s Allies.”

Similarly, on nuclear weapons, Trump never gave a clear indication of his nuclear policy. He never clearly claimed to welcome an arms race. In August, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough reported that rather than state his policy preference, Trump asked three times in a single discussion with an unnamed foreign policy expert, “Why can’t we use nuclear weapons?” Later, he tweeted, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” In an interview shortly thereafter, Trump responded to a direct question seeking to clarify the meaning of his nuclear tweet by saying, “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.” Yet, as The New York Times’ Max Fisher notes in his dissection of the tweet, Trump’s word choices could be interpreted as one of the following: agreeing to implement the same $1 trillion nuclear modernization effort that Obama had approved in 2010, seeking to improve the quantity of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, planning to make qualitative improvements to U.S. nuclear capabilities, or aiming to forward-deploy more U.S. nuclear assets in support of allies in Asia and Europe. It could even mean, as White House spokesman Sean Spicer subsequently claimed, that Trump is using nuclear rhetoric to convey superiority, firmness, and resolve without articulating nuclear policy per se.

When Trump got word that North Korea had claimed it was close to developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the United States, he tweeted, “It won’t happen!” and set off yet another firestorm. The Atlantic immediately ran an op-ed by a respected nuclear scholar with the headline “Can Trump Enforce His Red Line on North Korea?” And Politico titled its piece on the tweet, “Trump: North Korea Will Be Stopped.” Trump’s “It won’t happen!” was the only quote from the then president-elect in the entire piece. Trump’s slippery language surely allows and encourages such reactions, but the media is not blameless.

SERIOUSLY, NOT LITERALLY

Whether by design or haplessness, Trumpian linguistics share similarities to the rhetorical style of fifteenth-century politician Cosimo de’ Medici. The patriarch of the once powerful Medici family centralized power and built a strong Florentine state in Renaissance Italy by appealing simultaneously to its many competing political factions, a feat that no prior Florentine politico had achieved. His technique, “multivocal signaling,” which involved communicating in ways that resonated with diverse audiences, enabled him to reach different and often clashing political interests. In contrast with Trump, Medici managed this in part by eschewing public speeches.  Consistent with Trump’s penchant for pathos-infused storytelling, however, Medici was famous for speaking in politically motivated proverbs and fables. This led one of his contemporaries to note that Medici was “the kind of man who feigns and dissembles everything. He is so taciturn that he can scarcely be understood…” In a sense, Medici’s political rhetoric was like an aural Rorschach test—constituencies and elites alike heard what they wanted to hear.

Trump, too, exploits the vagaries of communication, although his goal is less about unifying various political groups than about delivering applause lines. On ISIS: “I would bomb the shit out of them.” But employing rhetoric with an aim of gaining more Twitter followers, or a cheer from a crowd standing in front of you, is unlikely to convey thoughtful, fixed, or even clear policy positions. Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski acknowledged as much in his now famous criticism of the media: “This is the problem …You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally.” This quickly became an aphorism about Trump. As one journalist wrote in The Atlantic, “The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” Trump’s advisers even reportedly told the staff of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in preparation for Trump’s first meeting with a head of state after winning the presidency, that “we don’t have to take each word that Mr. Trump said publicly literally.”

Trumpian language also violates the rhetorical traditions of consistent, tailored word choices and rituals like phone call consultations that accompany policy dogma, even if he ultimately settles for the status quo. His use of discourse to “unbalance things,” as The Washington Post’s David Ignatius put it, creates the impression that he has freed policy from the shackles of settled narratives. His rhetoric is a form of brinkmanship that hints at a willingness to contemplate the utterly taboo as acceptable or even desirable. Policy options that were once unthinkable suddenly become thinkable. But just because Trump opens new possibilities doesn’t mean he pursues them. For all his groaning about the unfairness of alliances, for instance, he otherwise declared in his dystopian inauguration speech, “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones…” It was a conventional sentiment that his nominees for secretaries of state and defense also echoed in their confirmation hearings. 

Trump’s style has two effects. One is that it creates opportunities for leverage, as constituencies benefiting from the status quo might be willing to pay—or pay more than they already do—to keep it. The second is that it makes it easy for Trump to back out of any promises he’s made. If he ends up going along with the status quo, he won’t be held to account for violating promises the way a normal politician might since he never truly committed to anything in the first place.

Consider U.S. alliances in Asia and Europe, which have proved central to the security calculations of every presidential administration dating back to the Cold War, and which enjoy broad popularity. (The alliances have 89 percent favorability, according to a 2016 survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.) Trump’s claim during his presidential bid—that U.S. allies get a free ride while the United States gets stuck with the bill—drew mass criticism from the elites and sent allies into a frenzy. When told that, if the United States abandons Japan and South Korea, they might go nuclear, Trump acknowledged why that makes sense. Whatever he opts to do, violating the settled narrative helps set the stage for a future of financial burden-sharing negotiations with allies; it also sets the bar so low that when he performs mundane acts that only reify the status quo, it earns him high praise and sighs of relief. Presidential rituals, such as meeting briefly with Japan’s prime minister or taking a phone call with South Korea’s president and other world leaders, were described as “reassuring” by virtue of being normal, cordial, and bombast-free. Thanks to his rhetorical brinkmanship, the press, public, and politicians alike now grade Trump on a rather generous curve.

THE HIGH PRICE OF CHEAP TALK

Trump’s peculiar rhetoric might not have personally cost him anything so far, but even cheap talk isn’t free. The greater danger of Trumpian language is its consequences for world order. Voters and congressional Republicans may not be willing to punish Trump for disrupting the “normal” business of defense and diplomacy, but foreign governments may. 

Because of the United States’ prominence in the global order, Trump is uniquely positioned to conjure, through his talk and tweets, the most unsavory aspects of a cruel, realpolitik world: mistrust of international institutions, nuclear proliferation or even an arms race, and Chinese domination in the Asia-Pacific. None of these outcomes favor the American people, yet all are more likely as a result of Trumpian language.

Understanding why and how requires recognizing that the United States has been crucial in not only building but also sustaining the international order that has existed since World War II. Observers widely interpret Trump’s victory, and the resurgence of nationalism across the globe, as a rejection of the basic merits of neoliberal politics and economics. But even if voters and pundits debated whether the liberal international order is in the American people’s economic interests, there should be little doubt that the liberal international order has served U.S. security interests since at least the end of the Cold War.

An alphabet soup of U.S.-backed global institutions and treaties—the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Missile Technology Control Regime, the G-20, and NATO, among others—collectively stand for a world where rules can be created and enforced, and legitimacy can be granted or denied. This affords governments—not least the United States—a degree of predictability and, therefore, stability in world affairs, as well as a shared basis for long-term, peaceful interactions.

The United States has always underwritten the survival of this so-called liberal order. By conforming to rules and norms that engendered stability and cooperation, and taking on a role as a benign hegemon, the United States lent credibility to the system. As long as other governments believed that the United States would uphold the treaties it signed, remained committed to its alliance relationships, and was (mostly) willing to play by the rules of the institutions it championed, then the world need not live in a might-makes-right system. In the post–Cold War environment, these factors allowed states to invest less in national defense than they otherwise might have, and in the process ameliorated a historical source of conflict—the perception that other nations’ defensive military buildups are a threat. The liberal order thus minimized the pressure to engage in counterproductive arms races, and forestalled the global spread of nuclear weapons beyond a handful of states. Most important, classical great power conflict of the type that twice punctuated the first half of the twentieth century was held in abeyance by, if nothing else, the dramatic military power advantage the United States wielded over all possible challengers—an advantage whose only sustained justification was the country’s various commitments abroad. Whatever the United States’ foreign policy fumbles since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and there have been many, the period since has been a Pax Americana for much of the world.

But Trump’s rhetoric around national security has been a sledgehammer to the liberal order. First, it is doubtful that the post–Cold War order can survive if the world reverts to mercantilism and economic nationalism, since it gave pride of place to the forces of globalization and economic integration. Trump’s rhetorical opposition to liberal trade and investment policies is the one area of foreign policy on which he’s been unequivocal, and he recently followed through on his pledges by formally pulling out of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership. 

Second, Trump has said he’s willing to contemplate the previously unacceptable—the end of certain alliances, the spread of nuclear weapons, and even arms racing. Even though these were not stated as commitments or policy preferences on his part, their mere utterance has already fueled major strategic debates around the world. In Australia, for example, policymakers wonder whether to align with China over the United States. Some in South Korea are pushing for the country to pursue a nuclear weapons program. Among NATO member states, there has been doubt about whether the United States can still be a credible deterrent against Russian expansion.

Third, although it will take time for the data to come in, we should expect that defense spending and new weapons acquisitions will dramatically increase in Europe and Asia over the coming years in response to the uncertainty of Trump’s rhetoric. Some of this pending military buildup might be attributable to factors other than Trump—in Asia, for example, the trend predates him—but his rhetoric makes it difficult for traditional allies to pin their fates to such an unreliable super power. 

Worse still is that, at this time, China is redefining its own national security agenda and is asserting itself in ways that erode the liberal order, the sovereign integrity of its neighbors, and the United States’ continued relevance to the Asia-Pacific region. As Trump’s rhetoric casts doubts on the viability of economic liberalism, China has been actively promoting illiberal alternatives for Asia. Instead of Asian economies relying on the World Bank and the IMF, China has created the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the One Belt, One Road initiative, both of which promise to make liberal economic institutions seem redundant and overly bureaucratic by comparison. And as Trump makes allies nervous by suggesting that U.S. alliances are one-sided deals that don’t serve U.S. interests, China has been busy concluding a series of bilateral “strategic comprehensive partnerships” across the Asia-Pacific, promising a fruitful economic relationship with Beijing in exchange for various forms of exclusionary control over ports, territory, and aspects of foreign policy decision-making. It is a Faustian bargain: generous economic ties with the region’s most powerful local actor in exchange for compromises on territorial integrity and sovereignty. A Chinese sphere of influence in Asia that excludes the United States will make it harder for Americans to prosper during this Pacific Century and also end any opportunities for the liberal order to take hold in the region. 

In an age when virtually no communication is privileged and many audiences are able to scrutinize everything a politician says and does, Trump has found a way to convey different things to different constituencies without being punished domestically the way normal politicos might. But Trump’s seemingly cavalier and imprecise use of language does have a price: it helps turn a liberal order led by the United States into possibly a Hobbesian one where might makes right.

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  • VAN JACKSON is an Associate Professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He hosts the Pacific Pundit podcast series. His most recent book is Rival Reputations: Coercion and Credibility in U.S.-North Korea Relations.

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