One of the few benefits of being a sexagenarian is that when a media commentator attempts to make a point using an historical analogy there is a good chance you were around when the analogy actually occurred. That happened for me this week when a CNBC senior columnist argued that Trump should channel Ronald Reagan in dealing with North Korea.
Reagan, of course, is generally credited with bringing an end to the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. And it happened without any “fire and fury.”
There was, however, a lot of anxiety in the US regarding a pre-emptive nuclear attack. My book, The Bomb Shelter (Kindle version now only $.99, click here) recounts what it was like. As an eight-year-old boy living in the Northeast US I practiced huddling under my school desk with my hands over my head as part of the Civil Defense drills common to the era. Our neighbors actually built an elaborate bomb shelter to protect them during a Russian assault—think about the philosophical questions that raises for a moment—and they were far from alone.
Perhaps the greatest irony of the analogy, however, is that it was on this day, August 11, 1984, that President Ronald Reagan, during a sound check for a radio address, joked to the people in the room, “My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”
That was the genius of Reagan. You could tell when he was joking. With President Trump, it seems, you have to check with his staff first and the explanations aren’t always consistent. “Was he really joking or was that, like, an alternative joke?”
Contrary to the CNBC columnist’s claim, however, any analogy ends there. North Korea is not Russia. (And the Chinese are not threatening us.) And while North Korea’s economy is clearly straining under the burden of its nuclear ambitions, North Korea has the second largest economy in the world as a neighbor, main trading partner, and ally. (China is, interestingly, the second largest trading partner of Russia as well, just behind the Netherlands.)
Perhaps the most important distinction between the Cold War and the current North Korean saber rattling is that Reagan actually met personally with Mikhail Gorbachev, the Russian leader at the time, to talk it out. They met in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1984, and while the summit ultimately collapsed, the Berlin Wall, which I traveled behind before the collapse of the Soviet Union and still have a piece of as a memento, came down three years later, in 1987.
The CNBC column suggests, in my words, “escalate but don’t shoot,” and suggests that Japan’s Shinzo Abe could play the role of Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister and staunch Reagan ally. Frankly, I don’t even know where to go with that suggestion given Japan’s militaristic history in the region, its lack of any ability to project a military force at the moment, and the practical fact that no one can play Margaret Thatcher. (No offense intended to either Thatcher or Abe.)
There is no doubt that Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un would use any meeting with the US as a piece of golden propaganda with his own people. It would be off putting, perhaps, but where’s he going to go with it? His is a small hermit nation that is unlikely to start a war without provocation or Chinese support. (Even if the latter was likely, which I don’t think it is, we should be talking with the Chinese about that, not Kim.)
If history has taught us anything, it is the fact that most wars are actually precipitated by misunderstanding. And as I noted in Understanding China, the Chinese, and Asians in general, have a world view built with an inductive lens. As a result, they put far more emphasis on face than words. Their words must always be interpreted in context.
President Trump, very much unlike Reagan, is a transactional leader who uses words to aggrandize himself and to knock his enemies back on their heels. Subtle or humble he’s not.
Essentially, Trump seems to ignore context in his communication with world leaders. He is what linguists call a transmitter-oriented communicator. He talks and others are expected to listen. (The Chinese, in contrast, listen when they see a reason to.)
If nothing else, Trump’s bellicose rhetoric is undoubtedly confusing both China and North Korea. Is he serious, they must wonder? (Many Americans share their bewilderment.)
That is why, I suspect, the Chinese have seen fit to respond to Trump’s “fire and fury” threat, which he followed up with the public observation that perhaps he hadn’t gone far enough with the remark. And the Chinese response couldn’t be any clearer. They will remain neutral if North Korea initiates war. And they will protect North Korea if the US attacks first.
And there’s your Reagan analogy. The Chinese are clearly saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” Reagan’s famous remark in a speech he gave, it should be noted, while actually standing at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, not huddled away at his golf course in New Jersey.
Game over. With China’s clarification of its position, it is clear that Trump has literally backed himself into a corner. A pre-emptive strike now would be suicidal—and an annihilatory sentence for the South Korean people.
It’s time to talk. The only way out of this mess for everyone involved is for the US to engage North Korea in face to face diplomacy. What is there to lose? If the talks prove to be a total waste of time the option of a Cold War escalation are still on the table. As is a pre-emptive strike. The only real risk is that time gives North Korea more time to develop its nuclear abilities. That’s the price we pay, and will pay either way, for our unwillingness to talk face to face before now.
There is one other element to the issue that no one is talking about. Having lived in China for nine years prior to 2016, I have always believed that China has more military strength than US analysts estimate. It would not serve the Chinese agenda to brag about their strength beyond their established ability to defend the homeland and to project power into the South China Sea. There’s a reasonable chance, moreover, that their advanced capabilities, should they have them, came from the US itself. (Unknown to the US, of course.) Admitting the existence of such military technology would risk the loss of face in the world community, China’s top diplomatic and political priority.
Either way, the one thing I do know is that if you want to communicate with the Chinese or the Koreans, it’s best done over a cup of tea. Words mean as little to them as they apparently do to our own president. They need to sit in the same room.
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