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Is there a method to Trump's madness over nuclear North Korea?

Who knew avoiding war was so hard? US President Donald Trump. Photo/Getty Images

With many asking whether either protagonist in the US-North Korea nuclear stand-off is in his right mind, the world is on the brink. 

Less than seven months into Donald Trump’s presidency, the unthinkable has become lead item on the news.

It seemed obvious from the outset that Trump’s flaws – notably the self-sustaining combination of ignorance and arrogance and his unstable personality, simultaneously narcissistic and insecure – made him unsuited to crisis management, especially of an international confrontation. When his adversary is a similar personality type and the bone of contention is nuclear weapons, the world is jarred out of the complacent daydream into which the threat of nuclear war has receded almost to the point of becoming a mythical bogeyman evoked by curmudgeons trying to convince the younger generation they don’t know how lucky they are.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

The awful prospect has been raised from time to time but always by propaganda organs of paranoid, authoritarian regimes, including North Korea’s. Trump’s declaration that North Korea’s threats “will be met with fire and fury and, frankly, power the likes of which this world has never seen before” is a profoundly disturbing development: this world has never before heard the leader of an advanced, supposedly civilised democracy threaten a lesser nation with nuclear incineration before a shot has been fired.

In August 1945, President Harry S Truman threatened Japan with “a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this Earth”, but that was after three-and-a-half years of all-out war and 16 hours after the US had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. That Trump echoed a threat forever associated with the first and only use of nuclear weapons, which by conservative estimates killed 210,000 people, mostly civilians, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, reinforces his meaning and reprehensibility.

North Korea’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un. Photo/Getty Images

With control goes responsibility

The world had to live with the threat of nuclear apocalypse throughout the Cold War, but there was always the sense that, however cynical, brutal and sometimes evil those with access to the red button were, they understood the responsibilities to the human race that went with control of doomsday weapons.

Now we don’t have the comfort of assuming that cautious, dispassionate, rational people are in charge. “[North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un is already paranoid,” says Jon Wolfsthal, formerly Barack Obama’s special assistant on arms control and non-proliferation. “If he’s going to take the President at face value, then the risks of pre-emption and miscalculation are extraordinarily high.”

Asked in 2005 if she thought Kim’s father and predecessor, Kim Jong-il, was insane, the then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice replied, “How would I know? I’ve never met the man.” What happened to the principle of “by their works ye shall know them”? Now US health professionals are agonising over the legitimacy of assessing Trump’s mental state from a distance.

Bill Curry, who was White House counsellor in the Clinton Administration, met Trump almost a quarter of a century ago; he came away thinking he’d interrupted an epic cocaine binge. Given the water under the bridge, he now thinks the behaviour he witnessed was evidence of mental impairment: “You don’t need to be a botanist to tell a rose from a dandelion. Do we dare not state the obvious? You needn’t be an amateur diagnostician to see that Donald Trump is mentally ill.”

Is it possible there’s method in the madness? Trump apologists have hinted that he’s employing the “madman” gambit supposedly used by President Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War – seeking to spook your adversaries into compliance by giving the impression you’re sufficiently unhinged to go nuclear. The fact that North Vietnam got what it wanted out of the war – South Vietnam – doesn’t say much for the gambit’s efficacy.

The consensus among experts on the Korean Peninsula is that the answer to the question “what does North Korea want?” is “the preservation of the Kim dynasty”. From the word go, according to this interpretation, its nuclear programme and associated bluster and sabre-rattling were intended to dissuade South Korea and the US from pursuing regime change and Korean reunification. By that logic, the last thing Kim will do is start a war since that would bring about the very outcome he’s striving to avoid.

There are two problems with this strategy. The first is that the more threatening North Korea’s nuclear capability becomes, the more likely its neighbours and the US are to conclude that it must be defused once and for all. The second is that no matter how many times regime change backfires, there will always be a faction in Washington that sees it as the best, if not only, solution. At last month’s Aspen Security Conference, CIA director Mike Pompeo spoke of the Administration’s desire to “separate” North Korea’s nuclear capacity from “the character who holds control”. The language was fuzzy, but the attendant media were left in no doubt he was talking about regime change.

Trump echoed President Harry Truman’s threat to Japan after the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Photo/Getty Images

Negotiation Trumps war

The “intolerable threat” argument was deployed when the US and several other nations were negotiating with Iran over its nuclear programme. Egged on by Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, the Republicans did their best to sabotage the eventual deal, and they continue to denounce it, although the rest of the world would welcome such a resolution now.

It’s difficult to understand why anyone should think war is preferable to negotiation. Diplomacy is hard, often a case of one step forward and one step back, and may produce a less than totally satisfactory outcome, if not fail altogether, but who in their right mind would argue the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were easy, clean operations and unqualified successes?

The world is a complicated, unruly place whose disputes and crises are rarely susceptible to quick fixes. Trump, though, is lazy and, like a saloon-bar blowhard banging on about what he’d do if he ran the country, too consumed with delusional self-importance to acknowledge that better and brighter men than he have struggled with the complexities and challenges of the President’s role. Remember “nobody knew healthcare could be so complicated”? The nobody in question was Trump.

But he’s the President and now he has to manage this crisis and those to come, for come they will. Even if it strengthens his hold on power and gives him something else to boast about, we must hope that he presides, however nominally, over a peaceful resolution. The alternative would be catastrophic.

This article was first published in the August 26, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.