‘Unpredictable’ Trump changes his mind abroad

Float like a butterfly? “I don’t like to say what I’m doing,” Trump told reporters last week.

The US president has defied expectations on Syria, Russia, China and North Korea. Now he says he wants foreign leaders to think he is difficult to predict. Is this clever or dangerous?

Syria’s civil war was not the USA’s problem. It would be “nice if we got along with Russia”. China was an “enemy” whose leaders should be taken to McDonald’s, not thrown state dinners.

These were all Donald Trump’s stated positions before he became president. But last week: he intervened in Syria’s civil war; angered Russia; and entertained China’s president at his swanky Florida resort.

Trump has been in office for almost three months. By this stage most presidents’ foreign policy principles would be fairly clear. But Trump’s approach has been erratic.

“To the extent that a Trump doctrine is emerging, it seems to be: don’t get roped in by doctrine,” wrote Peter Baker in The New York Times this weekend.

In his inaugural address in January, Trump repeatedly stressed the phrase “America first”. That suggested national interests, rather than liberal or humanitarian values, would guide his decisions.

But on Tuesday a chemical attack in Syria killed 84 people — and Trump seemed to change. “When you kill innocent children, innocent little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal,” he said at a press conference the next day, “that crosses many, many lines.”

On Thursday Trump authorised a missile strike against an airbase of the Assad regime, which is believed to have launched the attack and is a close ally of Russia.

His decision inverted much of the opinion towards him. Previously wary European leaders showed support. Some prominent supporters deserted him. Russia’s prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, called his country’s relations with the USA “utterly spoilt”.

This weekend Trump suggested this was part of a plan: “We will reject the path of inflexible ideology that too often leads to unintended consequences.” That attitude may also be guiding his tough stance towards North Korea.

And Trump is known to admire Richard Nixon, who reportedly wanted foreign leaders to think he was unpredictable. So is his position wise?

Ace of Trumps

Supporters say Trump is being a realist. He is showing America’s strength to reassure its allies and remind its adversaries that the USA will stand up for itself. If he is too predictable his country’s enemies will know what they can get away with. And good riddance to ideological certainty: leaders should be pragmatic and deal with different issues on their merits.

It is dangerous, respond opponents. Trump is taking decisions on personal, emotional whims. Both allies and enemies will become defensive if they do not know what to expect. It is anti-democratic: the American people do not know what their leader stands for. And international relations are not a game of poker; a threat to the international order is a threat to us all.

You Decide

  1. Are you pragmatic or guided by strong principles?
  2. Is Trump’s unpredictability a virtue?


  1. Read this article and make a list of ways President Trump has changed his mind in the last week. Discuss with a partner whether you agree with what he has done.
  2. You have been hired as Trump’s speechwriter. Try to write a two-minute speech in which he explains what considerations guide his foreign policy. Return to class, and discuss them and what you learned from the process.

Some People Say...

“The best leaders are always honest with the public.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
On Thursday Trump launched a missile strike against the Assad regime in Syria. He has often said before that the USA should stay out of Syria’s civil war. His stance on North Korea is a major shift from President Obama’s. Trump has been criticised for being too close to Russia but now seems to be falling out with its government in public.
What do we not know?
What Trump’s motivation is and what that might mean in future.
What do people believe?
Trump says he changed his mind on Syria because the regime used chemical weapons against civilians. But he opposed action when chemical weapons killed many more in 2013. Some think he seeks to distract attention from bad headlines over Russia or show he is tougher than Obama, who did not enforce his “red line” on chemical weapons.

Word Watch

For example in 2013, when President Obama considered taking military action against Syria’s government, Trump sent several tweets imploring him not to do so.
America first
An isolationist slogan used by those who wished to keep the USA out of the second world war — particularly Nazi sympathisers.
An apparent reference to the phrase “red line”, which Obama used to describe a possible chemical attack by the Assad regime. In 2013 Assad used chemical weapons — but Obama did not launch a military strike in response.
France, Germany and the UK’s leaders were among those to give the strike some form of support.
North Korea
This weekend a US navy strike group moved nearer to the Korean peninsula amid hostile North Korean rhetoric. Trump has already said the USA could act alone against North Korea.
Some suggest the 37th president subscribed to the “madman theory” — meaning he wanted foreign leaders to consider him unhinged. During the Vietnam war he told an adviser: “I want the North Vietnamese to believe I might do anything to stop the war.”


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