Belmont Club

Behind Kim's Back

(Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

Austin Bay describes what might be called Trump’s “Sam Spade” strategy for handling North Korea.  The fictional Spade as you may recall from the Maltese Falcon faced the problem of neutralizing an armed gunman.  He did this by ignoring the thug while convincing his boss that gunplay would be in neither of their interests.

Bay notes that Donald Trump’s Twitzkrieg against Kim Jong Un takes a similar tack.  Trump reminds China that a nuclear armed Pyongyang — not Beijing — would hold the key to war and peace in North Asia, an intolerable state of affairs for the control freaks in the Communist Politburo. He cites Bill Emmot’s article as a summary of the argument that China would be safer if Kim were out of the loop. Emmot writes:

Fewer, however, have recognized that the least bad military option – the one implied by US President Donald Trump’s insistence that China take responsibility for its dangerous neighbor – is a Chinese invasion, or regime change forced through China’s threat to launch one. …

So if China were to combine threats of invasion with a promise of security and nuclear protection, in exchange for cooperation and possible regime change, its chances of winning over large parts of the Korean People’s Army would be high. Whereas a nuclear exchange with the US would mean devastation, submission to China would promise survival, and presumably a degree of continued autonomy. For all except those closest to Kim, the choice would not be a difficult one. …

Successful use of hard power would bring China, to borrow the distinction coined by Harvard’s Joseph S. Nye, huge reserves of soft power. … This scenario may well never happen. But it is so logical that the possibility of it should be taken seriously. It is, after all, China’s best opportunity to achieve greater strategic parity with the US in the region, while removing a source of instability that threatens them both.

So why not take him out of the loop?

Trumps strategy is to push until something breaks betting that Chinese link with Pyongyang will give before Beijing’s link with the rest of the world snaps. Ratcheting up the rhetoric with Kim is a big risk. But arguably the real gamble has already been taken by letting Kim get nukes in the first place. The failure of past administrations to contain nuclear proliferation has already rolled the dice. We are only living in the world they allowed to happen.

The weakness of Trump’s strategy is it can’t roll back the failure of nonproliferation — it can’t uninvent the gun in the gunman’s hand  — it can only try to shift control from Wilmer to Kaspar Gutman or analogously the nuclear trigger from Pyongyang to China. It may never work until a sufficiently scary incident occurs to jolt Beijing into collecting the WMDs.

But it’s the only play available. Austin Bay says “Trump’s information operation appalls mainstream media.”  And well it should because it Trump is basically proposing that China sell out its own flunkey.  “Let’s give ’em the gunsel. Anyway, he’s made to order for the part, look at him.”

Well indeed, look at him.

Follow Wretchard on Twitter

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Support the Belmont Club by purchasing from Amazon through the links below.


Annihilation from Within: The Ultimate Threat to Nations, by Fred Charles Ikle. In this eloquent and impassioned book, defense expert Fred Iklé predicts a revolution in national security that few strategists have grasped; fewer still are mindful of its historic roots. We are preoccupied with suicide bombers, jihadist terrorists, and rogue nations producing nuclear weapons, but these menaces are merely distant thunder that foretells the gathering storm.

The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All For the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II, by Gregory A. Freeman. This book is an account of Operation Halyard, the OSS mission to recover more than 500 American airmen shot down and trapped behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia. While local Serbian peasants gave refuge to the soldiers while they waited for rescue, once the operation started, the risks were incredible. The starving Americans had to construct a landing strip large enough for C-47 cargo planes — without tools, without alerting the Germans, and without endangering the villagers. And the cargo planes had to make it through enemy airspace and back — without getting shot down themselves.

Tank: The Definitive Visual History of Armored Vehicles, by DK. A visual history of armored vehicles, from the early tanks of World War I to present-day models, created in association with the Smithsonian Institution. It combines comprehensive photographic spreads with in-depth histories of key manufacturers and specially commissioned visual tours of the most iconic examples of their groundbreaking firepower. With two exclusive prints of a 1940 M3A1 (Stuart) and a 1940 StuG III.

Strategy: A History, Sir Lawrence Freedman, one of the world’s leading authorities on war and international politics, captures the vast history of strategic thinking, from David’s use of deception against Goliath, to the modern use of game theory in economics; from the surprisingly advanced strategy practiced in primate groups, to those of Achilles and Odysseus in The Iliad, of Sun Tzu and Machiavelli, the great military innovations of Baron Henri de Jomini and Carl von Clausewitz, the insights into corporate strategy by Peter Drucker and Alfred Sloan, and the work of leading social scientists working on strategy today. He tackles the core issue at the heart of strategy – whether it is possible to manipulate and shape our environment rather than simply become the victim of forces beyond one’s control – and emerges with a picture of strategy through time – and inherently unpredictable circumstances – that is fluid and flexible.

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
Tip Jar or Subscribe or Unsubscribe to the Belmont Club