This article captures the absurdity of the situation the world finds itself in. The location – Blackpool – is my long-ago birthplace and usually home to political conferences and bachelor parties. Now it is also home to the “ultimate lads’ prank”, which might, incidentally, be an apt description of the approach that President Donald Trump took to running for office in the first place.
Trump recently referred to Kim Jong-un as a “madman with nuclear weapons” in a conversation with Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, but also said he would be honoured to meet with Kim. The problem with quotes concerning Kim and Trump is, as John Oliver recently pointed out in one of his segments, that the words describing one are largely interchangeable with the other – bad hair included.
What Is the Problem?
The problem is that both leaders are ‘playing’ with live ammunition and millions of people’s lives are at risk. This is not a playground fight between two bullies. Nuclear weapons have long been associated with geopolitical status. Occasionally, the world arrives at the brink of a huge accident such as the Cuban missile crisis. Khrushchev and Kennedy managed to avert that crisis, though there were those ‘in the room’ on both sides who, at the time, were prepared to let the missiles fly.
If possession of a nuclear capability confers status and power, giving them up has consequences. The Ukraine in 1994 gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for a guarantee that it would enjoy UN protection from aggression and violation of its territorial integrity. That did not work out too well for The Ukraine. Hopes that Kim may give up nuclear weapons are distant indeed.
It is tough to negotiate with someone the world considers to be deranged and evil, especially when the negotiation itself would signal a geopolitical victory for Kim, who would cherish a seat at the table with world leaders.
How Did This Problem Occur?
Kim is the third generation of North Korean leaders since his grandfather launched the Korean war with Soviet assistance after Japan was defeated in WW2.
Within a year of taking power, he proceeded to consolidate power by executing his uncle, Jang Sung-thaek and a number of his family members – a warning to any who might be tempted to consider a coup.
The particular mode of execution he is fond of is the anti-aircraft gun – it gets the attention of the world press, something that is very important to Kim. The correlation between weapons, power and notoriety is well established, and Kim has succeeded spectacularly in cementing his position as the bad boy of East Asia. Mission accomplished.
Donald Trump, of course, is also in need of constant media attention. Pulling out of the Paris Accords and attracting the opprobrium of more or less all the world’s media is a huge win for him – just as every successful missile launch is a huge win for Kim. Too bad that we are prepared to indulge both with the coverage they crave and exhaust our peace of mind in the process.
How Bad Is It?
Until recently, the working assumption has been that, aspiration notwithstanding, Kim does not have the technical know-how or expertise to build a missile with a nuclear warhead attached with sufficient range to threaten the United States.
That may still be true, but it is not clear that should be the relevant anxiety threshold. A nuclear strike on South Korea may be too close for comfort for the North, but a strike on former occupying power, Japan, may be enough to accomplish whatever it is that might be Kim’s motivation in this whole sorry saga.
The Cold War during the Soviet era rested upon the premise of MAD (mutually assured destruction). If two opponents possess the means to destroy the other, what would be the point in either side starting the process that would surely lead to its own destruction?
Kim must know that any act of nuclear aggression would lead to a retaliatory attack. Perhaps. Maybe his gamble is that the stakes are much less for him and his impoverished nation. He would presumably take shelter in his nuclear-winter-resistant bunker and damn the consequences for his people.
Again, perhaps. It is difficult to construct a rational argument for a madman. It is also difficult to get high-quality news and information from North Korea. The architect of Pyongyang-induced stress may be Kim, or it may instead be a group of generals manipulating him.
It is a commonly held belief that it “it is hard to fix crazy” (though it does not absolve us from trying). One of Trump’s transition moves was to call Taiwan’s President – widely perceived as a diplomatic faux pas of legendary proportions.
It does not seem to have injured his ability to develop a dialogue with Xi Jinping (and enjoy excellent chocolate cake at Mar-a-Largo). His constant bashing of European allies; NATO criticism; pulling out of the Paris Accords have not destroyed his position as world leader. Sending cruise missiles to Syria has not limited his room to move in Middle East diplomacy. Unpredictability is perhaps a useful ally in keeping his and America’s foes off-balance.
Perhaps, but it is too soon to know. Despite the crescendo of media outrage, there has not been a foreign policy crisis to test Trump yet. There has been concern that North Korea might present such a crisis; that Putin or Assad might provoke an ‘exploratory’ crisis to test Trump’s decision-making.
Does Crazy Help?
Historically, the world has wondered how North Korea keeps going amidst poverty and an evident misallocation of available resources toward weapons research and development. How could a people allow such a leader to continue unopposed?
Terror casts a broad reach. When individuals are incentivised to inform on their fellow citizens to avoid being punished themselves, the urge to rebel is constrained; the freedom to rebel is likely non-existent. The barriers are considerable even for the elites with more power to act.
Perhaps China will be sufficiently disturbed by the prospect that Trump may take action on North Korea to persuade it to bring pressure to bear. The tension between China and the United States in the South China sea about China’ island reclamation and military exercises makes this a multi-layered issue.
The United States has a different problem but with potentially a similar effect. The fact that the media’s outrage-meter is constantly in the red zone tends to exhaust people’s ability to stay engaged in resisting the outrageous acts.
If tweeting “covfefe” can occupy a whole day of illiteracy-disgust, an incident of consequence may go less noticed by those who turned away, fatigued by faux crisis. Just as with a magician, it is wise to pay attention to what is happening away from the action, so with Trump, we should be wary of what the media is not reporting.
While crazy may keep Kim off-balance, it keeps allies – and the American public – off-balance too. Trump’s record of lies about matters large and small has forever damaged the credibility of anything he says. Trust depends on credibility.
If the President of the United States asks for public trust and confidence in a difficult decision, the world would like to give him benefit of the doubt. Trump has forfeited this. Crazy, but true.
In the end, crazy may be a tactic, but it is no substitute for nuanced and strategic thinking. Criticism of Obama was frequently that there was too much analysis and too little action. Criticism of Trump is so far the reverse. If this is true, it is hard to see how crazy will help.