Michael KreponTwo Fantasists, No Exit Strategy

Quotes of the week:

“This is a presidency whose defining feature isn’t ideology, much less policy. It’s neurosis.”
—Bret Stephens, New York Times

“If in a fit of pique he decides to do something about Kim Jong Un, there’s actually very little to stop him. The whole system is built to ensure rapid response if necessary. So there’s very little in the way of controls over exercising a nuclear option, which is pretty damn scary.”
—James Clapper, recently retired Director of National Intelligence

What is an optimist by nature and a skeptic about nuclear deterrence to do? We hope that cooler heads will prevail in the nuclear crisis between the United States and North Korea. (Translation: Cooler heads around Donald Trump will save us from his impulses, because we know of no one besides Kim Jong Un who can influence decisions within North Korea.) We even hope that classical deterrence theory will save the day – even when we know that deterrence fails, even in contests between nuclear-armed states.

When it comes to avoiding Armageddon, I believe in hope, plain dumb luck and divine intervention as much as the next person. Humanity has managed to live through seven decades without the battlefield use of nuclear weapons and escaped too many close calls – including in the Korean War — only to witness the unraveling of the nuclear safety net now. And yet, here we are, moving inexorably toward a second war on the Korean peninsula – a war that could well cross the nuclear threshold.

Our hopes are now pitted against harsh realities and a growing sense of dread. One harsh reality is that events lie primarily in the hands of two fantasists. Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un have been shielded from reality and they have imposed reality, but they have not, as yet, been burned by reality. For them, reality is the words that come out of their mouths.

Yes, we know about the mad man theory of nuclear deterrence, where a leader projects being off kilter to convince an opponent to stand down. Richard Nixon told his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, that he placed credence in this theory, but his feints and bluffs during the Vietnam War fell completely flat in Moscow and Hanoi. Nixon was paranoid, to be sure, but he was far too calculating to come across as a convincing mad man.

True believers in nuclear deterrence can’t help us now. They can only offer us the same old stuff that worked against Leonid Brezhnev. But nobody ever confused Brezhnev with a loose cannon. Whatever new bells and whistles they are selling won’t help when two fantasists with the unfettered ability to use nuclear weapons are at loggerheads. Until Kim “Rocket Man” Jong Un and Donald “Dotard” Trump showed up, the notion of a face off between two fantasists was beyond even the most fertile minds of deterrence theorists, not to mention pundits and best selling novelists.

We fervently hope that neither Kim Jong Un nor Donald Trump are mad enough to start a nuclear war. Perhaps they are rational human beings masquerading as wildly flamboyant leading men. But we can’t be sure. When one fantasist excels at pushing an opponent’s buttons, can we depend on the other fantasist not to push the Red Button? These two fantasists are, regrettably, a perfect mismatch. Nobody excels more than Trump in getting under an opponent’s skin. Nobody does adolescent-like fascination for the destructive power of nuclear weapons and missiles better than Kim Jong Un.

Then again, maybe they don’t mean what they say. They can’t possibly mean what they say. Or so we hope. Until reality bites. These two fantasists have given us underground nuclear detonations, missile flight tests, pseudo bombing runs, insults and genocidal threats. With every upping of the ante, the space for diplomacy has narrowed.

Where is the opening for the deus ex machina? Who will save the day? In a normal administration, nuclear danger would be accompanied by backchannel diplomacy. Maybe a backchannel exists that will provide an opening, but if it does, what then? The Trump administration’s diplomat-in-chief is an oilman. His first test at diplomacy was right in his wheelhouse – settling an unnecessary feud among Gulf royals. This did not go well for Rex Tillerson, in significant measure because his boss lit this fuse and didn’t provide backup. It’s in Trump’s nature to add fuel to simmering fires and to leave the help hanging in the wind. That way, failure is always somebody else’s fault. I wouldn’t count on a Rex Tillerson-as-Lone Ranger to save the day.

How about Xi Jinping? He has the muscle to succeed, and in doing so, he could solidify his place as the world’s preeminent leader. In the event of another war on the Korean peninsula, China would move to limit losses by rushing in (again) to prevent chaos and reunification. War is, however, a very risky and expensive business. Chinese-led mediation would be preferable to war, but with the world’s spotlight focused on this tightrope walk, Xi has much to lose if he fails. Nor can he (or anyone else) count on Trump’s unwavering support. Besides, it’s not Xi’s style to take big risks, especially with a Communist Party congress in the offing.

How about a troika of U.S. heavyweights to undertake a diplomatic mission to avoid another Korean War? There’s ample precedent for high-powered intermediaries to defuse showdowns, ranging from Bill Perry and Jimmy Carter in North Korea to Carter, Sam Nunn and Colin Powell to Haiti. This North Korean leader, like his father, might just be open to another fire-fighting mission led by a former American President. Trump has, however, trashed all of his predecessors, some more than others. It’s inconceivable that he would seek to recruit Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to pull his irons out of the fire, which leaves George W. Bush — if he were asked and could be convinced to turn the other cheek and try to save the day. Bush could bring a very strong team with him. But Trump has yet to offer a proposal or endorse any outcome other than Kim Jong Un’s nuclear surrender. No Trump emissary can be sure of support by a fantasist who resents sharing the spotlight, believes that failure is always somebody else’s fault, and uses rhetoric as a substitute for actually trying to resolve problems or reduce dangers.

John F. Kennedy was reckless in his personal life, but a cool customer in the heat of the Cuban missile crisis. Trump has been reckless in his personal life and is a hothead by nature. A firebrand and demagogue can’t get us out of this mess. Others can — my sense is that an “all of the above” approach will be required – followed by heroic efforts by the troika of Generals McMaster, Mattis and Kelly to keep Trump from sabotaging diplomatic interventions. The odds of success will grow even slimmer if Trump walks away from the nuclear deal with Iran.


  1. Jonah Speaks (History)

    Two opportunities for diplomacy not mentioned above: South Korean leaders appear eager for diplomacy, but North Korea is meeting their entreaties with stony silence. Also there appears to be some very low key mediation efforts involving the Swiss and Swedes: http://thebulletin.org/are-switzerland-and-sweden-keys-easing-north-korean-crisis11143

  2. Jonah Speaks (History)

    Two men are involved in a dispute, and both control nuclear weapons. Rather than perform a psychoanalysis, we might do better to focus on intentions.

    For Trump, name-calling and over-the-top ambiguous threats could be intended to: 1) Provide rhetorical red-meat for his “core” supporters, but with no intent to follow up with military action. 2) Rattle Kim’s cage, in the hope that Kim will foolishly provide Trump with a good excuse for war. 3) Soften Kim up for a possible deal to be negotiated in future. Or 4) prepare the public psychologically for a war that Trump believes to be necessary.

    I regard (1) as most likely and (4) as least likely. Other views?

    • Andrew Locke (History)

      Trump said himself a long time ago that at the start of each work day, he doesn’t show up with an agenda or a plan, he just wants to see what is going on and react to it. The results of his “management style” have been patently obvious since January: a White House in chaos, a bitterly divided country, and a world uncertain of the dependability of US international leadership, which has primarily been a force for good for seven decades, being there in the future. North Korea has been seeking out non-governmental channels to try and understand this regime since January. The entire world has been shocked, amazed, disgusted, disappointed, and downright depressed at the garbage coming from the Trump administration since then as well, if not before. To credit him with any kind of plan is to give him too much credit. I think it is a warped combination of #1 and #2 at the same time: galvanize his supporters to provide “bread and circuses” to distract from his failures, while keeping Kim Jong-Un off-balance and hopefully make him make a mistake that will hang the fault for an increasingly inevitable and expensive conflict upon him.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      A disorganized White House, by itself, does not tell us the President has no plan. The President is “leading,” albeit in a direction I disapprove.

      I still see the situation as not yet ripe for war, nor do I see a second Korean War as inevitable. Nevertheless, the situation could change dramatically over the next several months. There is still time for people of good will to influence the course of events.

  3. Bradley Laing (History)

    The Trump administration has moved to place a new series of restrictions on authorized Russian military spy flights over the United States which are conducted as part of the Open Skies treaty. This week, at a monthly meeting of the Open Skies Consultative Commission in Vienna, the U.S. asked that limits be placed on the length of flights over Hawaii and removed access to two air force bases the Russians use during their missions over the U.S. The retaliatory changes are in response to what America has seen as prolonged Russian violations of the treaty.


  4. Michael Krepon (History)

    As feared:

    Washington Post: By Karen DeYoung October 1 at 5:59 PM

    President Trump, not for the first time, publicly contradicted his chief diplomat on a major foreign policy issue Sunday, saying via Twitter that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.”

    Using his nickname for North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, and apparently warning again of a U.S. military response to its escalating nuclear threat, Trump advised, “Save your energy, Rex, we’ll do what has to be done.”

    • Dan Gilchrist (History)

      Read that story this morning, thought of you. :/

      There is zero chance that pretty much any negotiating team could get anything done without being undermined. God, even if Trump suddenly stopped being himself, surely no-one by now could possibly see any US negotiation as being in good faith. He’s poisoned the well. And not just with NK.

      Honestly, as hard as it is to read anything into what Trump tweets, I cannot see how that last message comes from any brain other than one that’s already decided to go to war.

      Bloody hell. This thing is actually going to happen, isn’t it?

    • Andrew Locke (History)

      If Donald Trump has his way, yes, it will. It certainly appears to me that he is trying hard to goad Kim Jong Un into making the first move, likely in the hopes that doing so will absolve him and the US of any blame for the resulting horrors. China said some time ago that they will not come to North Korea’s defense if they start something, and will only honor the defense agreement between their two countries if North Korea is attacked first. I think that is a lot of the basis for what Trump is doing. He has a long history of trying to make any blame for the consequences of what he is involved in stick to others. It’s just more of the same, Donald Trump being Donald Trump, except this time it isn’t a real estate deal.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      The President needs to remove Trump’s fingers from Donald’s endless stream of thoughtlessness.

      Just war requires serious effort at diplomacy before starting any war of choice. This is not just a moral requirement, it is a practical requirement of rationality. War is quite expensive in lives and treasure; there is no good reason to rush into a war before exploring less costly diplomatic alternatives.

      We shall soon know on October 15 whether Trump has his heart set on war. On that day Mr. Trump will have the opportunity to burn two diplomatic bridges, past and future, with both Iran and North Korea.