On Saturday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged for the first time that the U.S. has been in contact with the North Korean government and has been “probing” to see if the regime would be willing to open negotiations over the country’s nuclear weapons program. Later in the day, the State Department released a statement announcing that Pyongyang has rebuffed those advances and “shown no indication that they are interested in or are ready for talks regarding denuclearization.” (As nonproliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis immediately pointed out, this was not necessarily evidence that North Korea is refusing to negotiate, but refusing to negotiate what the U.S. wanted.)
On Sunday, and not for the first time, President Trump appeared to contradict his secretary of State. Seemingly responding to the media coverage of Tillerson’s remarks, Trump announced on Twitter that he had told his chief diplomat that he was “wasting his time” trying to negotiate with Pyongyang. Trump also repeated his trademark insult about North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and offered a veiled military threat:
Later on Sunday, Trump added, “Being nice to Rocket Man hasn’t worked in 25 years, why would it work now? Clinton failed, Bush failed, and Obama failed. I won’t fail.” (Kim has only been in power since 2011. His father, Kim Jong-il, ran North Korea prior to that.)
Other Trump administration officials added to the confusion on Sunday. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert, a former co-host of President Trump’s favorite daily briefing, Fox & Friends, bizarrely tweeted that North Korea “will not obtain a nuclear capability. Whether through diplomacy or force is up to the regime.” (North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006, and more recently, has successfully developed a hydrogen bomb and intercontinental ballistic missiles, as well.)
R.C. Hammond, Tillerson’s communications adviser, weighed in with another interpretation of Trump’s remarks. Replying to criticism of Trump’s tweets — which many, but not all, read as the president publicly undercutting his own administration’s diplomatic efforts, humiliating Tillerson, and itching for a military response — Hammond said that Trump had, in fact, “just sent a clear message” to North Korea: “Show up at the diplomatic table before the invitation gets cold” because the “private and public diplomatic channels that have been on the table for months are cooling.”
So if Hammond is correct, the weekend’s mixed messages demonstrate a coordinated diplomatic strategy on the part of the Trump administration. On Sunday night, Axios reported on what that strategy might be: that the White House has embraced a kind of “good cop, crazy cop” routine when it comes to foreign policy. That’s because, in early September, Trump advised his staff to use his wild-eyed reputation as an asset in trade negotiations.
“You don’t tell them they’ve got 30 days [to agree to concessions]. You tell them, ‘This guy’s so crazy he could pull out any minute,’” Trump reportedly said. “And by the way, I might,” he added. “You guys all need to know I might.”
The president’s top aides claim that the “crazy Trump” strategy has worked in some of their negotiations, but it’s worth remembering that a hallmark of Trump’s presidency has been how often administration officials, and many in the media, have claimed there is some grand method in Trump’s madness, despite much evidence to the contrary.
Back in February, media critic Jay Rosen offered a convincing description of the “crazy Trump” theory as he understood it:
Trump [is] revising the Presidency before our eyes. In his grip, it no longer attempts to muffle anxiety about the President and make people around the world feel okay about granting one person such enormous, unthinkable and inhuman powers. Instead, a new model is proposed: the president keeps everyone in a constant state of excitement and alarm. He moves fast and breaks things. He leads by causing commotion. As energy in the political system rises he makes no effort to project calm or establish an orderly White House. And if he keeps us safe it’s not by being himself a safe, steady, self-controlled figure, but by threatening opponents and remaining brash and unpredictable — maybe a touch crazy.
You can argue that this tactic — assuming it even was a tactic — panned out for Trump on the campaign trail, especially when it came to generating media coverage. But it’s hard to find any evidence that it has benefited him much since.
If the White House isn’t just trying to spin away Trump’s tendency to do nutty things, and they really do believe this is a viable strategy for approaching the North Korean nuclear crisis, we all may come to regret it. The “madman theory” of diplomacy doesn’t really work, after all — or at least it didn’t for President Nixon with the Soviet Union or the North Vietnamese, and he was the one who coined the term. As Dani Nedal and Daniel Nexon explained in Foreign Policy back in April, the madman theory would work a lot better for Trump if he were in charge of North Korea instead of the U.S.:
Playing crazy may sometimes be an attractive strategy, especially for weaker actors that have a narrow set of minimalist goals — like survival or autonomy. But if a state has more expansive goals, and ample resources to pursue them, as does the United States, unpredictability is a poor approach to grand strategy. It is hard for others to follow your lead when they don’t know what your goals are.
Partners are less likely to stand by your side if they lack confidence that you will stand by theirs. If Trump wants America to remain a dominant power, and wants others to respect American interests around the world, he needs to bolster American credibility. This requires a good measure of predictability, not the attitudes of an unpredictable rogue state.
In addition, as Dan Drezner quickly pointed out in response to the Axios article, if the White House is embracing the madness, it has already broken the theory’s most important rule, which is: Don’t leak the strategy to the press.
The other problem, as it pertains to the weekend’s news about North Korea, is that whether Trump is pretending to be the general in Dr. Strangelove or not, Pyongyang was already confused, and now Trump may have gutted his top diplomat’s ability to work with them on America’s behalf. The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos made that argument on Sunday:
By extending the taunts to his own Secretary of State, Trump might imagine that he is playing the bad cop to Tillerson’s good cop. At its best, it might be a ham-fisted effort to make Pyongyang more pliable to Tillerson’s entreaties. But this is not a police procedural. In national-security terms, Trump was undermining Tillerson’s credibility in the eyes of his North Korean counterparts. Why should they offer concessions to Tillerson when his boss clearly doesn’t support him?
And as Osnos went on to detail, the other problem is the unique psychology that drives both Kim, specifically, and North Korea, more broadly. Put another way, you can’t out-crazy crazy:
After Trump’s personal taunts of Kim, Evans Revere, a Korea specialist who is a former deputy assistant secretary of state, told me that it is easy for outsiders to underestimate the depth of North Korea’s rage. “I’m a big fan of keeping your adversary off balance, of keeping your adversary guessing about your intentions,” he said. “But this is North Korea, and part of the national credo is the protection of what they call the ‘dignity of their supreme leadership.’ It is so ingrained in their politics, in their society, and their culture.” He added, “At some point, you risk crossing the line, and they just feel compelled to do something. Otherwise, they just end up looking foolish, internally.”
In addition, even by the standards of dictatorships, Kim is acutely sensitive to the risk of looking weak, in part because of his youth. (He is thirty-three.) Not long ago, I met Ri Jong Ho, who was a senior North Korean official until he defected, in 2014. “North Korea is similar to a monarchy of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” Ri told me. In that analogy, Kim is the nervous tyrant. “Although he is worshipped like a god, he does not think that he has stable control over the country. You can see, from his actions, that he is anxious. He’s quick-tempered,” Ri said. “He feels the need to show that he is a bold, daring leader who can make spontaneous decisions, that his power is strong. He is young and proud. He is like a car with no brakes.”
So the Trump administration can’t depend on Kim being a normal, sane leader who is persuadable by normal means. Even if he were, whether it’s “good cop, bad cop” or “good cop, crazy cop,” that strategy can only work if the cops have credibility and share the same goal. Tillerson may have lost even more credibility on Sunday, and it’s not clear Trump ever had any in the first place, since his numerous threats have done nothing to slow down Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapons program. In addition, if Tillerson could come up with a deal that was both tenable to Kim and a boast-worthy victory to Trump — both big ifs — why would the regime believe Tillerson could deliver it when his boss, the president, seems more obsessed with attacking the mayor of a hurricane-ravaged city than he is with preventing a war.