Better Judgment

News stories about the expected North Korean nuclear test have created a crisis of expectations.  The public expects something to happen and, in a perverse way would be disappointed if nothing did.  Reports that carrier strike group 1 is headed for Japan and the blood curdling warnings from Pyongyang have acted like a kind of movie trailer for a feature film whose release is momentarily expected.  CNN and other news agencies have even sent correspondents to the scene in case something -- they know not what -- happens.

Ironically everyone would be best served if nothing happened.  No nuclear test.  No American response.  Nothing.  Nothing that is, but negotiations.

Both sides appear to be seeking a way to avoid a head on collision.  Kim Jong Un ostentatiously opened a public housing project pointedly describing it "as important as 100 bombs" in what might be the first sign a negotiation track exists.  China has been furiously waving caution flags, turning back North Korean coal exports  and hinting they might even embargo oil supplies to the hermit nation.

However momentum may be against it.  North Korean preparations for a test are well underway and Pyongyang may be too poor to let such an investment go to waste. Washington for its part, may have been trapped by its own preparations and rhetoric.  Readers will recall how the German mobilization schedule in August 1914 forced the Kaiser to reject last minute peace overtures.

Moltke was distressed at the prospect of this being undone and his mobilisation schedule being wrecked. ‘Once settled it cannot be altered,’ he told the Kaiser. ... One army corps alone – out of the total of 40 in the German forces – required 170 railway cars for officers, 965 for infantry, 2,960 for cavalry, 1,915 for artillery and supply wagons, 6,010 in all, grouped in 140 trains and an equal number again for their supplies. From the moment the order was given, everything was to move at fixed times according to a schedule precise down to the number of train axles that would pass over a given bridge within a given time.

Yet by forcing matters to the brink Trump has ensured everyone has to do something while calibrating their actions finely.  Too far and disaster ensues.  Too little and the other side wins.  The problem of moving just enough was perfectly captured in the dialog between Sam Spade and Kasper Gutman in the Maltese Falcon.

Sam Spade: If you kill me, how are you going get the bird? And if I know you can't afford to kill me, how are you going to scare me into giving it to you?

Kasper Gutman: Well, sir, there are other means of persuasion besides killing and threatening to kill.

Sam Spade: Yes, that's... That's true. But, there're none of them any good unless the threat of death is behind them. You see what I mean? If you start something, I'll make it a matter of your having to kill me or call it off.

Kasper Gutman: That's an attitude, sir, that calls for the most delicate judgment on both sides. Because, as you know, sir, in the heat of action men are likely to forget where their best interests lie and let their emotions carry them away.

Sam Spade: Then the trick from my angle is to make my play strong enough to tie you up, but not make you mad enough to bump me off against your better judgment.

Kasper Gutman: By gad, sir, you are a character.