Michael KreponA Nobel Prize for Brinkmanship?

Photo via Reuters

Quote of the week:

“If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.” — Moshe Dayan

A bandwagon is underway urging the selection committee for the Nobel Peace Prize to make Donald Trump its newest Laureate. Some of the President’s harshest critics have joined Trump supporters on this bandwagon, with barely concealed ulterior motives. Hey, if Barack Obama can “earn” Nobel Laureate status by being a paragon of hope, reinforced by one paragraph of a speech at Prague embracing the goal of abolishing nuclear weapons, why not Trump, as well, for scaring the bejeezus out of Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in to go the extra mile to avoid a catastrophic war.

Sometimes even a bull in a china shop deserves kudos, and Trump gets mine in this instance. His bluster and instincts have helped set in motion a chain reaction of events making unlikely the prospects of a preventive U.S. war and pre-emptive strikes against North Korea — at least for now. Just a few months ago, this was a serious topic of right wing commentary. Now the war drums have been silenced. This will remain the case for as long as the leaders of North and South Korea maintain their pas de deux, regardless of Trump’s weather-vaning instincts.

If the Nobel selection committee sees fit to reinforce Korean efforts to reduce tensions while pursuing noble end states, it won’t be for the first time. In 1994, Nobels were awarded to Yasser Arafat as well as Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin. In 1978, Anwar al-Sadat and Menachem Begin were tapped. In 1973 Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were honored. These picks suggest that the Nobel selection committee, which focuses on effort rather than results, might indeed seek to reinforce the pairing of Kim and Moon – assuming they stay paired.

Notably missing in previous pairings are occupants of the White House who helped midwife negotiations between adversaries. Jimmy Carter didn’t receive his well-earned Nobel until 2002 “for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Barack Obama’s premature award in 2009 “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples” will be earned in decades to come.

Missing from this list of Nobel Laureates is the tandem of Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev, who oversaw negotiations that concluded in 1972 with the SALT I Interim Agreement and the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty. These were historic (and yes, with respect to the Interim Agreement, deeply flawed) accomplishments that established a framework for three decades of nuclear arms control and reductions. Only one of the tandem that subsequently broke the back of the nuclear arms competition – Mikhail Gorbachev – was awarded a Nobel in 1990 “for his leading role in the peace process which today characterizes important parts of the international community.” Ronald Reagan, whose belief in abolition was stronger than any of his predecessors and successors, was snubbed.

Donald Trump will be, too. His hoped-for Nobel might just as well be awarded to the International Olympic Committee, which fortuitously awarded the 2018 Winter Games to the Republic of Korea. While a reluctant Pentagon was updating targeting lists in North Korea, Moon was boldly contemplating a unified Korean team of Olympic athletes.

The ice has thawed quickly. Next steps will be as uncertain and perhaps as unfulfilled as was the case for negotiations to end the Vietnam War and the Arab-Israeli negotiations. Even so, most of us will be content with a cold peace while striving for a peace treaty and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. As previous Nobel Laureates would acknowledge, success can be illusive or stop-and-go, but the dividends of diplomacy in this case are already apparent. As long as Kim and Moon keep talking and take modest steps toward reconciliation, they have made pre-emptive U.S. strikes much harder to contemplate and authorize.


  1. Phil Tanny (History)

    I dunno, it seems way too early to declare a Trump victory in regards to Korea. The North Korean regime has been dedicated to reunification under it’s rule since the creation of the regime, and I tend to doubt Kim Jong-un intends to be the member of the ruling family who threw in the towel.

    It seems more likely that this peace offensive is intended to play for time while further nuke research takes place, and as a device to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington. My best guess is that Kim is running a good cop/bad cop routine. First he scares the South with rattling the sabers, then he rushes in to be the hero who saves the day. When negotiations go south Trump will be painted as the villain who ruined everything.

    Trump’s plan is to demand the North give up it’s nukes in exchange for basically nothing. Would we give up our nukes in exchange for a promise from Russia that they won’t attack?

    We’ve been down this road before and probably will again. Let’s not hyperventilate.

  2. Phil Tanny (History)

    My guess is that Trump’s threats to attack North Korea is just empty talk and everybody who matters knows it.

    What would be in it for Trump? South Korea would go up in flames, creating the biggest negative media story in our lifetimes. It would make Bush and Iraq look like a holiday. Every single person who ever even considered voting Democrat, and lots of Republicans too, would show up at the polls at toss Trump out of office.

    And remember, an attack on North Korea would put American cities at risk? Is Trump really willing to be the guy who lost San Francisco? Is Trump the ego maniac willing to go down in history as that guy?

    One more thing, an attack on North Korea risks war with China, who can pull the rug out from under our economy at will. Let us not forget how the first Korean war ended.

    And why attack? What is the threat? Unless we push the North Korean’s in to a corner that threatens their regime, there would seem to be no chance they would launch a first strike on the U.S. So what will happen in the end is the same thing that always happens, we’ll accept the North as a nuclear power and rely on MAD to deter them.

    So let’s think of this as the North Korean’s might. They see Trump get elected, and set this trap for him. They get everybody excited about peace, and then hope the world blames Trump when it falls apart. Is Trump the hero who broke the logjam? Or is he an inexperienced sucker who is being led by the nose by the North Koreans?

  3. Scott Monje (History)

    I hate to think how Trump would react if the Nobel selection committee picked just Moon and Kim.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      another outrage, Scott.

  4. jose A Amoros (History)

    Didn’t Teddy Roosevelt get it for “midwifing” between Russia and Japan?

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      thanks for the reminder.

  5. J_kies (History)

    Perhaps just Kim? He is the genius that parades paper mache missiles, tests a couple missiles (that could easily be the product of foreign expertise) and detonates ‘gadgets’ underground as a means of leveraging an astoundingly weak position to get the US to agree to ending a frozen conflict and possibly backing forces out of a tripwire position? Its genius at a level that makes any James Bond villain look weak and poorly focused and deserves a reward.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      Agreed. Also, even after reading Michael’s essay I am left clueless as to what Trump is supposed to have done in all this, apart from just being Trump. Yeah, everybody thinks he’s dangerously wack, and they think that about Kim, too, but the Koreans have been doing the heavy lifting and Trump has, what, tweeted?

  6. Bradley Laing (History)

    Pakistan’s sea-based nuclear deterrent and its asymmetric escalation strategy
    This brief situates Pakistan’s pursuit of a sea-based nuclear deterrent within the context of its asymmetric escalation strategy. It does so by examining the role of Pakistan’s land-based tactical nuclear weapons in such strategy, as well as by raising questions about claims that India may be shifting towards a counterforce targeting strategy and thus endangering the survivability of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent. The brief also reviews claims that Pakistan’s pursuit of a nuclear triad contributes towards enhancing crisis stability.



    —I did not expect you to put this on the comments thread, but I hope you wanted to read the article.

  7. Morten Dam (History)

    The peace prize has always been the odd one (awarded in Oslo after all), but it takes a serious miscalculation to even speculate that a bunch of Northern Europeans will ever prize Trump anything.
    It’s a thought provocative fantasy, but it takes a red blooded american to even suggest it.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      kindly read my essay more closely.