President Trump’s extemporized comments on North Korea, and his refusal to temper those remarks with more diplomatic language, have spread fear throughout Asia. One recent headline in Guam was ‘14 minutes’ – the time the DPRK’s nuclear weapons would take to reach the island – and other alarmist headlines have appeared throughout the region. Within the United States, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s advice that Americans should “have no concerns about this particular rhetoric” and should “sleep well at night” has done little to reassure the public that cooler heads will prevail if tensions are ratcheted up any further. Fortunately, Trump’s “fire and fury” statement was quickly shown to be hollow, for Kim Jong-un immediately renewed his threats – the supposed red line – without any consequences.
Even if reports of North Korea’s nuclear capability have been exaggerated, its capacity to wreak destruction on its southern neighbour has not. If a first strike disabled Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons, it would still leave behind a sizeable portion of the 8,000 pieces of artillery trained on Seoul, a mere 40 miles away. These could be activated within minutes, causing mass civilian casualties and likely triggering a wider regional conflict. In other words, there is no practical military solution to the current standoff.
Setting aside Trump’s brinksmanship, however, there is the larger question of his attitude to the wider world, particularly his vulnerability to what the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called America’s “dreams of managing history.” This tendency was dangerously prevalent in the administration of President George W Bush, with disastrous results. Trump’s rhetoric suggests a comparably cartoonish outlook and the prospect of the US committing even greater strategic errors.
In The Irony of American History – a book President Obama knew well – Niebuhr observes that unlike tragedy, which “elicits tears of admiration and pity for the hero who is willing to brave death or incur guilt for the sake of some great good” irony “involves comic absurdities which cease to be altogether absurd when fully understood.” In 1952 Niebuhr sensed that America was doomed to behave within a certain geopolitical irony “because so many dreams of our nation have been so cruelly refuted by history.”
With an illuminating comparison to Don Quixote (who can’t detect the conflict between mediaeval knights’ “pride in their military prowess” coupled with their “pretences of coming to the aid of the helpless”) Niebuhr warned against impulsive foreign policies that operated with similarly mixed motives. Arguing for deep restraint in moments of crisis, he noted that “Nothing in history is inevitable, including the probable. So long as war has not broken out, we still have the possibility of avoiding it. Those who think that there is little difference between a cold and a hot war are either knaves or fools” and their cynical, unreflecting belligerence had to be resisted with “every moral resource.”
The depth of Trump’s commitment to some of his more outlandish ideas and statements may be gauged from an episode recounted in Devil’s Bargain, Joshua Green’s compelling account of Trump’s campaign. According to Green, at a pivotal moment in Trump’s political career, when he was still unsure whether he wanted to run for governor of New York or the US presidency, “his advisers brainstormed methods for keeping their attention-addled boss on message.” Their answer was the idea of The Wall. Sam Nunberg and Roger Stone pressed the idea on Trump but he was indifferent to it. Then he tried it out at the Iowa Freedom Summit in January 2015, making a pledge to “build a Wall.” When the audience erupted with applause, Trump couldn’t resist an ad-lib: “Nobody,” he said, “builds like Trump.”
The activist Naomi Klein notes that “any distinction between the Trump brand and the Trump presidency is a concept the current occupant of the White House cannot begin to comprehend.” Viewed through this lens, his “fire and fury” remarks become partially comprehensible, a militaristic reprise of the Wall remark at the Iowa Freedom Summit: Nobody threatens like Trump. This darkly comic trait becomes dangerously sinister however when it belongs to a US president instead of a candidate, and when it is directed towards an unpredictable tyrant with a long history of paranoia towards foreign intervention.
In one of his Niebuhr’s most lucid passages, he warns that if America is to perish, the primary cause of its demise will not be the power of its enemies but the fact that “the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory.” It is an insight that the current US administration would do well to ponder.