North Korea: fire and fury and hypocrisy
Critics of Trump's buffoonish barbarism should look in the mirror.
According to staff, US president Donald Trump was in a bad mood last week when he said to reporters: ‘North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.’ Presumably the unstarched pyjamas, poor round of golf or whatever it was that irked Trump was still bothering him come Friday, because he then tweeted that the US military was ‘locked and loaded’ for conflict ‘should North Korea act unwisely’. Speaking to reporters later that day about North Korea and its leader Kim Jong-un, he added ominously: ‘This man will not get away with what he’s been doing.’
In truth, it is unlikely that Trump’s mood was the determining factor behind threatening ‘this man’ with America’s righteous ‘fire and fury’. Quite the opposite. This is what he appears to love most about being president of the world’s sole superpower: the chance to lay down the law to tyrants, to act as a moral macho man on the world stage, to tackle wrongdoing and evil where he finds it. Think of the relish with which he announced the dropping of the Mother of All Bombs on an ISIS holdout in Afghanistan, or the puppyish enthusiasm with which he endorsed the Saudi Arabia-led blockade of Qatar, a ‘funder of terrorism’. And now this, a chance to stage a face-off with one of the original members, alongside Iran and Iraq, of George W Bush’s ‘axis of evil’. For a man as vain as Trump, it’s too perfect an opportunity to pose and posture to miss.
There certainly doesn’t seem to be any rational reason behind Trump’s rather North Korea-like use of apocalyptic rhetoric. After all, a conflict involving two nuclear powers, both of which appear to be threatening the other with those very weapons, can serve no rational purpose, unless mutually assured destruction counts as rational. Even without Trump or Kim pressing the big red ‘launch’ button, it’s difficult to see how US military action against North Korea makes any sense. Bringing about the collapse of Kim’s regime would create a refugee crisis on South Korea’s border, directly involve and antagonise China, and plunge yet another region into the type of chaos in which the Middle East, thanks to Western intervention, currently finds itself.
Whichever way you look at it, Trump appears to be making a bad situation a lot worse. He didn’t create it, of course. The US has long fought a strange, lukewarm war with the Communist North, which began with the Korean War (which even today remains without a treaty to mark its official end) in the early 1950s, and has become even stranger after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, and the Kim dynasty’s increasing recourse to the promise/threat of nuclear-weapon development as both a diplomatic tool and a safeguard against Western-backed regime change. Yet there’s little doubt that Trump’s world-ending threats, and the US military’s continued airborne exercises over the Korean peninsula, have lent a fractious but largely stable relationship a dangerous unpredictability. The very fact that assorted experts, not to mention US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, feel the need to inform us that a nuclear war is not imminent, and that a diplomatic solution is being sought, shows just how uncertain the situation has become.
But as culpable as Trump is, assorted critics have almost been too focused on the small-handed one. They want to paint his presidency almost as uniquely dangerous. The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland, for example, draws attention to Trump’s supposed love of power and devastation, and calls him the ‘real nuclear threat’. Over at the Observer, Nick Cohen writes of the danger of ‘leaving a narcissistic, know-nothing, fantasist in possession of the nuclear codes when he fears he is becoming ridiculous’. And so the psychological speculation continues, drawing in Trump’s supposed daddy issues, his cellophane-thin skin, his erratic and splenetic behaviour, all in order to reduce the North Korea stand-off to a conflict between two odd, crazed individuals, with Trump presented as the slightly more demented of the two.
Yet to reduce a very serious international conflict in the making to the foibles and follies of The Donald misses something. It misses the continuity between Trump’s foreign policymaking, or better still postures, and that of his post-Cold War predecessors, from Bill Clinton to George W Bush, and other Western leaders in general, be they Tony Blair or Nicolas Sarkozy. After all, what Trump is doing, albeit in the style of a 1980s action hero rather than a handwringing confidante of God, is not substantially different to what Clinton, Blair and Sarkozy did at various points: he is reducing complex international situations to simple moral binaries, complete with us, the good guys, standing up to them, the bad guys. As Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia was to Clinton, or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was to Blair, or Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya was to Sarkozy, Kim Jong-un’s North Korea is to Trump little more than a symbol of evil to be tackled, to be defeated.
Trump is behaving recklessly in relation to North Korea, but the conditions for him to do so were created by those who changed the nature of foreign policy, who turned it into a means to do ‘good’, to intervene on ethical and humanitarian grounds. Over the past two decades foreign policy has ceased to be the pursuit of strategic interests, as it was to a greater extent during the Cold War, and has become a performance of virtue, a demonstration of moral purpose – a do-gooding, evil-battling roadshow whose main audience is Western rather than those in whose countries the intervention takes place. And it is this tradition that Trump is now continuing in the western Pacific. He is using an overseas conflict to bolster his moral and political credentials back home. He is using it to show everyone the real Donald Trump, just as David Cameron and Barack Obama hoped the intervention in Libya in 2011 would show everyone how good and moral they were, too.
But it is not a surprise that so many miss the continuity between Trump and his predecessors. Because what they object to is not Trump’s use of foreign policy for narcissistic, self-aggrandising ends, as a way to say ‘this is who I am’. No, they don’t object to the substance of Trump’s foreign policymaking, but rather to its style. He is vulgarising their very own foreign policy-making creed, making a mockery of it. They are all for using military means to make a moral point, but in the correct fashion. If Trump spoke of a ‘responsibility to protect’, perhaps Freedland, who supported the fateful intervention in Libya in precisely those terms, would be all for getting stuck into North Korea; if Trump spoke of what a nasty dictator Kim is, and how cruel he is to his own subjects, perhaps Cohen, who supported the Iraq War in precisely those terms, would be hacking out columns urging a shock-and-awe assault on Pyongyang.
Because that’s the problem with too much of the criticism now heading Trump’s way: it fails to address the fundamental long-term degeneracy of Western states’ approach to foreign policy, its transformation from a pursuit of strategic and material interests into a performance of moral and political purpose. Not because Trump’s critics can’t see this transformation, but because very often they have supported and furthered it. They have supported interventions in Kosovo, in Iraq, in Libya, in Syria. And they have furthered the new cold war with Russia, which they have demonised and othered, while NATO forces accumulate in the Baltic states. And Trump’s the warmonger?
Trump’s approach to North Korea is reckless and unhinged. But those decrying his buffoonish barbarism do so with large planks in their eyes.
Tim Black is a spiked columnist.