'Let's Roll the Dice. What Could Go Wrong?'

Mark Makela / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

It’s less than a week since Michael Wolff said in Fire and Fury that all—“100 percent”—of those who worked with Donald Trump thought  him unfit for duties of the office. Then Trump himself replied, via Twitter, that he was “like, very smart” and “a stable genius.” I reported that actual very smart people I’d interviewed didn’t talk that way. And then (the last part of the set-up) a reader argued that Trump’s lack of interest in facts, experts, precedent, details was itself a form of genius, in that shaking things up might lead to more positive results.

As for this last claim, a whole lot of people disagree. A sampling:

Shaking things up brought us Iraq. A reader offered a comparison that many others also stressed:

Reminds me of the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003. Engaged in arguments with friends and colleagues, there were dozens of arguments about how Bush was lying and various alternatives. But  several colleagues said, roughly “the middle east is so fucked up; Bush’s war will shake things up; in the end things will be much better; they can’t be worse.”

The “shake things up” strategy has big risks.

From another reader, more on the Iraq comparison—stressing that the risks of “shaking things up” were generally borne by people other than those doing the shaking:

I just finished David Finkel's, The Good Soldiers, so there's a bias to my bias. (Note: If you haven't read this yet, cancel everything in your life. You're welcome.)[JF note: Yes, very powerful book.]

Your reader says that “being a bit ‘crazy’ and ‘impulsive’ can be good in limited quantities.”

I don't want to pick on your reader because I get the point, but that letter just happens to illustrate something profoundly important in our debates, our foreign policies, and of course our execution of those decisions.

We tend to project our confidently superior views upon others, even if we have absolutely no confidence in the real world outcome. Even if we KNOW we have no confidence in the outcome. Even when we CLAIM to know the outcome (or intend to design the outcome), the unvarnished truth is that we have no clue. Simply put, we have no record of predicting the future, let alone predicting the behavior of others, even as we try to forge a different future for those same people.

We frequently think about those mistakes made 50 years or so ago, when we were worried about dominoes in SE Asia. Obviously nobody in their right mind could have imagined how many people would be dead or totally wrecked by the time we were pulling folks off the rooftops of our embassies. However, after 9/11, most of us ignored those urgent lessons from Vietnam and insisted the status quo in the Middle East must be boldly changed.

Today, in a nutshell, Trump is rudely and ignorantly making the same mistakes. (I actually think Trump himself is just responding to the pressure he feels from the constituents who have his ear. Trump has no historic interest in Jerusalem, can't find it on a map.) Here's the conversation:

   A) something is wrong, somebody do something;

   B) nobody else will, so we must (I'm looking at you, Mr US President!);

   C) save these wretches from themselves/dictator/terror!

Our motivation is frequently explained by our benevolent desire to spread democracy, or protect Americans who may somehow get crushed by a domino. But the common thread of arrogance is due to our belief that we are dealing with stupid people. Lazy people. Most importantly, we think we are dealing with static people who won't react/shift/adjust to whatever moves we make on the global chessboard.

But imagine a scenario that doesn't involve millions of strange people living in strange places. Imagine a divorced couple. Imagine a physically abusive husband. Imagine innocent children who also escaped that nightmare. Everyone could agree they've achieved a "suboptimal status quo." Surely they are dealing with "lingering" side effects. And the mom ain't perfect neither! [Let's go ahead and stir in some false equivalence while we're at it.]

Somebody needs to do something. Might as well "throw some chaos/rash decisions" at that family. Maybe "being a bit crazy and impulsive" is what the doctor ordered?

Too emotional? Imagine my old truck. It developed a leak. My best friend is a retired mechanic that thinks I should do something incremental by way of different oil. My own mechanic claims to be an expert, he looked the truck over thoroughly, and left me a message I need to swap out the oil pressure switch located near the filter. Fake news! So I'm going to start it down a hill, jump out once it's moving, and see if that works.

Finally, as I think about The Good Soldiers, or just the young soldier who now lives with his head caved in ... or just this one specific Iraqi interpreter (Jesus, people have no idea about this stuff) ... their respective world's completely demolished, it makes my face hurt to combine Trump's optimization algorithms with the gritty, shattering, realities of our foreign policies.

* * *

For another country’s comparison, what shaking things up has meant in the UK:

It's an interesting [shake things up] argument but I think the big flaw in it, oddly enough, is showing up a lot right now in relation to Brexit in the UK.

The presidential dilemmas your correspondent focuses on as areas where Trump could profitably "shake things up" all relate to foreign policy. That seems a particularly dangerous area to be playing this game.

That "rash genius" approach to foreign policy was once something the British thought they specialized in. Robert Clive "conquering India" almost by accident; Nelson winning at Trafalgar though unorthodox naval tactics; the Jameson Raid laying the foundations of the Union of South Africa.

Kipling, whose "If-" was supposedly inspired by the leader of the Jameson Raid, created in Kim and Stalky & Co. an ideology that such daring, rule-breaking behavior was the essence of Britain's imperial genius.

Fast forward to 1956 and you see Prime Minister Anthony Eden attempting a very Robert Clive/Leander Starr Jameson foreign policy coup in Suez. The result was seen as such a disaster and humiliation that the current Netflix series the Crown is still retelling the sorry tale.

Fast forward again to 2017 and you see the U.K.'s Brexit minister come back from an incredibly toughly-fought stage one negotiation in Brussels, only to undermine what he'd achieved by saying it was only a "statement of intent" rather than anything binding. He didn't seem to appreciate how this slipperiness would be perceived as untrustworthy "perfidious Albion" behaviour by his opposite numbers.

It seems to me that Britain got away with rash ("audacious") behaviour in the two centuries from 1750 to 1950 because it had such an advantage militarily, technologically, diplomatically and economically that it could blunder through disastrous mis-steps and reframe them as victories. That's exactly what happened at the Jameson Raid.

The ideology of empire turned this structural advantage/tactical weakness dynamic into one that assumed that the rash tactics were a positive benefit, rather than a problem that could only be ridden out thanks to Britain's huge structural advantages.

Since 1950, and especially since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has very much been in the position Britain enjoyed when it was a global hegemon—huge structural advantages and a tendency to see move-fast-and-break-things tactics as beneficial, even when they're clearly not. I think we saw this most clearly in the run-up to the Iraq war but you could draw examples too around Vietnam or the very British Empire-like Great Game against Russia in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 1980s.

One of the most awful humiliations of Brexit, for me as an expat Brit in Australia, is watching the cluelessness of the U.K.'s negotiators. Reared on this myth of audacious genius—and since the end of Empire largely blinded to the real truths of the U.K.'s diminished global role thanks to, ironically, the U.K.'s enhanced influence as a member of the E.U.—they wandered into Brussels thinking the old tricks of saying one thing to the natives and another thing to the press and parliament back home would still work. They seem unable to comprehend that, no longer a hegemon, Britain has behave in a trustworthy way because it's negotiating with a greater power.

That I think is the warning to the U.S. that's wrapped in your correspondent's view of Trump's paradoxical genius. You can get away with such behaviour when you're a rising power, but America is no longer playing on an empty chessboard. The rising power in the world is China, which in its own way (eg the South China Sea) is carrying out similarly audacious acts now.

An America that doesn't recognise how the world has changed and thinks it can prevail using rolls of the dice has already had one lesson (in Iraq) that this sort of approach doesn't work any more. There's a very pre-Iraq war drumbeat coming out of Washington right now, but I think pushing America's luck further by seeing Trump's indiscipline as an advantage could invite a "Suez crisis"-type moment worryingly soon.

* * *

And finally for now, one further note on shaking things up to find a different equilibrium, with examples from yet another nation’s difficult experience with just this approach:

The observation by your latest correspondent that in a complex system not all equilibria are equal is accurate but scarcely novel.

The example of a determined risky move between equilibria that comes first to my mind is the case of Truman and his Wise Men remaking the Western World: Bretton Woods, the Marshall Plan, the United Nations.

An example of a risky random "What's the worst thing that can happen?/What? Me worry?" venture outside a stable state is Napoleon III riding out to teach Germany a lesson.

Which does Trump resemble?