President-elect Trump appears inclined to use the principle of “selective intransigence,” an element of game theory and powerful tool in diplomacy and war. Some use it consciously, others by instinct. Either way, the outcome is the same. It works, more often than not – if well-grounded, oriented, and deftly applied.
In American history, those able to act with selective intransigence are often well remembered. No matter how they start, use of the art produces decisive outcomes. At war and peace, the principle is central to effectively leading. Washington, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Truman and Reagan all deployed selective intransigence, and moved human events to a higher level. Part fencing blade, part left hook, the principle is best used with surprise.
Washington led an Army of “rabble” that no one thought could be led, against a foe no one deemed beatable, with a strategy that surprised not just his enemies, but those closest to him. He leapt on opportunity, as when he overwhelmed the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton, re-energizing the Revolution. He also used it when he daringly extracted 9000 American troops at night and in a providential fog from Brooklyn Heights. Call it willfulness and strategy if you wish, but he knew when to go, and when to retreat. His decisions shocked the British, and threw them off their game. Trenton followed, with a cascade of events that led to Cornwallis’ defeat and vanquishing of the British “commander in chief” – fittingly, named Clinton. …
Lincoln, similarly, threw daring curves and his undaunted generals at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. With resolve and surprise, he shocked the Confederacy and redeemed the Union. Theodore Roosevelt, with his own quixotic brand of intransigence, remade America for global leadership, recasting her Navy, then the country – for winning. For him, victory was not strictly military; it was principle and stamina in the service of peace and prosperity. Ending the Russo-Japanese War and earning a Noble Peace Prize, TR then cross-applied selective intransigence to ending strikes, building alliances, empowering working Americans by breaking monopolies, constructing the Panama Canal.
Truman’s use of the same principle, somewhat instinctively, came at a harder moment, with higher stakes, demanding more immediacy. Truman did what he had to be done– to end a horrific war. History debates his decision, but Truman had few choices. And as Colin Powell was fond of saying, every decision is made with incomplete information; you still have to make a decision. Churchill knew the principle.
Reagan, like Truman, had to decisively end a long war. To do so, he used moral suasion and rearmed America. Public opinion began against him, foreswearing intransigence over convergence with “the evil empire.” When the Kremlin realized his resolve, they rightly shivered. Making certain things non-negotiable, Reagan surprised his opponents – from Soviets to air traffic controllers. The results were salutary, laws upheld and the Soviet Union fell.
Today, we wrestle another vexed world. We have a president-elect who is blunt and nimble, a businessman practiced in resolve and surprise. He is comfortable with uncertainty, some ambiguity – and voicing selective intransigence. Many see that as simple, not deft. But count on him to work the brush of leadership well on a big canvas.
Trump and Pence are familiar with the power surprise and targeted inflexibility. Like Charles de Gaulle, they force binary decisions, taking things off the table irrevocably, and forcing negotiation over what remains. Like the five presidents, they are clear where they stand, unafraid to act, able to retreat if necessary for consolidating gains.
What does this mean? Just this: Walls will go up and military capabilities return, reestablishing deterrence and clarifying international expectations, likely preventing wars rooted in weakness, miscalculation, and misperception. Greater vigilance and accountability will produce fewer excuses from adversaries and allies – and fewer acts to excuse. Multilateral treaties will be reconfigured to serve American interests, not turned into vessels for pouring anything and everything, whether advisable or enforceable. So, strategically, as new norms are established, expect some surprises, including bilateral breakthroughs – and the constancy over time that generates economic growth.
If history is any guide, this approach is not just foreseeable, but will yield second-order benefits for American security and prosperity. Selective refusals to accommodate treaty violations, a few warning tariffs, and renewed enforcement of laws will create a new set of expectations. Done right, use of selective intransigence will elevate respect, order and predictability, preconditions for global stability and growth. Ask historians of Washington, Lincoln, TR, Truman, and Reagan – even de Gaulle – if selective intransigence worked. Not always, but often.
The key, of course, is picking the right combination of targets, strength and timing for each action. Interestingly, while game theorists have it all worked out, many who practice the high art of selective intransigence probably do so by instinct, not deliberative strategy. Washington was an inveterate battle axe, uncompromising at war, yet incisive in retreat and redeployment. Lincoln never gave up, despite living through more defeats than victories, like Churchill. Weary Nations – led by persistent and nimble men, trained in life not game theory – found higher ground, seeded stability and growth.
TR was an outsized personality, vicar of American exceptionalism – but effective. Truman was a gracious surprise victor, gritty and underestimated, yet shouldered unthinkable decisions. Reagan was a leader who should, for all time, give thoughtful intransigence a good name. He just saw himself as blessed, sure footed, historically grounded and given an opportunity to lead.
So Trump’s tendency toward resolve and surprise may prove unexpectedly valuable at reorienting an upside down world, one in which giving up, giving in, equivocation and loss of compass, as well as confidence, have become common. This is especially so for international relations and security.
Some practice the art consciously, others by instinct. Either way, the outcome is the same. It works when well-grounded and properly oriented, then deftly applied. If history and this election are any indication, deft application of selective intransigence – an unyielding yes or no at the right moment – may benefit for all Americans. The early signs are good, but we shall see.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State, US Navy Intelligence Officer, and attorney who served in the Reagan and Bush 41 White Houses. He writes widely on national security issues.