TSG IntelBrief: The Diplomacy of ‘Fire and Fury’ Toward North Korea
August 11, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• The building crisis over North Korea is exacerbated by a White House that views the issue in terms of personalized strength and weakness.
• Presidential statements in a time of crisis are crafted to avoid attaching the resolution of the issue to the survival of the leader of the country in question; effective statements and talks lay out a path—and not a person—to a solution.
• By portraying the crisis as a battle between himself and the North Korean leader, the president is attempting to personalize a major threat to international security.
• Even in a well-functioning White House—which this one is not—personalizing the issue raises the risk of rash decisions during a time of crisis.
In times of dangerous tension and unclear intentions between nuclear powers, experienced leaders seeking diplomatic resolutions will try to avoid personalizing the crisis. Typical presidential statements about another country’s destabilizing actions often seem milquetoast to the level of concern, but this is largely by design. Presidential statements in a time of crisis are crafted to avoid attaching the resolution of the issue to the survival of the leader of the country in question; effective statements and talks lay out a path—and not a person—to a solution. Once a leader believes that his opponents intend to depose or even kill him, the likelihood for military conflict drastically increases, a scenario that even the harshest of official condemnations are meant to avoid.
In his improvised statements regarding North Korea, President Trump repeatedly frames the crisis as a looming battle between Kim Jong Un and the United States. While such personification—for example, saying ‘He’s not going to be saying those things, and he’s certainly not going to be doing those things’—may seem natural in the context of a normal conversation regarding a personal dispute, the President of the United States is not afforded the luxury of having normal conversations in public about nuclear weapons and war. The North Korean regime is intently, and probably obsessively, considering every word that the president says, and specific mentions of Kim Jong Un as the sole actor of concern, however rhetorical or unintentionally casual, pushes them further into a bunker mentality. Focusing on destabilizing actions, rather than unstable persons, might make for bland reading or TV viewership but it is ultimately the kind of solid diplomacy that engenders conflict resolution.
President Trump’s tendency to personalize the conflict is also seen in his statements regarding previous U.S. administrations’ efforts to address the long-running North Korea nuclear issue. During an August 10 impromptu press conference, President Trump described the efforts of his predecessors as failures, saying, ‘look at Clinton. He folded on the negotiations. He was weak and ineffective. You look what happened with Bush, you look what happened with Obama. Obama, he didn’t even want to talk about it. But I talk. It’s about time. Somebody has to do it.’
By making himself the focus of the crisis and demeaning the earnest efforts not just of his predecessors, but of entire administrations, the president is attempting to personalize a major threat to international security. Even in a well-functioning White House—which this one is not—personalizing the issue raises the risk of rash decisions during a time of crisis. The disruptive and conflicting statements by the U.S. administration on the issue of North Korea are making the situation worse, with the secretaries of defense and state again trying to walk back statements by the president only to have him undercut them within a day. Secretary of Defense Mattis has tried to keep the focus on diplomacy, emphasizing an approach in which there is no need to boast about the obvious disparity in U.S. and North Korean military capabilities, or the relative aggressiveness of their respective leaders. This is likely the best public approach, tamping down tensions and shifting the focus away from personal taunts that put personal pride and survival above resolving the conflict peacefully.
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