Trump’s Korean crisis in the light of international history

Amidst all the fevered discussion of the current crisis over the North Korean nuclear program, history has some important things to say. This is hardly the first crisis U.S. policymakers have confronted over the last century or so. While only some have been nuclear, all offer lessons on the precarious and uncertain ground on which crisis managers tread. Those lessons are most penetrating and least comforting when crises are viewed internationally and not simply as a U.S. drama.

Some two decades back I selected seven cases of serious high-stakes crises in which U.S. leaders became embroiled. My special concern was to understand them in a way that gave the role of the U.S. adversary as much attention as that of the Americans and thus captured the full dynamic of the interaction between the two sides. The lessons from those cases, laid out in the conclusion of Crises in U.S. Foreign Policy: An International History Reader (Yale University Press, 1996), are worth recalling today.

In the most basic terms, it is easy to forget that policymakers, whatever their nationality, are human and thus vulnerable to passion, confusion, and accident. They are, moreover, each constrained within their own particular country’s political, cultural, and institutional framework.

The most obvious consequence of this situation is incomplete or flawed information that can hobble both sides in a crisis. Even were the crisis environment transparent, information would not necessarily assemble into a coherent and accurate picture. And even if the available information was assembled into such a picture, a rapidly changing situation would soon leave it outdated. That policymakers tend to play their cards close only compounds the problem, making it difficult to gauge the crosscurrents in the minds of antagonists. The marked belief in American policy dating back to Woodrow Wilson that diplomatic contact is not a practical necessity but a sign of moral approbation only adds to the difficulties. Washington often has no easy or regular way to interrogate those whom it is most likely to condemn and thus confront.

No less serious is the difficulty of policymakers locked in crisis have in speaking clearly, directly, and coherently. Doing so can help avoid a crisis in the first place and then, once engulfed by one, can facilitate a way out. But crisis communications can easily become distorted. The principals themselves may be uncertain about the dangers they face or the outcomes they desire. Far from having a simple or settled point of view, policymakers caught in a complex and tension-filled situation in which the outcome carries potentially great personal and national consequences often display a fuzzy, inchoate, or even shifting definition of their interests and goals. To say that leaders want more than one thing at a time and that that what they want changes only underlines the point made above: they are human.

Perhaps the most profound gulf that policymakers in crisis must bridge is cultural. They are themselves conditioned by their society and bear unexamined ideological biases. Little wonder they struggle to understand the language of the other, both literally and symbolically, and thus have difficulty reading the mental world and the guiding concerns of their antagonist. The more marked the differences between countries locked in crisis, the more likely perceptions will do more to obscure than to illuminate the beliefs and behavior of the other. To be sure a cadre of specialists exist for policymakers to turn to, but the specialists may themselves usually have different points of view and in any case are often kept on the margins of decisionmaking.

In all these ways historical case studies of crisis highlight policymakers’ inevitable lack of clairvoyance, their extreme vulnerability to mixed convictions and goals, and their unavoidable cultural blinders. This debilitating trio introduces a dynamic element into crisis as each side rushes to keep its estimate of the situation, the adequacy of its will and resources, and the nature of its overall goals current with the gyrations of equally agitated policymakers on the other side. Under stress the multiple, perhaps divergent goals of each side become exposed and the ambiguities of calculations are revealed. Viewed in these international terms, “crisis management” becomes a kind of psychological St. Vitus dance that two rivals induce in each other and that ends only after exhaustion sets in or disaster occurs.

The worrisome point that emerges from this set of historically grounded generalizations is that all crises are dangerous, harboring the potential for misperception and unpredictable behavior, resulting in an outcome neither party may have wanted. Like Russian roulette, most crises will not prove deadly, but who knows whether in the next round the outcome may be grimly consequential.

The presence of Donald Trump adds an entirely unprecedented element of danger into the equation. To a remarkable degree he lacks the very qualities of a successful crisis manager. He is impulsive, thus posing for his opposite number a puzzle that may lead to a misreading and miscalculation. He is inexperienced and to make matters worse incurious and thus likely to assess his foes goals and options in the most superficial, conventional, and culture-bound terms. He has a short attention span and is thus unsuited to the prolonged, intricate exchange with his advisers on the nature of the crisis and the most effective, prudent way forward. He is contemptuous of expertise, thus banishing to the sidelines those who might bring valuable insight to bear. He is fixated with public reputation and thus reluctant to make the difficult compromises and concessions that are at the heart of crisis management, indeed foreign policy of any sort.

These characteristics of the president have long been in evidence but until now with less deleterious consequences in prospect. Behaving like a cavalier egomaniac during his election campaign won him the support of a dissatisfied electorate. Once installed in the White House he has acted like a bull in a china closet, but at least in domestic affairs he has been constrained by Congress, the courts, the media, and interest groups. By contrast in the international arena Trump occupies a presidency in which much power has over the decades been concentrated so that the incumbent can act with great freedom for better or worse. The likelihood of worse is quite likely in the era of Trump.

The most pessimistic commentators on the current crisis have good reason for worry. Indeed a reading of the past suggests that in their pessimism they may be underestimating the dangers. We may need what Dean Acheson gave as the reason for the successful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis: “plain dumb luck.”