Madman Theory Pays Off

This year, the Bulletin of Academic Scientists moved the Doomsday Clock to two minutes before midnight. The clock is a metaphor for how close humanity is to apocalypse, with midnight being the destruction of civilisation. The time that the BAS set for 2018 is the closest, metaphorically speaking, since 1953 when hydrogen bombs were tested by the US and the Soviet Union.

Why did the BAS choose to move the clock by 30 seconds? They explained: 

In 2017, world leaders failed to respond effectively to the looming threats of nuclear war and climate change, making the world security situation more dangerous than it was a year ago—and as dangerous as it has been since World War II.

The greatest risks last year arose in the nuclear realm. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program made remarkable progress in 2017, increasing risks to North Korea itself, other countries in the region, and the United States. Hyperbolic rhetoric and provocative actions by both sides have increased the possibility of nuclear war by accident or miscalculation.

This is understandable. President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un spent 2017 hurtling insults at each other, with North Korea’s supreme leader calling the US president a “dotard”, while Trump, utilising the UN General Assembly as a bully’s playground, named Kim “little rocket man” and said he was “short and fat” on Twitter. The White House spoke quite openly about giving North Korea “a bloody nose”, and fiery statements were unceasingly returned from North Korea.

Needless to say, prospects for world peace were not good in 2017. But now, just nearly five months into 2018, that situation has been turned on its head. Kim Jong-un started by inviting Trump for a meeting, and then rode his bullet train to meet with Xi Jinping, his first international visit since becoming North Korea’s leader. Then, yesterday, he strolled across the DMZ and shook hands with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea. The two signed the Panmunjom Declaration, where they pledged to formally end the Korean War and work towards the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

It was a historical moment. For the first time since the Korean War, the leader of North Korea travelled south of his own borders. The prospects of nuclear war rose, so high just a few months earlier, is down considerably. If the doomsday clock were to be reset today, it would almost certainly not still be so close to midnight.

The world should thank Moon Jae-in for his tireless efforts in fostering better relations with North Korea.  Even while everyone else was skeptical about engagement with the Kim regime, Moon continued to insist that dialogue was the answer. His departure from the hardline stance taken by the now impeached Park Guen-hye marks the return of the ‘Sunshine Policy’ favoured by his liberal predecessors; while they did not bear fruit in the long run, engagement is surely better for world peace than a continual war of words.

We should also give credit where credit is due: Trump was a major factor in helping bring together this breakthrough. This is not a defence of Donald Trump. He remains just as inept and politically incapable as ever; just look as the previous week alone, where his EPA chief remains in a scandal, his train wreck Fox and Friends interview put his own lawyer in legal jeopardy and his nominee for VA secretary had to pull out after revelations of highly questionable behaviour. But on North Korea, at least, we can recognise that he has made a positive contribution.

Trump seems to be pulling, intentionally or not, from the Nixon playbook. (I don’t mean the fact that Trump seems to be copying Nixon’s legal defence– that’s another post). Thinkers since Sun Tzu and Machiavelli have argued that creating an illusion of chaos and madness are useful strategies, and Nixon was certainly a subscriber to this “madman theory”, where he believed that if he acted irrationally publicly, America’s adversaries would be forced to come to terms as they did not want to have to risk the unpredictable response of the US president.

Nixon’s madman approach flopped- he could not force the North Vietnamese to negotiate an end of the Vietnam War. But it can be argued that Trump’s approach has been different from Nixon.

Firstly, Trump has been able to credibly threaten war on North Korea. By warning repeatedly that North Korea’s attacks would be met with “fire and fury” and threatening to totally destroy North Korea, it looked like Trump, as president, might be just about crazy enough to actually start a nuclear war. It’s debatable, of course, whether Trump is simply putting up an illusion of being a madman or whether he is actually one (madman theory isn’t supposed to involve the president actually being crazy).

But the Trump administration also made it quite clear that military action was not off the table. Reportedly, Trump officials demanded the Pentagon produce options for a military strike on North Korea, and leaks that the Trump team were debating about whether to give the Kim regime a bloody nose must have been discomforting. “Nobody knows when and how the ‘war maniac’ Trump will ignite the ‘wick of war”, unnamed Pyongyang officials said. This shows that Trump created a real condition of uncertainty.

It could be argued that Trump’s threats did nothing to bring North Korea to the negotiating table. Some say that North Korea is now a nuclear power and is approaching these summits from a position of strength; their nuclear deterrence means that the US is fundamentally unable to act. This, however, reveals where Trump’s “madman persona” may have worked; if the US president does not understand the maxim of mutually assured destruction (or at least, an extremely high cost to the US), then it is indeed possible that North Korea’s deterrent may not work. A nuclear deterrent only functions when both sides are rational; Trump’s erratic tweeting has ensured that North Korea cannot know for sure whether the other party is.

Kim Jong-un himself has always been playing the “madman” card all along: acting unpredictably, threatening war, being an international nuisance. Now that he’s met his match, he may feel forced to negotiate.

Trump was also able to create and maintain high economic pressure on North Korea. Trump’s first year in office produced half of the 450 current sanctions on North Korea and the administration publicly called out the North’s attempts to evade sanctions. China has also been tightening the noose on North Korea by rejecting coal shipments and reducing trade. To what extent this was due to US pressure cannot be known for sure, but cooperation with China on North Korea has always been a Trump priority. South Korean officials have become adept at flattering Trump, but it is not too far off the mark to credit his maximum pressure policy for helping create the conditions for talks.

Finally, Trump’s indications that he was willing to talk to North Korea were helpful. Some experts believe that simply by giving a chance for Kim Jong-un to sit down the an American president, a privilege that has never been afforded to a previous North Korean leader, Kim has already been handed a win. But there was no way dialogue could have happened if Trump wasn’t ready to indicate his willingness to do so, which would have kept the North Korean crisis bubbling even longer. As theatrical as these summits may turn out to be, points should be given for effort.

Of course, it is unclear where this is head. Previous summits have always failed , and it is deeply unlikely that Kim Jong-un will follow through on his pledge to denuclearise (after all, why now, after he has actually succeeded at acquiring nuclear weapons?) But I believe that no matter what transpires as a result of these talks, peaceful dialogue is always better than threatening nuclear war. And if Trump does anything that brings the doomsday clock further from midnight, we should credit him for doing so.

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Categories Asian Politics

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