Can Trump’s brash business style pull us back from the brink of nuclear war?
National security decisions are unlike business decisions in one critical way: you can learn and recover from most mistakes in business
President Donald Trump tweeted: “North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them!”
The threat of instability and the outbreak of war on the Korean peninsula is probably 2017’s wild card, which could foretell chaos for markets and global economies.
With each successive test launch, North Korea creeps closer to its goal of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile that could threaten the US mainland. Trump has stated that the US is open to taking military action to try prevent this.
While the US certainly sent a message with a recent salvo of 59 cruise missiles directed at a Syrian air base, it confronts limited choices in striking North Korea, which has batteries of missile launchers and artillery that could effectively flatten Seoul, South Korea’s capital of 10 million people.
Trump and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will have to contend with something that few successful businessmen encounter: the wilderness of mirrors that constitutes national security issues.
The Cold War taught us that’s where lies and truth are indistinguishable enough to form facts. The inherent ifs, errors and commitments by Trump after his latest tweet will be the ingredients of high drama – success or tragedy.
Vague outcomes and plodding diplomacy are anathema to profit and results-driven, rational behaviour seekers such as Trump and Tillerson.
That is, negotiating for the sake of negotiating rather than seeking immediate and tangible results may be frustrating, but a necessary tool for creating a meaningful dialogue with North Korea, which presently does not exist.
Trump prides himself as a man of action. He is not likely to be too intellectually circumspect or to over analyse history for fear of being a prisoner of history. Yet he has to be careful not to let events unfold with an urgency that becomes so fluid that they spin out of control.
National security decisions are unlike business decisions in one critical way. You can learn and recover from most mistakes in business.
In national security, certain mistakes can be catastrophic, irrecoverable and fatal to a nation. Yet, tough decisions must be made because non-decisions create power vacuums that are inherently risk by themselves.
Compared to most business dilemmas, human intelligence on North Korea appears so scant that former NBA All Star and Chicago Bulls player Dennis Rodman is still the highest-profile American to meet Kim Jong Un since 2013.
One former top US diplomat noted that, as bizarre as Rodman’s trip was, it nonetheless offered the most detailed picture Americans have of one of the world’s most reclusive leaders.
“There’s nobody at the CIA who can tell you more, personally, about Kim Jong Un than Dennis Rodman,” said Stephen Ganyard, a former State Department official, at that time. “And that, in itself is scary.” And over the last four years Kim has only become more belligerent.
So now, as Winston Churchill said, “The terrible ifs accumulate.”
Trump and Tillerson (or Jared Kushner) will need Kissinger-like skills in realpolitik to craft a fulcrum and balance of power with China to manoeuvre North Korea into a rational position of containment or détente- two Cold War terms that must be exhumed and re-examined relative to regime change. Otherwise, we could be facing our generation’s version of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
While many Americans wonder if a property developer and businessman can run a government, the world is hoping that he can pull us back from the brink of nuclear confrontation.
Businessmen can fall into the analytical trap of seeking decisive results or victories that in the national security world descend into an unrelenting quagmire.
His tweets suggest he could take that chance if Trump expects a short war and limited consequences. The short war concept – A quick, decisive victory – could be Trump’s orthodoxy after his attack on Syria; the economic impossibility of a long war appears to be the market’s orthodoxy as it hovers at record highs.
History suggests otherwise. Kaiser Wilhelm II told departing troops in August, 1914: “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.”
A German officer leaving for the Western Front said he expected to take breakfast at the Café de la Paix in Paris on Sedan Day. Russian officers expected to be in Berlin about the same time; six weeks was the usual allowance.
Just like then, critical mistakes by key leaders will make the time for splendour or “Make America Great Again” come to pass. Because after Trump’s tweets, there’s no looking back.
But, there will be no turning back. Poor decisions could result in opposing nations being caught in a trap – a trap from which there historically was, and has been, no exit.
Peter Guy is a financial writer and former international banker