You might have missed it amongst Ubergeddon and Theresa May’s city break to Florence, but Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un’s war of words escalated to new heights last week.
Although, if you only glanced at the weekend papers, you would be forgiven for not realising it. In fact, UK papers were much more interested by political manoeuvres in the Conservative Party and Strictly Come Dancing this weekend. Obviously, I wouldn’t want to belittle the importance of Revered Richard Coles’ Cuban breaks, but it is a little staggering that developments in North Korea are struggling to make it as front page news.
Maybe this is because the stakes of the conflict (e.g. devastating nuclear war) don’t make for particularly appealing reading – I know that ‘death is imminent’ doesn’t particularly make me want to pick up the weekend paper. But more so, the whole saga has a weightlessness to it, as if the events of the past year are somehow too stupid to herald the end of the world. Surely after surviving the Cold War, humanity doesn’t end with two total supervillains screeching their way to the apocalypse? At the same time, maybe it is fitting that nuclear war may ultimately come down to a battle between two men’s fragile egos.
For anyone who hasn’t been following the action over the past week, a quick recap is in order. The latest round of conflict started last Tuesday when Trump delivered a speech to the UN that can be politely described as unorthodox. Its major talking point concerned his comments on North Korea, where he argued that the US would be willing to ‘totally destroy’ the country and referred to Kim Jong Un as ‘Rocket Man’. A few days later, Kim responded with his own statement, comparing Trump to a ‘frightened dog’ and signing off with a threat to ‘tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire’. And with that, a conflict of enormous political significance had reached its illogical conclusion as a personal squabble.
When North Korea’s Foreign Minister spoke to the UN on Saturday, he delivered another terrifying statement, arguing that it was now ‘inevitable’ that North Korean rockets would target the US. But like almost everything involving Trump and North Korea, the claim had an element of absurdity to it. Firstly, it came with the charmingly odd claim that people in the US refer to Trump as ‘President Evil’. And secondly, because it suggested that Trump’s ‘Rocket Man’ insult was the final straw. As recently as Monday, tensions rose even further with North Korea accusing the USA of declaring war on the country. This is still a developing story and we’ve reached a point now where I genuinely have no idea what will be happening by the time this is published.
Of course, tensions between North Korea and the USA are nothing new. For example, back in 1994, the US military was genuinely considering the prospect of war with the country. But this round of aggression has a very important and extremely worrying component, Donald Trump – a man who shares Kim’s love of propaganda and authoritarian rhetoric. More importantly, his political career has shared something else with the North Korean dictator; a desire to protect his personal ego at all costs. Even when he was just a businessman, Trump was well-known for being extraordinarily petty and struggling to take criticism. Most famously, journalist Graydon Carter claims that after he took to referring to the future President as a ‘short-fingered vulgarian’ in the late 80s, Trump would send him photos of himself with his hands circled in gold Sharpie and quotes like ‘See, not so short!’ alongside them. Unfortunately, his move into politics did not come with a thicker skin.
Throughout 2016, Trump continued to act as he’d always done, picking fights with almost anyone who dared to criticise him, and his post-election behaviour has been similar, suggesting that he is simply incapable of moderating himself. Even now, the President spends much of his time criticising his own party, despite them being the only group in Washington who could realistically implement his legislative agenda.
All of this points to what has always been clear about Trump – that he is a man who is too reckless for strategy and too selfish for diplomacy. I haven’t read The Art of the Deal but if Trump follows his own teachings, I can only assume that its advice for negotiation is:
- Go all-in. Literally commit yourself to the strongest possible terms you can think of and hope your opponent immediately gives you what you want.
- Didn’t work? Have you tried throwing out some personal insults?
Maybe this strategy works in the business world (though Trump’s brushes with bankruptcy would suggest otherwise), but in politics, it has been shown to be unsuitable at best. Trump is a politician who has failed to offer solutions to the problems he protests and his career has been notable so far largely for its bluster and its inaction. With an enemy like North Korea, these two characteristics can be extremely dangerous.
It doesn’t take a genius to understand why North Korea want nuclear weapons – people always think twice before invading countries that have them – and it seems fairly clear that a war would not be in their interests. But Trump’s approach to the conflict, escalating insults and threats because his ego demands it, implies that he doesn’t understand this. In fact, the escalation of the conflict could be slowed if Trump was prepared to shut up for once and let sensible diplomacy take place. Instead, the insecurities of Dotard J Trump are what appear to be governing his decisions, failing to understand that to win a war, you might have to lose the few battles that don’t matter. Kim Jong Un knows exactly what he wants and how to get it while Trump can barely keep himself from being distracted. In the mist of a serious diplomatic crisis, the President repeatedly took to Twitter this weekend to criticise NFL players’ right to practice freedom of speech. North Korea was mentioned in only two of his tweets.
This then brings us to another thing that was always clear about Trump – that he’s a man who is unable to think in terms of policy and unable to understand the long-term consequences of his actions. At some points, he even appears psychologically incapable of those things; a petulant man-child who is unable to imagine a world outside of his own head, who can only survive by constantly attacking his critics. When you pair that with an inexperienced dictator who has lived a privileged, isolated existence, you get the situation we have now. International politics governed by the feelings of children.
I don’t know if Donald Trump will bring about nuclear war. If you forced me to answer, I’d say I don’t think he will. But there is one thing I do know for sure. It’s that when Donald Trump goes to sleep at night, he does not think about nuclear war. Nor does he think about healthcare, freedom of speech, or the Russia enquiry. And he definitely doesn’t think about immigration or the Federal Budget. I don’t believe that Donald Trump thinks about any of these things. That’s because when Donald Trump goes to sleep at night, he only thinks about himself.
Words by Conrad Duncan