Remote Diagnoses

The opposition between rationality and irrationality has long undergirded the foreign policy doctrine the United States has relied on for dealing with the DPRK. Now it has been applied to our own President.

The national security establishment versus the “madmen”

George W. Bush at the US Yongsan army base in South Korea, August 2008

On Tuesday, yet another Trumpian foreign policy crisis produced widespread panic on Twitter. Speaking at his New Jersey golf club, the President menaced North Korea with “fire and fury” if it continued to make threats against the United States; the DPRK leadership responded by announcing that it was “seriously considering” a strike against the island of Guam. Little of substance appeared to distinguish this from a long history of blustery reaffirmations of the peninsular status quo, but for a few hours everyone seemed convinced that nuclear war was imminent—a fantasy cherished despite, or perhaps because of, the way it shuts down coherent thinking about America’s role in the world. For some liberals, the golf-club outburst was further proof that Trump should be removed in favor of a more stable, realistic Republican alternative.

Trump, in this view, is a loose cannon, the cop who blows the suspect’s head off instead of pulling out his fingernails one by one. The stream-of-consciousness construction of his sentences, the infantile way in which he reacts to challenges to his authority, the offhand way in which he makes decisions that affect millions of lives—all these obvious features have cemented the impression that Trump is fundamentally irrational and therefore heedless of the reason of state. It seems natural, then, to conclude that he is uniquely dangerous: his finger on the nuclear button threatens Koreans and Americans alike far more urgently than the finger of his vice president.

But as ominous or unprecedented as it might seem, Trump’s outburst is far less dangerous than the way we understand it. The opposition between rationality and irrationality has long undergirded the foreign policy doctrine the United States has relied on for dealing with the DPRK. Now it has been applied to our own President. What I have in mind here is not an elaborate Foucauldian construct, although its popularity certainly has something to do with the way post-Enlightenment Western society has conceived of the relationship between sanity and insanity. This opposition is far blunter, more soundbite-friendly—and thus more seductive. And its greatest partisans are the members of the national security establishment that stand to gain the most from the removal of this troubled President.

It is this establishment, and the media that often serves it, that has convinced us to see Korean politics through the lens of madness—as if the method most useful for understanding global politics at the highest level were individual psychology via remote diagnosis. “Madman” is an epithet that mysteriously attaches itself to any North Korean leader, although it reached its height with Kim Jong-un’s father Kim Jong-il, who was labeled in the American press as a “radioactive lunatic” and “Dr. Evil.” In his case, this may have been a conscious strategy, designed to increase his bargaining power. The journalist Fred Kaplan noted the view of Clinton-era negotiators that he was “a serious, rational guy” (although Kaplan still couldn’t resist describing him as “clearly one of the world’s battier leaders”).1 Whatever Kim Jong-il’s real personality, commentators and world leaders have not found it difficult to transplant this madman model wholesale onto his successor, whose behavior, at least per verifiable reports, does not seem to be particularly erratic. In short, the only novel feature of Tuesday’s crisis is that both the American and the North Korean leader are now presented as unstable madmen, opponents of the rational status quo.

English-speaking analysts are prone to understanding the behavior of the DPRK through the lens of Richard Nixon’s “madman theory,” a strategy the President adopted in 1969 as he sought an advantageous end to the Vietnam War. Following the theories of the Cold War economist Thomas Schelling, Nixon adopted an approach called Giant Lance, aiming to convince the Soviet Union that an American nuclear strike on Moscow or Hanoi was imminent. By demonstrating that his behavior was not subject to ordinary rational calculation, Nixon hoped to achieve a superior bargaining position: “I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe that I’ve reached the point that I might do anything to stop the war,” he told H. R. Haldeman. But the Soviets were not fooled: it was not easy to convince them that a world leader would truly be willing to act beyond material motivations and constraints.2

Instead it is American foreign policy doctrine that continues to divide the world into rational actors, typically NATO countries, and irrational ones, typically not long for this world: Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, the Kims. In this worldview it is not a set of threats or behaviors that makes a leader a madman—it is the determination to maintain independence from American empire, often through the pursuit of nuclear weapons. In such a framework it is always the advocates of continual pressure, threats, and sanctions that appear the most rational, for they are the ones that maintain vigilance against uncontrollable madmen.

Ironically the fate of Hussein and Gaddafi at the hands of that very same national security establishment has demonstrated to Kim Jong-un the complete rationality of pursuing nuclear weapons at any cost. Today David Frum, prime cheerleader of the war in Iraq, holds up his old boss George W. Bush as a rational contrast to Trump; yet the 2003 invasion destroyed a state that had already been successfully forced to give up its nuclear program by means of brutal sanctions and bombing. Libya went further than Iraq: it demonstratively announced that it was voluntarily renouncing its weapons program in hopes of joining the community of rational actors. This did not save it from the catastrophic destruction administered by the Democratic wing of that same establishment, as represented by reasonable centrist Hillary Clinton. The inescapable conclusion is that only nuclear weapons can give the DPRK any breathing room.

National security types believe their supreme goal is the prevention of nuclear Armageddon through non-proliferation. But their behavior demonstrates an utter lack at least of means-end rationality, for their policies have made proliferation inevitable. At junctures where domestic policy or short-term political calculations have made it expedient for their leaders to abandon nonproliferation diplomacy, they have not hesitated to follow. George W. Bush not only invaded Iraq; arguing that he could not negotiate with such an evil regime, he unilaterally renounced the United States’s commitments in the Agreed Framework, justifying North Korea’s weapons program and its skepticism about American dealmaking. Neither does the national security establishment seem very concerned about preventing nuclear escalation in other settings. Trump’s comically pompous and pointless attack on an empty Syrian military base in April was hardly a meaningful threat to Russia. Yet the more confrontational policies advocated by centrist Democrats and Republicans—like a no-fly zone over Syria—carry a dramatically higher risk of world war, since in order to be meaningful they require Americans to kill Russian soldiers.

Above all, it is the sheer reach and relentlessness of American empire that has set us on knife-edges all over the world. We are constantly told that we have rivals in all corners of the globe—places most Americans, when surveyed, have proven unable to identify on a map. Threats, sanctions, subversion, and invasion await these opponents at each node of opposition, creating a global landscape of fear in which an uncontrollable conflagration might erupt at any moment. The creation and maintenance of this inherently precarious equilibrium is the purpose of the national security establishment. If we are on the brink of nuclear apocalypse, it is because the reasonable people, the Pences and the Frums and the Obamas and the Clintons, have put us and kept us there.

The idle blather of a Trump is nothing in comparison to this threat; if anything, it is a flamboyant extension of it. As a historian I struggle to think of even one instance in which careless words alone started a real conflict. The most grimly absurd adventures of the American military machine—Korea, Vietnam, Libya—were launched by people who were celebrated as the best and the brightest, working from doctrines developed by experts and scholars. To achieve a North Korea policy that does not menace us with nuclear annihilation, we first need to be able to escape their grip.

  1. See his article on the failure of Bush-era nonproliferation: http://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/may-2004/rolling-blunder-2/ 

  2. See the discussion by Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann at the International Security Studies Forum: https://issforum.org/roundtables/policy/1-5W-madman. 

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