Madman Diplomacy

Alan Zendell, March 4, 2019

Donald Trump, who never met a boast he couldn’t embrace, recently declared that it was his feigned irrationality that forced Kim Jong Un to negotiate. That was before the second summit between the two men in Hanoi, last week. When Trump talks about negotiation, he inhabits a surreal space that few people are in a position to utilize – namely, that when your opponent knows you have the ability to completely obliterate him, you can pretend to be crazy and make irrational threats, and that unpredictability will force concessions.

The idea isn’t new to Trump. Richard Nixon, who Trump reveres, reveled in creating uncertainty in his adversaries, domestic politicians and foreign leaders alike. But the idea goes back much further than Nixon. It traces its roots back to Nicolo Machiavelli in the sixteenth century.

Machiavelli famously distinguished between the values and beliefs of individuals and the actions of political leaders which are usually “indifferent to religious and moral guidelines.” He asserted that rulers who ignore normative establishment values and methods will be more successful than those who follow established procedures, but some modern historians believe that approach leads to ill-founded conclusions, and that “irrational and egocentric understanding of politics … will ultimately result in mutual destruction.”

Nixon believed that convincing Ho Chi Minh that he was frustrated and crazy enough to use nuclear weapons would end the Vietnam War. In 1971, he directed National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger to privately inform the North Vietnamese that the use of nuclear weapons was on the table. The Washington Post’s James Hohmann reports that Kissinger similarly advised Trump in advance of his meetings with foreign leaders like Kim and Chinese president Xi. It’s unclear whether Kissinger specifically advocated what Trump calls the “madman theory” of diplomacy, though there’s no doubt that Trump believes it works. But does it?

As Hohmann pointed out, after Nixon’s warning was delivered to Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnam War dragged on for another three-and-a-half years at the cost of 21,000 more American lives. There is no evidence that Nixon’s threats caused the North Vietnamese to negotiate, and the end of that war was a humiliating defeat for the United States. Then why does Trump persist in believing that irrational-sounding threats and rhetoric are effective diplomacy?

The first Trump-Kim summit was a huge propaganda win for Kim that cost him nothing. In light of the diplomatic failure of both summits, it’s worth asking how much Trump’s threats of total annihilation influenced Kim to meet with him. Both Kim and Trump had to realize that the escalation of the war of words could only go so far before it led to unacceptable risks. The missile scare that had Hawaiians running for cover in January of 2018 made it clear that something had to change. Does that make the ensuing bromance between Trump and Kim believable? Even in the unlikely event that the two leaders actually like each other, only the most naïve observer could imagine that that would soften Kim’s resolve to retain his nuclear missile capability.

Lest we forget, the process that led to North Korea seeming to want to rejoin the society of nations began with Kim’s initiative to send a delegation to the 2018 Olympics, a decision that had nothing to do with Trump, and one that he actually ridiculed. Further, most observers credit the renewed communications between North and South Korea to the peace initiatives put forth by South Korean president Moon in July of 2017, which seemed also to have little or nothing  to do with Trump-style diplomacy.

While it’s obvious that as the chief protector of South Vietnam, American military power was a significant factor leading to the two Trump-Kim summits, the more likely explanation of the effect of Trump’s threats to obliterate North Korea is what always happens when two bullies face off against each other. They have no choice but to either fight or make nice and scale back their rhetoric.

In the aftermath of two failed meetings, does anyone believe that Kim Jong Un is intimidated by Donald Trump? Did Trump’s “crazy” act accomplish anything? Did nominating himself for the Nobel Peace Prize win him any admirers?

The reality is that if Trump’s priority had been to make progress in getting North Korea to denuclearize, the second summit never would have happened until a deal had been brokered at the ministerial level. Trump’s belief that his personal magnetism could overcome what professional diplomats viewed as a summit that had to fail proved baseless.

Ironically, in going ahead with a meeting that could never have resulted in anything positive and then walking away, Trump is praised by his supporters for not giving away his only negotiating leverage to save face. Does that sound like a victory for “madman diplomacy?” Trump must not either, since he blamed his failure on Michael Cohen today.

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