Every parent with small children knows the risk of making hollow threats. You can try to intimidate kids with the threat of all sorts of dire consequences if they don't do what you tell them, but if you don't follow through with that threat then the threat becomes just so many empty words. Apparently, President Trump never spent much time actually RAISING his kids, leaving such a "menial" task to nurses, nannies, and, of course, his wife, at the time. Had he been more of a hands-on dad, he'd have understood that if you try to intimidate your kids with strong language, you have to back up the language with strong actions. Which, in an odd sort of way, brings us to international diplomacy and Kim Jung Un.
Saber-rattling and veiled threats have been a part of international diplomacy since before there WAS such a thing as diplomacy. From time immemorial strong countries have tried to bully small ones. They would threaten imminent mass destruction unless there was an immediate, peaceful surrender. The thing is, when countries like Assyria, Babylon, Macedonian Greece, Rome, or Genghis Khan's Mongolia threatened destruction, they meant it in no uncertain terms. The pages of history are replete with the stories of whole cities of hundreds of thousands of people that were literally wiped off the face of the earth by one super-power or another. Did such tactics work? Sure they did! Who wanted to be the NEXT city to be slaughtered?
But there are two lessons that must be learned from such ruthless diplomacy. The first is that yes, of course, threats that carry with them the promise of ultimate destruction work. The second is that the country making the threat has to be willing to back up the threat with effective action, otherwise you run the risk of appearing to the world like a paper tiger. And that's where President Trump's saber rattling comes into play.
See, I don't have a problem with the President's promising swift and decisive action if North Korea goes beyond the bounds of decent human behavior. I'm not from the school of pacifist diplomacy that audibly gasps every time the use of force is threatened in international affairs. But I can't help remembering the words of Theodore Roosevelt in discussing the use of force, "Speak softly but carry a big stick!". Nobody in the world doubts that the United States carries the biggest stick around. But old Teddy understood that you didn't get anywhere if all you did was TALK about your big stick. I think President Roosevelt would have felt comfortable with President Trump's "fire and fury" tweet, but only if he were ready to use that big stick if necessary. The problem with President Trump's diatribe is that there is serious doubt that he will unsheathe our terrible swift sword.
The use of diplomacy underscores one basic, fundamental assumption, that in the end you're dealing with someone who is rational. Who would be willing to bet that Kim Jung Un is playing with a full deck? The question before the house is this, what will President Trump do if Kim tells us to "bring it on"? Will he actually push the button? Will he cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war? And how will China react if President Trump goes beyond mere threats and actually DOES something, like using a drone to take out Kim, for example? Is the President willing to take us to the precipice of World War III? I don't know. But isn't the mere possibility of an international conflagration enough to make such saber rattling language ineffectual? And if North Korea knows that when push comes to shove the United States will back off even the harshest language, then what good are American threats of dire consequences?
Perhaps making a big splash to show the world that he is "one bad hombre" is enough to satisfy Donald Trump's need for self-esteem. But to engage in an international game of chicken with a world leader who is a basket of sandwiches shy of a full picnic is not my idea of the kind of restrained, calculating leadership this country needs in a crisis. And the risk of turning our military advantage into something more resembling a paper tiger only serves to underscore Donald Trump's "origami diplomacy".
Filed under: Politics