Sandbox politics is hard to watch, but easy to interpret. One side hurls an insult, the other responds louder and more offensively. The exchange ends with thrown sand or thrown fists. Bloody noses and bruised egos follow.
Ask any parent. Or Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who just called the President Trump-Kim Jong-Un war of words a “kindergarten fight.” No one wants to be lectured by Russians about civility, but the man has a point. The childish Trump-Un verbal showdown is frightening. It could lead to war.
The world may be beyond shock or outrage given last year’s rude and raucous presidential election. But every once in a while it’s worth stopping to ask how we got here and what it means.
POTUS is name-calling, potentially making a bad situation with North Korea worse. Un deserves every epithet flung his way, of course, but what’s unprecedented is the loud, public invective coming from the leader of the free world and commander-in-chief of the world’s greatest military force.
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Trump’s fighting words and challenge to Un’s manhood is ill-advised and dangerous. It serves no strategic end. It might serve as an ego boost or to re-activate a domestic political base. Presidential taunting of a foreign nation, however, should be calculated, with clear objectives and achievable outcomes. This is nuts.
What does it mean in strategic terms when Trump calls British terrorists or Afghan guerillas “losers”? Does “Little Rocket Man” calling the president a “Dotard” raise the DefCon level in any real way? Does each elevated exchange have a practical effect on how military commanders on the ground perceive their mission or adjust their preparedness? Can a momentary and miscalculated Twitter missive lead to shooting down airplanes or declaring war?
Escalation toward conflict once hung on a single word or nuanced phrase to signal a policy shift or increased tension. U.S. Ambassador Eleni Kounalakis (Disclosure: She’s my wife) says that in traditional diplomacy “a whisper is a roar.” But now, f-bombs and insults need to be factored into a new global diplomatic framework for calculating escalation and measuring hostility.
Foreign governments and analysts hang on the president’s every word and Tweet, trying to divine what the bombast and bile mean in terms of policy. Part of it is always going to be dismissed as a negotiating ploy to get better terms, achieve better results. That’s natural.
Subtle, diplomatic language has been used for decades to achieve the same ends Trump seeks with invective – to get what he wants. Unlike Trumped-up epithets, “diplospeak” is an established form of communication, with stock phrases and a tradition that provides an international verbal and navigable roadmap.
It is sometimes gestural and silent. Effective, too. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wore pins to express her mood or reflect the anticipated ease or difficulty of a meeting, as she described in her book “Read my Pins.” Albright’s pins were her lapel emojis. A slithering Saddam Hussein earned a serpent pin.
But even the most trained and successful diplomats make mistakes. Their subtleties can be misunderstood. In 1990, U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie's utterances to Saddam Hussein were interpreted as American indifference toward a potential Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The dire consequences of that mistake led to war, cost lives and treasure, and continue to haunt America 27 years later. If Glaspie instead told the dictator “don’t even think about crossing the f*ing border,” he might have gotten the message and two Iraq wars could have been averted.
Veiled threats and blatant warnings are worthless, however, without credible consequences. The press and public thought they understood what “red line” meant in Syria. President Assad used chemical weapons and crossed that red line. Even though President Obama believes that “words matter,” he did not follow through to punish Assad. Obama’s inaction and measured approach became an invitation to adversaries and allies to test America's resolve and question the president's credibility. Trump highlighted Obama’s failure to act when earlier this year he used 59 Tomahawk missiles to attack Syria following a similar chemical attack.
Trump’s popular Syrian attack and the following adulation only encourages his current aggressive instincts and diatribe-filled approach. Flexing military muscle and exercising a motor-mouth is a bad combination. Past presidents have preferred to speak softly and carry a big stick.
That doesn’t mean that foreign leaders play by the same rules. Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini called America “The Great Satan.” Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte regularly goes to the gutter and said President Obama was a S.O.B. – the same phrase President Trump casually tosses at NFL protesters. But neither Khomeini nor Duterte were existential threats to the United States.
An American political divide still exists between those who take Trump’s words literally versus seriously. In North Korea, the most hermetically sealed nation on earth, the leadership takes Trump literally and the propaganda-fed population takes him seriously. Ridicule and derision do not play well with the paranoid of Pyongyang.
Words do matter. How Trump’s words turn into action matters. The world waits, listens and hopes it doesn’t get screwed.
Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D. is a senior fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @KounalakisM.