Lessons From Trump’s ‘Fantastic’ Phone Call to Pakistan

On words and meaning in international politics

Akhtar Soomro / Reuters

This week, the U.S. president-elect spoke with the Pakistani prime minister and, according to the Pakistani government’s account of the conversation, delivered the following message: Everything is awesome. It was, arguably, the most surprising presidential phone call since George H.W. Bush got pranked by that pretend Iranian president.

Pakistan, Donald Trump reportedly told Nawaz Sharif, is a “fantastic” country full of “fantastic” people that he “would love” to visit as president. Sharif was described as “terrific.” Pakistanis “are one of the most intelligent people,” Trump allegedly added. “I am ready and willing to play any role that you want me to play to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems.”

It’s unclear how accurate the Pakistani government’s record of the discussion is, though the language does have a Trumpian ring to it (Trump’s transition team released a much more subdued summary of the call). But what’s surprising about the account is how disconnected it is from the current state of affairs. Everything is not awesome in U.S.-Pakistan relations. The two countries are the bitterest of friends. They have long clashed over the haven that terrorist groups have found in Pakistan and over U.S. efforts, including drone strikes and the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, to kill those terrorists. Pakistan, a nation with a growing arsenal of nuclear weapons, is the archenemy of India, another nuclear-armed state and a critical U.S. ally. U.S. officials see Pakistan—with its weak political institutions and suspected government support for militant groups in Afghanistan and the contested territory of Kashmir—as an alarming source of regional instability. The suspicion is mutual: Just a fifth of Pakistanis have a favorable view of the United States. Trump himself has argued that Pakistan “is probably the most dangerous” country in the world, and that India needs to serve as “the check” to it.

Some are interpreting the phone call as a disaster. “With one phone call, Donald Trump might have upturned America’s relationship with both Pakistan and India,” Jeet Heer wrote at the New Republic. But you don’t need to reach for the most dramatic potential consequences to appreciate the significance of the exchange between Trump and Sharif.

Reports of the call haven’t yet remade U.S. alliances in South Asia, but they did generate headlines like this on the front pages of Pakistani newspapers:

The reports also provoked a caustic response from the Indian government, which opposes U.S. mediation in its border dispute with Pakistan. “We look forward to the president-elect helping Pakistan address the most outstanding of its outstanding issues: terrorism,” a spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs said. And, ultimately, they forced Pakistani officials to backpedal after initially publicizing the conversation. “Our relationship with the United States is not about personalities—it is about institutions,” a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs clarified. In other words, a brief, breezy conversation had real reverberations on the subcontinent.

One lesson of the phone call is that words matter, especially in international relations where information is patchy, things get lost in translation, rhetoric is often interpreted as policy, and a government’s credibility is only as good as its word. (Think of all the people in the United States puzzling over what policies Trump will pursue as president; now imagine trying to do that from Islamabad or New Delhi.) Barack Obama’s remark at a press conference about a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in Syria very nearly compelled him, a year later, to launch air strikes against the Assad regime for violating that red line. George W. Bush’s decision to include Iran in an “axis of evil” in his State of the Union address torpedoed U.S.-Iranian cooperation on fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Words needn’t be spoken in public to have an impact on world affairs. In 1961, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev met with John F. Kennedy in Vienna and verbally beat the new U.S. president to a pulp. A couple months later, Khrushchev approved the construction of the Berlin Wall—a move some scholars attribute in part to Khrushchev’s perception of Kennedy as weak and inexperienced.

For these reasons, as Daniel Drezner notes at the Washington Post, political scientists such as John Mearsheimer and Anne Sartori have found that governments don’t bluff or lie to one another as often as one might think (Mearsheimer contends that governments are more likely to deceive their own people). “States often are tempted to bluff, or dissemble, but a state that is caught bluffing acquires a reputation for doing so, and opponents are less likely to believe its future communications,” Sartori writes. “The prospect of acquiring a reputation for lying—and lessening the credibility of the state’s future diplomacy—keeps statesmen and diplomats honest except when fibs are the most tempting.”

Given all this, Trump’s communications style—his loose talk and impulsiveness; his theatrics and bravado; his tendency to exaggerate and be untruthful; the vague, mixed signals he sends—would seem to indicate that international crises and chaos lie ahead. They might. But another lesson of Trump’s phone call with Sharif is that it’s too early to say whether Trump’s way with words will prove an asset or liability (or both) on the world stage.

Already, foreign leaders are adjusting, however haltingly, to the Trump Era. “We don’t have to take each word that Mr. Trump said publicly literally,” an adviser to Japan’s prime minister observed recently. In a world in which Trump is taken seriously but not literally, his call with Sharif might not signal that he’s going to broker peace in Kashmir or become the first U.S. president to visit Pakistan in a decade. Instead, it could be a sign that he is going to approach relations with Pakistan and India more as a transactional businessman than a traditional American president, looking to strike deals rather than adhere to past precedent. As the Russia expert Fiona Hill recently told me, “I tend to look at Trump as a real-estate mogul. You look at a building and say, ‘I’m just going to tear that down and build up something new.’ He’s not exactly Mr. Preservationist.”

Similarly, Trump’s public demands that NATO members spend more on defense, or risk losing U.S. military protection in the event of Russian aggression, have been criticized as undermining the deterrence mechanism that has helped maintain peace in Europe for seven decades—the understanding that an attack on one member of the alliance will be considered an attack on all members. But since the U.S. election, NATO’s secretary-general has joined Trump in calling for increased European defense spending and EU leaders have announced plans to do just that. In making his demands, in wondering aloud, Trump is poised to achieve what his tight-lipped predecessors in the White House never could: a NATO that is less dependent on U.S. military power. Uncertainty and challenges to convention won’t necessarily make the world more dangerous. But they may not make it safer either. One of the key questions of Trump’s presidency will be whether the benefits of unpredictability outweigh its costs.