Trump’s Playing Chicken vs. Pacta Sunt Servanda

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“She signals. We head for the edge. Whoever jumps first is chicken,” are the immortal words of James Dean’s challenger in the film classic Rebel Without a Cause. Natalie Wood raises her arms; the two drivers accelerate their cars towards to the cliff. Dean jumps out and sees his opponent go over the edge, his jacket sleeve caught in the door handle.

The game of Chicken is a well-known testosterone distraction. Whether driving cars towards a cliff or towards each other, throwing knives at someone backed up against a wall or playing Russian roulette, the principle is always the same; whoever backs out first is chicken.

Donald Trump may never have seen Rebel Without a Cause. He probably doesn’t understand the rules of the game of Chicken. But his recent actions seem to say that he enjoys playing a similar game, except that he turns out to be the chicken.

Look what happened with Iran. He said the United States was ready to attack Iran in response to its aggression in shooting down a U.S. drone. “Iran made a big mistake,” he declared. “We were cocked and loaded to retaliate.”

But what did he do? Claiming unusual humanitarianism, he decided at the very last moment to cancel the strike because 150 people would have died, or so we are told. Having established his rules of the game, he then backed down. "We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone" Trump wrote. "I am in no hurry, our Military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world."    

On rounding up illegal immigrants, he played the same game with the same result. “Next week ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States,” Trump tweeted on June 18. “They will be removed as fast as they come in.” Soon after he wrote: “At the request of Democrats, I have delayed the Illegal Immigration Removal Process (Deportation) for two weeks to see if the Democrats and Republicans can get together and work out a solution to the Asylum and Loophole problems at the Southern Border. If not, Deportations start!”

Similar reversals have happened with Mexican and Chinese tariffs and North Korean nuclear/missile development. In 2017, Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” only to say of Kim Jong-un a year later; "He wrote me beautiful letters and they're great letters. We fell in love."  Each time Trump threatens, and then backs down.

Now in terms of avoiding war, his backing down is positive. Once we get by his ability to threaten and take the situation to the brink, we can always say that what happened was better than what was initially proposed. “On this particular issue [Iran], I think his decision was a very good one,” a European diplomat acknowledged.

But there is a price to be paid for his backing down. The basis of all civil and international law is Pacta Sunt Servanda, agreements must be kept. Keeping good faith is the cornerstone of all contracts, treaties and social relationships.

Sir Henry Wotton, a sixteenth-century English diplomat, is quoted as saying that “an ambassador was ‘an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.’" This may happen once, but the legitimacy of the liar is forever compromised. Why should anyone now believe Trump’s threats? Even those trying to sell him as an example of the Madman Theory (used during Nixon’s presidency to encourage Communist leaders to believe he was irrational and dangerous) have gone to the well once too often.

What is difficult to understand is why Trump continues to play this game. If he were in a bilateral game of Chicken with someone, one could understand his threats. In the above situations, President Trump unilaterally says what he will do, and then backs down with a multitude of actors. His threats have become more and more vapid. He is competing against himself and driving alone over the cliff with a puzzled world watching. It is one thing to bluster as a rebellious teenager or preening real estate mogul; it is another to huff and bluff as president of the United States.

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