During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump sidestepped questions on everything from the use of nuclear weapons to increases in the debt ceiling by insisting that it would be foolish for him to tell his adversaries what he might do in a given situation. America's leaders are too predictable, he said in a whole host of contexts, and that made them terrible negotiators. Some critics thought this was just a thinly veiled ruse for declining to answer questions for which he had no intelligible answers, and it may well have been. But now that Mr. Trump is president-elect, we're starting to see the extent to which opacity of motive is actually his strategy for governance.
Did Mr. Trump know he was blowing up four decades of diplomatic precedent when he accepted a call of congratulations from Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen? Was it a strategic move to unsettle China's leadership? Was it a rookie mistake? Was it the product of the kind of inside-the-beltway big-money lobbying Mr. Trump purportedly despises?
When Mr. Trump told the prime minister of Pakistan that he would visit the nation, was he aware that President Barack Obama had avoided doing so because of the tricky diplomatic realities of that combustible region? When he said, he was "ready and willing to play any role that you want me to play to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems," was he being polite or tacitly suggesting the U.S. would intervene in its disputes with India over control of Kashmir and other matters?
Did Mr. Trump intend to snub British Prime Minister Theresa May by speaking to her after a variety of leaders from other countries with whom the U.S. has far more distant relations? Was he being intentionally dismissive when he told her "If you travel to the U.S., you should let me know"? Was he unaware that Britain already has an ambassador to the U.S., or was he intentionally meddling in an ally's internal affairs by suggesting the country send one of Ms. May's political foes, Nigel Farage, to represent it in Washington?
Mr. Trump says he had no intention of trying to stop Carrier from moving jobs out of Indiana until he happened to see a "gentleman, worker, great guy, handsome guy" on a network news broadcast saying he believed the president-elect had promised to do so. So he decided to call the CEO of Carrier's parent corporation, Greg Hayes. "It's wonderful to win," Mr. Trump said in a speech at the factory. "Think if I lost he wouldn't have returned my call?" Was he making a joke or sending a not-so-veiled public threat that he would use the powers of the presidency to hurt corporate leaders who defied him? Mr. Hayes apparently thought it was the latter, saying later on CNBC, "There was a cost as we thought about keeping the Indiana plant open. At the same time ... I was born at night but not last night. I also know that about 10 percent of our revenue comes from the U.S. government."
Similarly, had Mr. Trump done some research on the technical specifications required of Air Force One, dug into the procurement process for the next generation of the presidential plane, and reached a reasoned conclusion that "costs are out of control, more than $4 billion. Cancel order!," as he tweeted Tuesday morning? Or was he rattling the cage of Boeing's CEO, who had questioned his trade policies?
Mr. Trump comes to the presidency from a business career that was transactional in nature. He has boasted of gaining leverage by keeping his negotiating partners off balance and unsure of his next moves. He appears intent on taking that strategy to the White House, adopting a doctrine of "speak loudly, and keep them guessing about the stick." But the presidency is not transactional. It requires upholding a system based on rules and predictability at home, and projecting consistent principles and national interest abroad, backed by clear resolve. That is what makes America no only great but also respected and indispensable. Being predictable may be a bad quality for a checker player, as Mr. Trump has said, but it is essential for the leader of the free world.