Stay calm, Mr. President

President Donald Trump     |     Picture credit: Gage Skimore, Flickr

Israeli historian and author Yuval Noah Harari likens most terrorists as a powerless fly trying to destroy a china shop. “The fly is so weak that it cannot budge even a single teacup. So it finds a bull, gets inside its ear and starts buzzing. The bull goes wild with fear and anger, and destroys the china shop,” writes Harari. Terrorists use theatrical provocations in this manner to cause their enemies to overreact in ways that can pose a greater threat than the terrorists themselves. The analogy is a reminder of the damage that US President Trump might unwittingly inflict, by overreacting to Kim Jung-un’s bellicose talk.

The North Korean leader can soon destroy San Francisco, but would he do so? For over 70 years the US has deterred far stronger nuclear powers. “Why is the US so fearful of North Korea, when we have managed to deter the Soviets possessing thousands of nuclear weapons capable of destroying the US homeland many times over?” asks Brad Glosserman.

Brad Glosserman speaking at The Economist Group’s Japan Summit 2017 in Tokyo

Glosserman is senior advisor of Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies (Pacific Forum CSIS) and a visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University. He argues that Kim would only use nuclear weapons against the US or its allies as a desperate last act.

As did his father and grandfather before him, the North Korean dictator diverts what little wealth the nation produces to prop up the military regime, leaving civilians to live in poverty. Kim grabs public attention with taunts and bullying, extorting whatever gains he can from adversaries. Ideally, he would like the US gone from the Korean peninsula and to establish himself as the legitimate ruler over a unified Korea. Toward those ends, he walks the fine line between being public enemy number two and becoming public enemy number one—knowing full well that public enemy number one gets decapitated. “Kim is perfectly rational,” says Glosserman adding, “He’s played a bad hand brilliantly.”

Less can be said for the US president. Donald Trump also craves public attention, taunts, and bullies his adversaries to extract gains. He too tries to keep opponents off-guard and guessing. But Kim has no other cards to play, while the president unilaterally relinquishes shared values, ideas and other means of persuasion (that is, soft power) to express national interests.

Trump’s zero-sum confrontational leadership style, his scorn for multilateral relationships, and rejection of past agreements worries US allies. They ask themselves, “Would Trump trade Seoul or Tokyo for San Francisco, under the president’s nationalistic America First policy?” The mere fact policymakers are asking this question casts a darkening shadow over the future of US benign hegemony and regional stability.

The US desperately wants North Korea to denuclearize. All previous diplomatic efforts to achieve that objective have failed. Trust between the two countries is at an all-time low. Kim sees his nuclear weapons as the ultimate deterrent against decapitation and regime change. He will never give them up, knowing the fates of Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein. North Korea is on the verge of acquiring nuclear-tipped missiles with the capacity to strike the US homeland. An enraged president has promised to “totally destroy” North Korea.

Turning Kim’s expanded nuclear capacity into a redline issue is a strategic mistake, thinks Glosserman. To suggest the US must only act now that its homeland is at risk simply helps to confirm ally concerns over US alliance commitments. “If anything is going to decouple us, it is precisely this emphasis on our vulnerability over that of our allies,” he says.

Kim will not sit still. Emboldened, he will likely use the cover of his nuclear arsenal as a wedge to decouple alliance partners. He might start by sinking a South Korean ship. Later he might explode an underwater nuclear bomb, as a third or fourth measure in a series of escalating provocations. The US must react to each incident, choosing among competing interests of Seoul, Tokyo and that of their own.

Seoul suffers from the tyranny of proximity. Situated 35 miles from the demilitarized zone within shooting range of North Korea’s massive stockpile of conventional weaponry, millions of South Korean lives are at risk in any attack. Fearing a retaliatory or preemptive strike, Seoul will want Washington to be more yielding than Tokyo to Pyongyang’s provocations. Trump may be forced to choose between Seoul and Tokyo, if he considers their interests at all—the US president seems only concerned by his domestic supporter approval ratings.

Glosserman thinks Trump can be made to do Kim’s work for him. With the right theatrics, the president will have the opportunity to prove that he is the unstable one—not Kim.  “Let Trump talk in ways that make him the bad guy. Let Trump create the uncertainty in Seoul and Tokyo. Let Trump be Beijing’s unreasonable partner. Let Trump degrade the value of his nation’s commitments, power and position in the world,” says Glosserman, replying to my question about what Kim might do to destabilize the region.

Should Kim succeed, Asia-Pacific nations that previously were protected under the US nuclear umbrella would scramble to acquire their own nuclear arsenals. Trump can’t stop North Korea from acquiring the bomb—they already have it. By keeping calm, however, he acts to hinder nuclear proliferation.

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