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6 March 2017, Gateway House

The Trump challenge: unpredictability as norm

Forecasting uncertainty is a full-fledged task for security and foreign policy analysts, but when countries resort to being unpredictable then it is likely to backfire. Uncertainty about his next course of action seems to be Trump’s defining characteristic. How India will manage this to better relations will be critical

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The great mind game that security and foreign policy analysts play is forecasting uncertainty and fashioning a response. Success depends on the accuracy of predictions.

Terror groups thrive on being unpredictable: it’s integral to their strategy. With no foreknowledge of when and where they will strike, all that the government and security agencies can assume is the deadly intensity they will employ. Attack thus becomes the best form of defense, such as the surgical strikes that India used. In anticipation of a breach, one firewalls every element in the chain while strengthening the weakest link. At the same time, pre-emptive action is taken based on intelligence to strike terrorist camps and hideouts.

Military and counter intelligence agencies also follow ‘being unpredictable’ as a strategy. The argument is that it provides the element of surprise, and thus, gains them the upper hand. The U.S. Seal operation to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan is a clear example of how surprise operations are used with telling effect. Mossad is regularly known to resort to unanticipated action against terrorist operatives, including drone strikes and kidnappings.  Today, it has even become fashionable to tout it as a mantra in certain management circles.

It’s when countries or companies adopt it as strategy that it is likely to backfire for it impacts trust. People gravitate towards comfort zones, not uncertainty. North Korea offers a not so shining example. Its every action is considered suspect for being based on uncertainty. ‘Will they, won’t they and how will they’ is the sole plank on which the country’s foreign policy is built. Their recent alleged involvement in a high-powered assassination in Malaysia is yet another example of their unpredictable behaviour.

Beijing, similarly, has regularly challenged the certainty norm. This neither wins friends nor influences people: it breeds mistrust.

History is full of examples that demonstrate the importance of certainty. The Cuban Missile Crisis is a case in point, when the world stood on the brink of a devastating war between two nuclear armed countries. The tipping point lay entirely on who would blink first. Backroom negotiations finally broke the impasse, but more importantly, it helped establish a protocol between Moscow and Washington, which enabled predictability.

Within a week of assuming charge, President Trump made it clear that his administration was not going to be remembered for reliable or predictable patterns. Uncertainty about his next course of action was to be his defining characteristic. This is worrisome.

Mark Chussil[1] argues that the opposite of ‘unpredictable’ is not ‘predictable’, but ‘strategy’. Leadership, for instance, is a strategic choice: being unpredictable does not enable it. Leaders build teams and enhance group performance by conveying end objectives and rationale upfront and with clarity. No one trusts a leader who uses a ‘Keep them guessing’ approach.

Secrecy and uncertainty should not be confused. Secrecy is good and regularly adopted as strategy while uncertainty needs to be seen as a viable tactic,  but not viewed as being synonymous with strategy.

An unpredictable and volatile U.S, President can be a source of significant discomfort. The manner in which even allies have started to distance themselves from his announcements and actions demonstrates how uncertainty alienates friends and strengthens foes.

Security and foreign policy analysts find him the single biggest challenge to decode principally because countries do not have the option of whether to engage with Washington or not. Washington is central to the foreign and security policy calculus of all countries.

Historically, the impact the U.S. Presidential elections typically have on global affairs and public sentiment is extraordinary. Markets rise or fall, social media is overcrowded with comments and cartoons, and foreign offices and national security agencies across the globe work over time to predict who the next person occupying the White House will be and what to expect.

Trump’s ascendancy has drawn polarised reactions. His own statements and actions, both before and after being sworn in, have not won widespread support nor have they been  predictable. Even his brief conversations with world leaders have left analysts floundering. Worse still, his statements have been interpreted as a license by many Americans to resort to action that is condemnable. The recent killing of an Indian who looked ‘Middle Eastern’ is only a symptom of what runs deeper. The sustained interrogation by security officials of the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali’s son on his religious beliefs and practices is another. This will only grow, as hate crimes become the norm. How, when, if at all, and with what intensity, the U.S. administration will react to such behaviour is not clear.

A confused response is dangerous because risk is an immediate consequence of the unknown. Hasty analysis and judgments only confound matters. A zealous media is tempted to draw quick conclusions based on gestures and words. An abrupt or terse telephone call is viewed as giving someone the cold shoulder while a visa withdrawal signals a fundamental policy shift. While interpreting nuances in speech and action is important in foreign policy analysis, haste is unhelpful, and could, in fact, distort how a situation is perceived.

India needs to be cautious in her approach if we are to further strengthen Indo-U.S. relations. It will be naive to assume that Washington will go about taming China or controlling Pakistan. Or that it will welcome the outsourcing of jobs to India or rethink its current objections to short-term visas for professionals. It is critical for India to identify other potential threats that could directly impact its core strategic interests and prepare for them.

After all, the one thing that Trump is focused on is U.S. self-interest. It is the plank on which he was elected and one on which his focus will be unwavering.  He can hardly be faulted on this as it is the raison d’etre of any nation’s domestic, foreign and security policy.

New Delhi needs to recognise that the very terms of engagement with Washington have to be redrawn to enable the U.S. to continue to see India as a relevant partner in her reoriented worldview and for India to improve her capacity to manoeuvre in Washington.

The most major challenge before foreign and security policy analysts across the globe is how President Trump and his administration will be engaged. At its heart lies the ability of governments and practitioners to manage the unpredictable and recognise impermanence as the new normal. This is far more difficult than it sounds.

Amit Dasgupta is a former Indian diplomat. He contributes to Gateway House in his personal capacity.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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[1] Chussil, Mark, ‘Why Being Unpredictable Is a Bad Strategy’, Harvard Business Review, 5 January, 2017, <>