OK, Now What?

[ Posted Thursday, May 24th, 2018 – 16:56 UTC ]

This is the fourth time in two weeks I've written about Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. And, at this point, I have to admit, I'm completely stumped. I have no idea what is going on, and no idea what to expect next. I suspect I am not alone in this position, either.

Today, Donald Trump officially pulled out of the planned summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. However, this might not be as shocking as it sounds, because North Korea was already seriously backing away from the meeting. Meaning Trump might just have cancelled a meeting that wasn't going to take place anyway, purely to get his own name in the news. It's certainly within the realm of possibility.

Two weeks ago, I began writing about the proposed summit meeting, first by seriously examining both sides' goals and wish lists for the meeting. Then I wrote about the North Korean situation as part of an overview of all the foreign policy moves Trump had been making. Three days ago, I speculated that Kim Jong Un might have read Trump's book and was beating Trump at his own game. It was this last article where I got things completely wrong, it seems (always a danger when punditizing). In it, I predicted that Kim Jong Un had gotten the upper hand because Trump wasn't going to walk away from the table:

The problem for Trump is now that Kim Jong Un knows full well how important the summit meeting and any prospective deal has become, to Trump. Trump's never going to walk away from the table now. If he did so, after such a hyped buildup, then the rest of the world would just laugh at him, because it would confirm their worst opinions about Trump -- that he is incompetent and that the summit was a really bad idea in the first place. This puts Trump on the wrong end of the dealmaking stick (according to his own book), because Trump wants the deal more than Kim Jong Un and Trump really doesn't want to walk away from the table.

Hey, when you're wrong, you admit it and try to move on, right? Well, obviously I got that wrong. I should have listened to an idea I wrote about much earlier, on Trump's management style and what it could mean for both his presidency and American foreign policy. Trump, I predicted (a month before he was sworn in), would govern using Richard Nixon's "Madman Theory." Back then I wrote:

There's a theory of government that hasn't been talked about for a while that might be worth re-examining. Richard Nixon called it the "Madman Theory." If your opponents (Nixon was talking militarily, about Vietnam) had no idea what crazy thing you might do next -- even to the extent of dropping a few nuclear bombs -- then they'd treat you with kid gloves, in an effort not to provoke you too severely.

. . .

Donald Trump may take the Madman Theory beyond the arena of war and the military and actually base his entire administration on it. I say this for two big reasons. The first is that it's already served him very well indeed, on his show The Apprentice. Nobody knew who would be fired. Indeed, that was the whole point -- to set up as much dramatic tension as possible -- which was also why viewers tuned in. Trump seems to be running his transition team in a similar fashion already -- just ask Mitt Romney.

The second reason I think Trump is going to use the Madman Theory of governance is his own love of "the art of the deal." He even helpfully explained this a few times on the campaign trail. If the guys sitting across the table from you have no clue what you really want or how much you'll compromise to get it, then you will wind up with a much better deal than you would have gotten if all the cards were on the table. If -- and it's a pretty big "if" -- Trump's team really did plan on causing uncertainty in the Chinese-American relationship by accepting a call from the president of Taiwan, then China will likely think Trump is capable of changing American foreign policy at the drop of a hat, and will thus treat him a lot more carefully in negotiations. That's the theory, anyway -- and it assumes Trump knew what he was doing (instead of just making a blunder through ignorance of America's foreign policy history, which is an alternative explanation).

A few months in to Trump's term in office, I returned to this theme, specifically in reference to North Korea:

Trump is about to find out the difference between belligerent tweets and reality. He can berate Kim Jong Un on Twitter all he wants, but the North Korean leader is just as unpredictable as Trump, when it comes down to it. Trump subscribes to the political and military theory of keeping his cards close to his vest, in order not to let his opponent know what he's planning to do. He also seems to be following what Richard Nixon called the "Madman Theory" -- if your opponents think they're dealing with a crazy person, they'll be more hesitant to provoke such a leader. Trump's biggest problem is that he's about to test this against real madmen. And even Nixon never gamed out what a "madman versus madman" situation could bring. When neither side can be reasoned with, nobody knows what will happen next. Which is exactly where we find ourselves on both Syria and North Korea, in fact.

In other words, the "Madman Versus Madman Theory," or madness squared. In taking seriously the possibility of actual negotiations between Trump and Kim Jong Un, I somehow lost sight of this overriding dynamic between the two leaders.

Which brings me to my "OK, now what?" moment. Kim Jong Un initially set the board up for this high-stakes game, and up until now he has been instigating most of the moves. Trump just walked away from the table. What does Kim Jong Un do next? What does Trump do next? It's anyone's guess, really. The most likely immediate outcome is that both leaders play to their domestic audiences in an attempt to score a propaganda victory out of the collapse of the summit. It's kind of hard to see how Trump could manage this, but he's bound to make the attempt.

Does the whole thing signal some deeper shift in the Trump administration? The whole timeline of this summit meeting, short as it was, happened during an exchange of power within the White House and the national security and diplomatic apparatus. Is Trump walking away a sign that John Bolton's viewpoint is becoming the dominant one? This certainly could be the case. But at this point, it's hard to tell if there are any big-picture implications or not. Trump may have just seen something on Fox News he didn't like and decided on the spur of the moment to write that letter this morning, without ever considering the consequences. That's certainly possible, given his decision-making style in the past.

The easiest conclusion to make is that we're now well and truly down the rabbit hole. When two madmen try to outdo each other's madness, it's impossible to predict the future with any degree of certainty. Will the summit meeting rise from the ashes and actually happen? Who knows -- Trump's letter veered from taunting Kim Jong Un about the size of their respective nuclear arsenals to what sounded like wistful regret that the meeting wasn't going to happen, and Trump left the whole thing open at the end, saying the teenage equivalent of: "Call me if you change your mind."

Of course, there are other, darker scenarios that could now play out. Just before he began his charm offensive, Kim Jong Un was threatening to conduct an above-ground (above-water, really) nuclear test in the Pacific Ocean. This would mean launching an intercontinental missile with a nuclear bomb on board, to prove to the world that North Korea has mastered the entire process. So far, while they have proven they have a bomb small enough for an I.C.B.M. to launch, and they have proven that they have a missile which could reach pretty much any city in the United States, they have not proven they can successfully marry these two technologies together. This is the last step in becoming a full nuclear power, and now Kim Jong Un doesn't have his mountain test site to use anymore (he had destroyed it two hours before Trump released his letter). So there isn't really anything stopping Kim from his final test, really, except world opinion (which would universally condemn an atmospheric nuclear weapons test).

This might be too pessimistic, of course. It would be an awfully drastic step for Kim Jong Un to take. But with the abrupt about-face from the possibility of diplomacy back to threatening nuclear war, both sides must now face a much grimmer spectrum of possible next actions by the other side. The entire world is waiting with bated breath to see what comes next.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


15 Comments on “OK, Now What?”

  1. [1] 
    Kick wrote:


    Eric Swalwell

    Even after cancelling the talks with North Korea, Salesman-in-Chief @realDonaldTrump is still shilling his celebratory coin. Only 20% off for something that 100% didn't happen

  2. [2] 
    neilm wrote:

    Two children in a playground taking their balls home and insisting they won.

    Un will have to answer to China, who don't want North Korea to be an issue since it might amp up U.S. military activity in a region they are quickly militarizing themselves (they landed a full sized bomber on one of their new artificial islands this week -

    Trump doesn't have anybody to answer to - he never has since Daddy died. He'll just blunder along using a combination of fast food fecal matter and Fox and Friends to assist in deciding the next issue that he happens to briefly focus on.

    In one respect the Libertarians are getting their wish - a combination of deregulation and no effective government is essentially what they have wanted all along.

    The country is on cruise control at the moment, but if the economy hits a speed bump (and it has been an unusually long time since we hit one), things will get interesting.

  3. [3] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Trump didn't study. Trump didn't do his homework. He didn't even bother to pay somebody more qualified to tutor him, or hire a ringer to take the test for him. No, Trump just decided to pack it in, stay home and watch more TV, maybe play a little more golf. Failure on so many levels should not go unrecognized. I'm going to nominate President Trump for An Ignoble Piece of Work Prize .

  4. [4] 
    TheStig wrote:

    I think it likely that China pressured Kim Jong
    Un to deliver his recent hard line rhetoric against the
    USA. Poor N.
    Korea. So far from God. So close to China. The West tends to ignore this fundamental tension

  5. [5] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Any way you slice, dice or julienne this story, rookie Trump got beanballed. Welcome to the Big Leagues Mr. Trump!

  6. [6] 
    Paula wrote:

    My money's on Kim Jong Un. He may be crazy but he's been in "office" for years and I suspect that he's learned some things. Blotus doesn't appear to learn much, if anything. He has 2 or 3 plays and he goes through them over and over. Blotus will go down in flames here, sooner or later, and Kim Jong Un will still be there. Kim Jong Un just has to wait him out.

  7. [7] 
    John M wrote:

    America under Trump is no longer playing the long game, unlike Kim Jong Un. Trump is simply either undoing everything Obama did, like the Iran nuclear deal, or doing just the opposite of what Obama did wherever he can, like with Syria and North Korea.

    Trump, along with the rest of the modern Republican party, have dropped even the pretense of trying to represent all Americans, including those that did not vote for them. Now they simply cater to their base only, putting themselves and their own personal interests or political well being about that of the nation as a whole.

  8. [8] 
    TheStig wrote:

    CW- "and now Kim Jong Un doesn't have his mountain test site to use anymore (he had destroyed it two hours before Trump released his letter)."

    It's likely that K.J. Un demolished an unusable, or unsafe to use, test facility. The 6th nuclear test in Sept. of last year caused an immediate 6.3 magnitude earth tremor followed by a swarm of four lower magnitude earthquakes over the following weeks. This pattern certainly suggests tunnel collapse from what is charmingly called in the nuke test business "tired mountain syndrome." With its 125th rank GDP it's unlikely that N. Korea can afford any Mountain Geritol. Should a need arise, it would likely be cheaper to dig a new tunnel in a new mountain or re-purpose an old tunnel in another mountain. North Korea has lots of tunnels and lots of mountains

    I put some credence in the tired mountain assessment. Earth quakes are very much "open source" information picked up by seismographs all over the world.

    Speaking of re-purposing I'm going to trot out the phrase "dinner and a show" for N. Korea's invitation only demolition of an already demolished tunnel. Also with regards Trump, "over-promised, under delivered." People rarely break long established habits that haven't killed them yet.

  9. [9] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Being unable to stop drinking coffee and start doing something useful, I'll mention the NY Times article:

    Think Military Strikes Could Stop North Korea? Try It and See.

    Although it's billed as a "simulation" it's really a game with a dichotomous decision tree based on plausible assumptions. It does make you think. Hint: the winning strategy is not to play.

    Logging off, picking gardening tools.

  10. [10] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    Random question: if Trump was indicted for acts of treason, would/could he be tried in a military court, as he is the Commander In Chief?

  11. [11] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    although the president is the commander in chief of the armed forces, it's still a civilian position, so no. if removed by impeachment, the president would then be subject to the civilian justice system.


  12. [12] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:


    Thanks for the response. Wasn’t sure if the military could step in if the president wasn’t impeached by Congress despite evidence showing he had committed criminal acts.

  13. [13] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    the short of it is that's constitutionally forbidden. other than the 25th amendment route (which CW has discussed at length and which would require the VP and over half the cabinet members to vote that the president is unfit to serve), impeachment is pretty much the only way to remove a sitting president against his or her will.


  14. [14] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Kick [1] -

    Maybe it'll become a collector's item: the challenge coin for the non-event....

    neilm [2] -

    I agree. And I worry about that speed bump, too.

    TheStig [3] -

    Maybe if we're lucky, he'll win a Darwin prize sooner or later...

    Paula/Don Harris [6/7] -

    Actually, what Paula's comment brought to mind was Fidel Castro, laughing at, what, 11 US presidents? 12?

    TheStig [9] -

    That's what I've been reading from people in the know, too. It isn't (if you'll excuse the pun) rocket science to dig a tunnel and test a nuke in it. My guess is KJU is already working on the next site...

    Don Harris [11] -

    Bully for you! The 49ers haven't gone that far (yet), but they did abstain from the owners' vote. Kapernick doesn't play for them anymore, but he left a legacy behind...

    ListenWhenYouHear [12] -

    I don't believe so. It's the whole "civilian control of the miltiary" -- Trump is a civilian, thus not subject to the UCMJ. I think.

    He'd be impeached, though, that's for sure. If it were obvious and provable.

    nypoet22 -

    That's how I read it, too.


  15. [15] 
    TheStig wrote:

    CW-16, RE Darwin Award. Naughty naughty, but the USA has entered a post civility phase, so go for it! Historians are going to love wrting about The Age of will be as much fun as writing about pirates is today.

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