Donald Trump’s Asymmetric War on the Establishment

The logic of policy by tweet

Andrew Harnik / AP

There may come a day when we look back at the intense, instantaneous interest that Donald Trump’s tweets once produced and we chuckle, noting how President Trump’s Twitter postings, now shorn of their novelty, generate roughly as much attention as a statement from the White House Press Office.

That day, however, may never come. And it’s most certainly not today.

Instead, today, we’re puzzling over where Trump truly stands on WikiLeaker Julian Assange after a pair of bewildering tweets published within 25 hours of one another. Does Trump believe Assange when Assange says he didn’t receive hacked Democratic Party emails from Russian spies? Or is Trump simply tweeting about Assange’s comments without endorsing them? Then there was Trump’s claim to be a “big fan” of “‘Intelligence,’” which followed his disdainful tweet just days earlier about an upcoming “‘Intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking.’” Trump is sending mixed messages about his faith in U.S. intelligence agencies, but in both cases he air-quoted “intelligence.” What do the air quotes mean?!?!

Trump’s Twitter activity has confounded not just the media and U.S. officials, but also foreign governments. Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, recently declared, in reference to Trump, that “An obsession with ‘Twitter foreign policy’ is undesirable.” Trump, Xinhua noted, appeared to believe that “issuing hard-line comments and taking up sensitive issues may perhaps add to his chips for negotiating with other countries.”

On Wednesday—an especially busy day for the U.S. president-elect on Twitter—we spoke about one way to think about Trump’s aggressive and effective use of the social-media platform: as a metaphorical form of asymmetric warfare against “the establishment” and established ways of conducting foreign policy. Our conversation is below.

Kathy Gilsinan: Wednesday morning the president-elect seemed particularly prolific on Twitter—this after he had, over the course of a few days, praised Vladimir Putin while Obama was trying to punish Russia for interference in the U.S. election; wished a happy New Year to his “many enemies” (“Love!”); and seemed to threaten North Korea shortly before dissing China (the latter being something he’s used the medium for in the past).

I have no idea what to do with all this. I’m a global-affairs editor; these kinds of statements from the president-elect seem newsworthy. On the other hand, if we chased down and thoroughly unpacked all of Trump’s tweets, or even just the foreign policy-related ones, we’d never do anything else. Nor, given his penchant for surprise off-hours tweets, would we get much rest. As a presidential candidate and now as president-elect, Trump has had a famously adversarial relationship with much of the media; I’m now thinking of Trump’s tweets as a kind of asymmetric war on the press—like a guerrilla force doing random “attacks” all over the place to spread out the “adversary’s” resources and prevent them from concentrating enough force in any one place to produce a decisive outcome. It need not take him much time or forethought to opine on nuclear strategy; it can take us hours of research to properly examine and contextualize what he means. And there’s a cost to that in terms of all the other things around the world we could be paying attention to.

Uri Friedman: That concept of asymmetric warfare—where a weaker military power uses unconventional tactics and strategies against a stronger military power—is actually a really interesting way to think about not just Trump’s approach to the media, but also his approach so far to the U.S. government bureaucracy and to conducting foreign policy more broadly. In the early 1960s, John F. Kennedy defined this type of war as “new in its intensity, ancient in its origin—war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins, war by ambush instead of by combat; by infiltration, instead of aggression, seeking victory by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him.”

Now think about that description as applied to Trump. I know, I know: It’s counterintuitive to think about Trump as the “weaker power” in any conflict. He’s the toughest of tough guys, right? He’s weeks away from leading the most powerful country on earth! But as a president-elect who is already acting like a sitting president, he is currently the weaker party relative to President Obama, who still has the force of the federal government at his disposal. As an incoming head of government who wants to swiftly implement his unconventional policy agenda, he will be the weaker party relative to America’s system of checks and balances and the slow-moving, deliberative government bureaucracy. As an incoming head of state who wants to strike huge deals and win, win, win on the world stage, he may be the weaker party relative to the competing interests of the planet’s 192 other countries and international institutions like the United Nations.

One recent example that comes to mind is Obama’s retaliation against Russia for interfering in the U.S. election. Obama goes through this lengthy, meticulous process—involving U.S. intelligence agencies, the Departments of State, Homeland Security, and the Treasury, and so on—to punish the Russian government for its cyber campaign. Experts declare that Obama has boxed Trump in and made it impossible for him to continue denying that the Kremlin was behind the hack and leaks of Democratic emails. And then Trump instantly undermines the whole effort by tweeting about how “smart” Vladimir Putin is and how skeptical he himself is of the “‘intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking’” that he’s scheduled to receive.

Fiona Hill, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution, once told me that, given how U.S. politics works, she doubted Trump could achieve his apparent goal of becoming best friends with Putin. “What can [Trump] deliver” to the Russians? she asked. “There’s a lot of leeway for an American president in foreign policy, but to deliver you still need the rest of the [government] to work with you. And anything that has to do with trade or treaties, the president is always fighting with Congress over.” I wonder if President Trump will find surprising, asymmetric ways to overcome these obstacles.

Gilsinan: And actually, you could go even broader with the concept of asymmetry, to wit:

Asymmetric approaches are attempts to circumvent or undermine US strengths while exploiting US weaknesses using methods that differ significantly from the United States’ expected method of operations. [Asymmetric approaches] generally seek a major psychological impact, such as shock or confusion that affects an opponent’s initiative, freedom of action, or will. Asymmetric methods require an appreciation of an opponent’s vulnerabilities. Asymmetric approaches often employ innovative, nontraditional tactics ...

That’s from the U.S. military’s Joint Strategy Review in 1999. Note, too, that this broad way of looking at asymmetry doesn’t even require that one side be stronger and the other weaker, just that one side be able to exploit the other side’s weaknesses.

So if you swap out “US” in the above definition for any number of establishment institutions, be it “the media” or “the foreign-policy bureaucracy,” the notion of an “asymmetric approach” fits some of Trump’s behavior quite well. You could take, as another case study, the famous Taiwan phone call. One weakness, or at least vulnerability, of the foreign-policy bureaucracy is its complexity, and some of the truly convoluted traditions it comes up with and maintains—like the One China policy. Under this policy, the United States technically does not recognize Taiwan, which is claimed by China, as an independent country; this is despite the United States selling Taiwan weapons, as well as having extensive unofficial ties and trade with the island. As our colleague David Graham observed of the non-recognition of Taiwan: “It’s the sort of fiction that is obvious to all involved, but on which diplomacy is built: All parties agree to believe in the fiction for the sake of getting along.”

If Trump’s “opponent” is the foreign-policy bureaucracy that has safeguarded this tradition, it’s fair to say that Trump’s acceptance of a congratulatory phone call from Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan (note that the preferred U.S. diplomatic nomenclature is, convolutedly, “president on Taiwan”) “differ[ed] significantly from the ... expected method of operations.” No president-elect has done that since before 1979. The call certainly created some “shock and confusion” and certainly employed a “nontraditional tactic.” It exploited the vulnerability of complexity and, depending on how various parties react, could constrain “freedom of action” for U.S. policymakers regarding Taiwan and China going forward.

And yet complexity needn’t always be a vulnerability—it can, perhaps, stymie impulsiveness—and there’s a way in which the bureaucracy itself may be poised for an asymmetric approach of its own once Trump takes office.

Friedman: That last point raises two related questions that we can’t really answer yet. First, will Trump persist with his asymmetric approach once he’s running government agencies led by his appointees—once he is the establishment? Is asymmetry his signature style, or is it a style tailored to his current circumstances?

Second, we’re at the very beginning of the story of Donald Trump’s presidency. Could the plot twist be the triumph of institutions over the individual? That Trump ultimately fails to bend the bureaucracy to his will? Insurgents don’t always succeed with their insurgencies. Trump, for instance, recently sowed shock and confusion around the world by floating the idea of a nuclear-arms race, tweeting that the United States should “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability.” But that costs a ton of money, and some officials in the Defense Department—including Trump’s own nominee for secretary of defense—have questioned whether building up the U.S. nuclear arsenal is a wise investment of limited resources. In other words, there’s a vast distance between a tweet and a policy.

Similarly, Trump’s asymmetric approach could backfire in international affairs. To cite just one example: Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is something of an asymmetric thinker himself. As Joshua Yaffa wrote last year in The New Yorker:

Putin rules a country that, on paper, is no superpower. His advantage has been his boldness as the unpredictable rule-breaker in a club of rule-followers—he did what he felt like doing, while Obama and European leaders were boxed in by their quaint notions of norms in international relations and concerns over global stability. He may soon lose his singular claim to that title.

What happens when there are two unpredictable, rule-breaking risk-takers in town? Does the asymmetric approach retain its power?

Gilsinan: I’m extremely curious about that question of whether, in the end, the bureaucracy will have its revenge. Certainly it has had its revenge on many other presidential ambitions for policy transformation—see Guantanamo Bay. Lawfare has been grappling with this issue in a series of posts recently; in one of them, the former Bush administration lawyer Jack Goldsmith offered this anecdote:

“He’ll sit here,” Truman said of Eisenhower, “and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.” Richard Neustadt famously built on this story to illustrate that hard power does not by itself translate into effective power. It is a lesson Trump is about to learn.

Indeed, the very complexity of the system, which can be a weakness, can also favor policy continuity. Bureaucrats are loath to overturn complex deals they’ve spent careers working on. That’s a barrier to change within the executive branch itself, of which Trump will be the head, before you even start talking about checks and balances in Congress and the courts. Longstanding practices create vested interests in the status quo—the jobs that depend on trade with China, say—and it’s harder politically to withdraw benefits from a given constituency than never to offer them in the first place.

Which is not to say that a leader can’t dismantle institutions he sees as inhibiting his authority, Russia and Turkey being two good examples of this among many. And yet America has not only 200 years of democratic checks and balances to fall back on, but also decades’ worth of accumulated bureaucratic inertia. Another anecdote comes to mind, via Ira Stoll at Reason, who points out that Trump’s 4,000 or so political appointees represent a “very thin layer of authority” over a pre-existing federal workforce of about 4 million, both civilian and military:

A lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Robert Behn, writes [about] ... “the law of diminishing control: the larger any organization becomes, the weaker is the control over its actions exercised by those at the top.” He says bureaucrats speak of “residents” and “tourists”—the residents are the bureaucrats; the tourists are political appointees, just passing through. Or, Behn writes, a member of the permanent government refers to himself or herself as a “We Be”—as in, “We be here before you’re here. We be here after you’re here.”

As you suggest, we can’t yet say definitively how Trump’s “anti-establishment” posture will be affected by his becoming the establishment. In the short term, though, he remains the asymmetric warrior against many of America’s conventional foreign-policy practices. As has been said of insurgents, they win simply by virtue of not losing. And their conventional adversaries lose by not winning.