Before he ever got to the negotiating table across from Kim Jong Un, Donald Trump had become the first presidential practitioner of Twitter diplomacy. In fact, it’s what brought Kim to the table.
No one would have thought such a thing advisable, but like quite a bit of what our 45th President does, it uncannily seems to work. It also may work only for this most unusual of public figures and not for his successors, of either party.
Trump was sneered at by an outraged, terrified Washington elite for his potent tweet at the beginning of last year: “North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.’ Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
Richard Painter, the George W. Bush White House ethics lawyer turned Democratic congressional candidate, declared: “This Tweet alone is grounds for removal from office under the 25th Amendment. This man should not have nukes.”
But now Trump has switched from the stick to the carrot, tweeting on Saturday: “Anything in this very interesting world is possible, but I believe that Kim Jong Un fully realizes the great economic potential of North Korea, & will do nothing to interfere or end it. He also knows that I am with him & does not want to break his promise to me. Deal will happen!”
Hollywood’s esteemed foreign policy mind Mia Farrow soon replied, “Kim is a murderer, the most brutal dictator in the world. Yet you save your insults for our allies and for Americans.”
Trump’s button warning didn’t mean he was crazy, any more than his statement the previous August that a North Korean attack would be met with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” meant the President was a warmonger. And now his assurance to Kim — “I am with him” — certainly does not make Trump an appeaser.
North Korea’s Latest Missile No Shock
It is highly unlikely that either the shrewd John Bolton, who became national security adviser a year ago during the preparation for Trump’s first meeting with Kim, or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who met with Kim before last June’s Singapore summit, thought North Korea’s posture would be magically transformed by Kim being in The Donald’s presence a couple of times. Pyongyang again and again had double-crossed the West after efforts to use diplomatic engagement, and outright financial bribes, to end the totalitarian regime’s nuclear weapons program.
It’s doubtful they, or Trump himself, were shocked by Kim last week firing a shorter-range ballistic missile. So the incendiary language, then the personal affection, and now keeping faith through a personal expression of confidence, are all according to plan, albeit no doubt a flexible plan.
As the Atlantic’s Mark Bowden wrote during Trump’s first year, “In the more than four decades since Richard Nixon held office, the U.S. has tried to control North Korea by issuing threats, conducting military exercises, ratcheting up diplomatic sanctions, leaning on China, and most recently, it seems likely, committing cybersabotage.” What Trump faced was a “harsh truth that has stymied all his recent predecessors: There are no good options for dealing with North Korea.”
This is unquestionably true, with even the best-case scenarios for the various comprehensive military options entailing massive American and South Korean losses, and an underlying unpredictability in Pyongyang’s response.
In a sense, however, there are no good options for Kim, either. Bowden points out that ICBMs that can reach the U.S. give Kim “no chance of destroying America, or winning a war, and therefore no better chance of avoiding the inevitable consequence of launching a nuke: national suicide. Kim may end up trapped in the circular logic of his strategy. He seeks to avoid destruction by building a weapon that, if used, assures his destruction.”
But possessing weapons of mass destruction he himself believes he will likely never use still endows power and instills fear in others. After all, a man with a gun on his person is feared, even by those convinced he has little or no intention of ever firing it.
Appealing To a Narcissist’s Narcissism
Between the rock and the hard place is what Trump is now pursuing. The Nixon Doctrine of delegating military responsibility to embattled allies like Vietnam ultimately failed. The Reagan Doctrine of refusing to allow even one inch more of territory to fall to Soviet expansionism spectacularly succeeded. Now comes what amounts to the Tweet Doctrine, with every computer screen a window into some of Trump’s most important negotiating tactics.
How do you get anywhere with the dictator of a totalitarian regime whose cult of personality likely exceeds that even of Hitler? By appealing to his narcissism and, in that vein, offering him something only the U.S. and the civilized world can: a great place in history.
As evil as Kim Jong Un is, having eliminated hundreds of rivals or opponents or subordinates who displeased him, including relatives, with unthinkable methods of execution like flamethrowers, the nerve agent VX, anti-aircraft guns, and perhaps even dogs, posterity might actually laud him if he chooses to reform his regime.
Kim could conceivably continue to rule North Korea for the rest of his life, have access to still more of the comforts of the wealthy, while being hailed by fellow heads of state around the world as someone who, without having to, chose to improve life for his people.
And is there anyone who knows what makes a narcissistic chief executive tick, or who is better suited to persuade him of how reform can feed his ego, than Donald Trump?
On the other hand, of course, Kim and his advisers are aware of what happened to Moammar Qaddafi after he agreed in 2003 to a deal with the U.S. to abandon Libya’s nuclear weapons program: the next U.S. President’s administration backed enemy rebels exploiting the “Arab Spring” and in 2011 he was shot and beaten to death during the resulting uprising.
“Negotiations are a euphemism for capitulation if the shadow of power is not cast across the bargaining table,” believes Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz. Trump has tweeted the shadow of power across the Pacific Ocean, followed by flashes of conciliation. Faced with no good options for how to deal with North Korea, the President has materialized his own new option — which cannot guarantee success, but at least offers hope.
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