Elephants in the Room

‘Much Bigger’ Buttons Have Nothing to Do With Deterrence

Trump doesn’t understand how armed diplomacy works.

A group of men stand before an ice sculpture of a Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile at an ice sculpture festival in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Dec. 31, 2017. (Kim Won-Jin/AFP/Getty Images)
A group of men stand before an ice sculpture of a Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile at an ice sculpture festival in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Dec. 31, 2017. (Kim Won-Jin/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump taunted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, tweeting, “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” The president’s comment could be interpreted, charitably, as deterrence in action: facing down a nuclear-armed dictator with tough rhetoric. If so, Trump is drawing on a long tradition against appeasement and in favor of coercive or armed diplomacy. Trump isn’t wrong to believe that saber rattling is a sound, underutilized tool of statecraft. But he risks giving it a bad name with his schoolyard insults, and he is likely to end up achieving the opposite of what he intends.

Trump’s comment follows a year of insults and threats between the leaders. Trump nicknamed Kim “Little Rocket Man” and last April threatened him with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” In August, he warned, “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely,” and said, “Talking is not the answer.” The following month, he told the U.N. that the United States was prepared to “totally destroy North Korea.” He tweeted that if the regime continued its present course, it “won’t be around much longer,” and said Kim was “obviously a madman.” In November, he wrote, “Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?’”

Despite the belief by some critics that Trump’s tweets are impulsive, it seems clear that at least those directed towards North Korea are part of a premeditated rhetorical strategy. Five years ago, Trump worried that President Barack Obama was too soft on North Korea. “Our President must be very careful with the 28 year old wack job in North Korea,” he wrote, counseling, “At some point we may have to get very tough-blatant threats.”

Trump’s comments about North Korea over the past year suggest he believes that the time for blatant threats has come and that such threats are the appropriate diplomatic strategy toward a “wack job.” And Trump believes his rhetorical strategy is working. This week, following widespread criticism of his bigger button tweet, Trump claimed his tough words had already helped push North Korea towards talks: “With all of the failed ‘experts’ weighing in, does anybody really believe that talks and dialogue would be going on between North and South Korea right now if I wasn’t firm, strong and willing to commit our total ‘might’ against the North.”

It may be reassuring that Trump’s threats and insults are less impulsive than they might seem — that they are a part of a strategy he first floated long before his presidency began. But his rhetorical approach is still highly risky, regardless of how premeditated it is. Its success depends on the validity of its assumptions, not on when he thought it up. Do dictators cave in the face of tough talk? Trump is gambling the possibility of nuclear war on the answer.

The classic case in favor of coercive diplomacy starts with selective lessons of history: British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement in the run up to World War II failed, while U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s toughness during the Cuban missile crisis succeeded. Some scholars (including me) have built on this and made the argument that liberal internationalism is naive and underappreciates the role of hard power in world affairs. Realism, nationalism, and conservative internationalism all share a healthier appreciation for the enduring relevance of hard power. Diplomacy is good. Diplomacy with a mailed fist is better. The idea is less a novel insight than a conventional aphorism: Chinese founding father Mao Zedong said, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” and U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt offered, “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.”

The theory of armed diplomacy is, more or less, correct (and its absence explains much of what Trump’s predecessor in office got wrong). What Trump gets wrong is not the theory, but how he implements it. For one, he is not speaking softly. He is speaking loudly, crudely, and insultingly. The reason you speak softly is so that you don’t provoke an emotional response from a rival you have backed into a corner and whom you are trying to force into a humiliating climb-down. The more emotional and personal Trump’s rhetoric is, the harder it will be for Kim to find a face-saving exit. (An unfortunate side effect of Trump’s schoolyard insults is that they may undermine the idea of armed diplomacy by taint of association.) At some point, Kim, like Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, might conclude that the only way to save face is to fight. At least Kim can tell himself that fighting has more honor than buckling to the insults of a “mentally deranged dotard.”

That speaks to the other, bigger danger in Trump’s approach to crisis diplomacy. Despite his premeditation, it isn’t at all clear that Trump has thought through the scenarios of how Kim might respond. Trump has latched onto one insight — that you should talk tough to dictators — and is repeating it ad nauseam without apparent thought for whether it actually applies in the case of North Korea. Repetition works in advertising and reality TV. We can all repeat Trump’s famous catchphrase from the Apprentice because it was simple and he said it every week. In international diplomacy, such simplistic inflexibility is irresponsible.

In particular, it is not true that tough talk causes dictators to back down every time. Tough talk sometimes provokes retaliation and escalation. If Trump threatens Kim, and Kim threatens Trump, each might feel compelled to outdo the other in a dangerous spiral that neither can break out of. International affairs scholar Robert Jervis compared the relative merits of deterrence against the “spiral model” over 40 years ago. I am confident Trump has not absorbed these insights.

In the classic case of spiraling conflict, Jervis wrote, “The drive for security … produce[s] aggressive actions if the state either requires a very high sense of security or feels menaced by the very presence of other strong states.” North Korean leaders certainly feel menaced by the United States — Trump’s whole purpose in threatening North Korea is to make it feel menaced. But, “When threats lead the recipient to believe that the sender is highly aggressive, the classic spiral of arms and hostility is apt to be set in motion.” If the North Koreans believe the United States is bent on regime change, or even just a change in the ruling dynasty, Kim will have no incentive to cooperate. Thus, “Hostility, far from containing the enemy, creates him.”

Trump’s rhetoric is not what made an enemy out of North Korea, of course. The country has been in a technical state of war against U.N. forces since 1950. Past U.S. presidents made fairly clear threats of military force against North Korea. But their rhetoric was measured and (almost) never spiced with personal insults. They present a much clearer case of speaking softly while wielding big sticks, leaving room for the North Korean regime to negotiate. Their strategies failed to prevent North Korea from building nuclear weapons, but they did keep the peace. In the present climate, Trump’s much louder, brasher, and more personal rhetoric might fail to do even that.

Paul D. Miller is the associate director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He previously served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the National Security Council staff for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. @pauldmiller2

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