The choice of John Bolton as national security advisor has the punditocracy in a tither. The consensus seems to be that Bolton is a warmonger who is ready to strike first at North Korea and bomb Iran to make sure neither country uses nuclear weapons against the civilized world. Interestingly, Bolton is to the right of the president on Russia as well, much more skeptical on Putin and more willing to treat him as an enemy. In fact, Trump’s selection of Bolton plays into something that Jerry Hendrix, writing in National Review, of something called “strategic ambiguity.”

What is strategic ambiguity?

Strategic ambiguity involves sowing doubt among both friends and enemies over what precisely the United States will do to exert maximum pressure to shape the world to suit American interests.

Reagan, for instance, employed aggressive rhetoric and concrete policies, such as arming anti-communist rebel groups and the SDI program, to engender fear in the Soviets about what the United States would be willing to do. But Reagan, the former Screen Actors Guide president, would use that doubt to his advantage in arms control negotiations.

Trump’s strategy.

The best example of strategic ambiguity in the Trump era has been in the form of trade negotiations. Trump has loudly announced steel, and aluminum tariffs, putting the fear of a trade war into the rest of the world, while quietly negotiating new deals that he believes are more favorable to the United States. The latest iteration of this approach is currently being applied to China which, it is expected, will be more willing to be reasonable where dumping and the theft of intellectual property are concerned.

How does Bolton fit in?

With John Bolton in the situation room now, the rest of the world has to wonder, will Trump listen to him instead of allegedly more moderate members of the cabinet and start launching air strikes? In this scenario, Secretary of Defense Mattis, known as “Mad Dog,” is actually considered the moderate voice of reason.

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If one is the Kim Jong-un, the mullahs in Teheran, or even Vladimir Putin, one has to wonder what terrible thing Bolton will persuade Trump to do. When the American president comes to any of these leaders with a proposal, it doesn’t matter what country they’re in charge of; they are more likely to take the deal.

The one principle of strategy going back to Sun Tzu is that it is better to win without fighting. Bolton fits into the policy because he makes enemies and friends alike wonder how far American is willing to go by fighting.