The Long-Term Danger of Trump’s Madman Strategy

Though Donald Trump’s North Korea strategy has great potential with respect to North Korea itself, its long-term implications are terrifying.

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After watching numerous U.S. presidents’ failed attempts at ending the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) nuclear program through various diplomatic means, President Donald Trump has decided to take a different approach: to make it clear that there will be nuclear war―“fire and fury like the world has never seen”―should the DPRK continue the program. He has called Kim Jong Un, the DPRK’s Supreme Leader, “Little Rocket Man” and the nuclear program “a suicide mission.” Because of the apparent recklessness of Trump’s approach and his apparent willingness to go to nuclear war, some observers have called his approach the “Madman Strategy.”

Many observers, particularly liberals (including myself), believed for some time that this strategy was dangerous and likely doomed. By taunting Kim, we warned, Trump was playing with fire; he was going down a path of mutual escalation that would lead almost inevitably to nuclear war, an outcome that would be devastating for the North Korean people and horrifying for any U.S. ground troops, and that would send shockwaves through international politics.

It seems now that we may have been wrong: Kim and Moon Jae-in, President of the Republic of Korea (ROK), met on April 27 for a groundbreaking summit that resulted in a declaration announcing intentions of unification and total denuclearization of the peninsula. While some have argued that this summit had nothing to do with the Madman Strategy and that it is entirely the result of the ROK’s diplomatic efforts, this is extremely unlikely. Certainly, President Moon’s efforts played a significant role―the Madman Strategy was by no means the sole reason for the summit―but the U.S. is such a giant in the international stage, and has been as much in Korean politics since World War II, that the idea that Trump’s threats are an incidental element of the talks just doesn’t make sense. Sure, it could, in theory, be the case that the president’s threats of nuclear annihilation against Kim had nothing to do with Kim’s decision to make a stated effort toward reconciliation with the ROK, but it’s simply not plausible.

Kim and Moon also agreed to meet again in autumn, while Kim and Trump will meet sometime later this spring. Just how successful these meetings will be remains to be seen, but it has become quite clear that Trump’s Madman Strategy may very well work.

We should all hope that it doesn’t.

The benefits of the Madman Strategy resulting in success are clear and great: peace would be brought to what has for many decades been one of the most constantly at-risk places on Earth, the DPRK-ROK border; a brutal and isolationist regime might finally open up to the global economy and cultural sphere, and a state whose very existence is against the global liberal order would finally stop having nuclear weapons. In short, the Madman Strategy, if successful, would dramatically improve the state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula, transforming it from one of constant nuclear danger and instability to one of relative peace and stability. If the DPRK predicament existed in a vacuum, I would be rooting strongly for the Madman Strategy to succeed.

But nothing exists in a vacuum, and actions set precedents that can have implications far beyond their context. And a world in which the Madman Strategy succeeds is a world in which the Madman Strategy becomes a standard tool in international politics. Having seen Trump’s success, other leaders, including future presidents, would have the incentive to emulate him and apply his strategy again in the future, creating a world in which threats of nuclear war are thrown around, as they have been by Kim and Trump, in the hope that they will never be occasioned to follow through on them.

Such a world would be the international relations’ equivalent of a scene in a Quentin Tarantino movie, in which all the characters have guns pointed at each other, just hoping that no one will shoot. Such structured systems of international politics are unpredictable and extremely dangerous. At best, they lead to widespread domestic fear, which can lead to hysterical movements like McCarthyism; at worst, they lead to all-out war, like it happened in Europe in 1914. The difference, of course, is that World War I Europe didn’t have nuclear bombs; today’s world does. It is true that the fact that today’s weapons are nuclear makes them less likely to be used―that was the basic theory underlying Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) during the Cold War―but MAD also relied on a collective understanding that nuclear weapons are a last resort that no one has any desire to use. Trump’s strategy, in contrast, has been to make it clear that he is more than willing to use nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately, there has been little discussion of this in the news media. Most discussion of Trump’s strategy has centered around speculation as to whether it will succeed or whether it is the reason for the current round of talks, with those answering “yes” to those questions tending to support Trump and those answering “no” tending to oppose him. There has been little discussion about the consequences of the strategy should it be successful. As a result, the widespread picture that has emerged of a successful outcome to the strategy has been rosy―an avoidance of nuclear war and nothing more. Such short-sighted views of policy are dangerous, and they lead to irresponsibly-made policy.

Hopefully, Trump’s strategy will somehow prove to be both unsuccessful and not disastrous. Trump should carefully pull out of the peace talks, taking care to be extremely polite to Kim as he does so. He should work with Kim to make sure that the dissolution of the talks is accompanied by little fanfare―perhaps a short statement in which all parties involved express mutual respect and regret that this round of talks couldn’t work out. Talks could then be reapproached in a few years, either by Trump himself or by his successor, should Trump no longer be serving by then. The latter would be preferable, as any interaction that Trump has with the DPRK will probably be inextricably tied to his Madman Strategy, but time could erode that link. Alternatively, Trump could pull the U.S. out of the talks and hand them completely over to the ROK and the DPRK, waiting until the last minute to put the necessary U.S. stamp of approval on them. This would not be optimal, as it would minimize U.S. influence on the talks. However, because it lacks the potential for fierceness that dissolution has, it may be the best choice.

Ultimately, Trump must find a way to set whatever solution eventually comes about from the Madman Strategy. He must make sure that in bringing about peace in the Korean Peninsula, he is not creating a world of violent chaos. He must make sure that future leaders do not follow in his brash footsteps. He is set to meet with Kim in a month; he is running out of time.