Dr. John C. Hulsman: The North Korean Summit Hiccup Belies the Greater Problem of the White House’s Failure to ‘Game Out Lunatics’

HulsmanLegend has it that at the height of the Third Crusade (1189-1192), Count Henry of Champagne spoke at length with the mysterious, charismatic “Old Man of the Mountain,” Rashid ad-Din Sinan. The story goes that the haughty Crusader claimed that he had the most powerful army in the Middle East, one that could at any moment defeat the Hashashin, the Old Man’s threadbare cohort of followers. Count Henry went on, pointing out that his force was at least ten times larger than that of Sinan’s.

Unimpressed, the Old Man calmly replied that the Count was mistaken, and that it was his unremarkable-looking rabble which constituted the greatest army in the field. To prove his point, he beckoned one of his men over to him and casually told him to jump off the top of the Masyaf mountaintop fortress in which they were holed up. Without hesitating, the man did so.

Through the many centuries that separate us from Count Henry, the myriad twists and turns on Western politics, culture, and life that come between us, there is absolutely no doubt at all that Westerners today would share his horrified reaction to what the Old Man of the Mountain had demonstrated to him.

“This guy is totally nuts.”

***

This telling historical vignette was eerily reenacted last week, in Donald Trump’s ‘break-up’ letter to Kim Jong-un, the far-out leader of seemingly indecipherable North Korea. Playing the part of Count Henry, the President not so subtlety hinted that America, as the greatest military force in the world, could wipe North Korea off the map at any moment it chose. Like Count Henry, Trump was making it clear to his rival that in essence their contest was so strategically lopsided that meek surrender—in this case with the policy end game of unilateral North Korean nuclear disarmament as the only possible outcome—really was the only possible option.

But as was true for Count Henry, that assumes your enemy is playing by the same rules that you are, and makes the same calculations. If, to our horror, we found that they do not, it is far too easy to simply say our enemies are ‘crazy,’ meaning their motives simply cannot be fathomed, letting us off the hook far too easily.

Throughout history, both decision-makers as well as geopolitical analysts have always had a very hard time getting past the wholly understandable first reaction that those with very different belief systems from ours are simply unknowable. In the Old Man in the Mountain’s case, given his effective strategy for engaging in strategic assassinations, Westerners took to calling his followers Hashashin, or “users of hashish,” as drugs became the only possible (and incorrect) rationale the Crusaders could come up with to explain their intensity, morale, and absolute personal commitment to Sinan, rather than to the Western value of the sanctity of human life. It has always been all too easy for decision-makers to write off ‘lunatics,’ lazily saying to themselves that the different and the strange simply cannot be understood.

There has been a lot of this misdiagnosis going on regarding Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian hermit kingdom; former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster forthrightly said Kim Jong-un was ‘crazy,’ and is therefore unable to be deterred by the threat of a nuclear counter-strike, meaning that the nuclear deterrence which has kept the global peace for these past seventy-plus years does not apply to North Korea’s nuclear programme. But have Kim’s actions really proved so unknowable, just because North Korea’s politics and culture are so admittedly different from our own?

Far from it. While there is no doubt Kim Jong-un would serve as an excellent Bond villain—between very publicly poisoning his half-brother Kim Jong-nam with sarin and executing his pro-Chinese uncle and former mentor Jang Song-thaek by blowing him to pieces with artillery—there is surely method to his madness. 

While the North Korean dictator is certainly odious, he seems to have a very well-defined and rational sense of self-preservation; in fact, he killed his uncle and his brother precisely because he feared they might emerge as threats to his continued rule and also to his life. In not allowing any alternate sources of leadership to emerge within the famously closed-off North Korean regime, Kim is clearly enhancing his chances of survival in the political shark tank he calls home.

Nor is Kim’s single-minded pursuit of an advanced nuclear weapons program capable of striking the US lunacy; rather the dictator has read some recent history, as the recent spat over the Libya model—a point which led to the temporary postponement of the summit—makes eminently clear. A North Korea in possession of such weapons has a ‘get out of jail free’ card, being able to ward off the oft-stated US desire for regime change in Pyongyang. Kim would be able to definitively avoid the recent fate of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, who relinquished their nuclear programs, only to be overthrown and brutally killed.

For National Security Adviser John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence to bring this up, illustrates that it is they and not the ruthless North Korean dictator who are living in an illogical fantasy world. For the Libya model, given the horrendous outcome for Libyan dictator Gaddafi, would obviously seem to be the last framework of choice for Kim Jong-un to embrace, given his rational desire for survival. As ever, American hawks overrate the objective global power position of the United States, as we live in a world where America, for all that it remains the most powerful nation on earth, is simply no longer the only game in town.

By understanding neither the basic structure of the world we live in—that it is comprised of many powers—nor that Kim Jong-un might be put out by the Gaddafi comparison, senior figures in the Trump White House seem to have forgotten that any negotiation short of unconditional surrender usually involves give and take by both sides, in this case over the terms, time frame, and pace of North Korea disarmament, as well as over the security guarantees that are necessary for a surprisingly rational Kim to be given, in securing both his position and his life.

The Old Man of the Mountain must never be forgotten by modern-day decision-makers, as in the end his seemingly unfathomable against-the-odds strategy was crowned with an improbable victory in the Third Crusade. His successful career underlines the vital need to game out ‘lunatics’ such as Kim Jong-un. For not only is there almost always method to their madness. Sometimes they actually win.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is President and Managing Partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political-risk consulting firm. His new book, To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk, was published by Princeton University Press in April and is available on Amazon. He lives in Milan, Italy.

Jason Brennan: How Kneeling Athletes Reveal the True Nature of Politics

BrennanMuch of Puerto Rico may be without power for six months. North Korea is increasingly belligerent. The world’s reaction to coming climate change ranges between empty symbolic gestures and nothing. A just shy of fascist party won 13% of the seats in the German federal election. The U.S. has been at war—and troops have been dying for frivolous reasons—for sixteen years. But what are Americans most outraged about? Whether football players kneeling during the National Anthem, in protest of police brutality toward blacks, is somehow wrongly disrespectful of a flag, “the troops!”, or America.

Both sides accuse the other side of hypocrisy and bad faith. And both sides are mostly right. Hypocrisy and bad faith are the self-driving cars of politics. They get us where we want, without our having to drive.

What Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels (in the 2016 Princeton University Press book Democracy for Realists) call the folk theory of democracy goes roughly as follows: People know their interests. They then form preferences about what the government should do to promote these goals. They vote for parties and politicians who will best realize these goals. Then the government implements the goals of the majority. But the problem, Achen and Bartels argue, is that each part of that “folk theory” is false.

Instead, as economist Robin Hanson likes to say, politics is not about policy. The hidden, unconscious reason we form political beliefs is to help us form coalitions with other people. Most of us choose our particular political affiliations because people like us vote that way. We then join together with other supposedly like-minded people, creating an us versus a them. We are good and noble and can be trusted. They are stupid and evil and at fault for everything. We loudly denounce the other side in order to prove, in public, that we are especially good and pure, and so our fellow coalition members should reward us with praise and high status.

Our political tribalism spills over and corrupts our behavior outside of politics. Consider research by political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood. Iyenger and Westwood wanted to determine how much, if at all, political bias affects how people evaluate job candidates. They conducted an experiment in which they asked over 1,000 subjects to evaluate what the subjects were told were the résumés of graduating high school students. Iyenger and Westwood carefully crafted two basic résumés, one of which was clearly more impressive than the other. They randomly labeled the job candidates as Republican or Democrat, and randomly made the candidates stronger or weaker. At that same time, they also determined whether the subjects—the people evaluating the candidates—were strong or weak Republicans, independents, or strong or weak Democrats.

The results are depressing: 80.4% of Democratic subjects picked the Democratic job candidate, while 69.2% of Republican subjects picked the Republican job candidate. Even when the Republican job candidate was clearly stronger, Democrats still chose the Democratic candidate 70% of the time. In contrast, they found that “candidate qualification had no significant effect on winner selection.” In other words, the evaluators didn’t care about how qualified the candidates were; they just cared about what the job candidates’ politics were.

Legal theorist Cass Sunstein notes that in 1960, only about 4-5% of Republicans and Democrats said they would “displeased” if their children married members of the opposite party. Now about 49% of Republicans and 33% of Democrats admit they would be displeased. The truth is probably higher than that—some people would be upset but won’t admit it on a survey. Explicit “partyism”—prejudice against people from a different political party—is now more common than explicit racism.

At least some people have honest, good faith disputes about how to realize shared moral values, or about just what morality and justice require. We should be able to maintain such disputes without seeing each other as enemies. Sure, some moral disagreements are beyond the pale. If someone advocates the genocidal slaughter of Jews, fine, they’re not a good person. But disagreements on whether the minimum wage does more harm than good are not grounds for mutual diffidence. But, as ample empirical research shows (you can read my Against Democracy for a review), we are biased to see political disputants as stupid and evil, rather than just having a reasonable disagreement. Indeed, as Diana Mutz (in her Hearing the Other Side) shows, people who are successfully able to articulate the other sides’ point of view hardly participate in politics, but the nasty true-believers vote early and often.

It’s not a surprise people are so irrational and nasty about politics. The logic behind it is simple. Your individual vote counts for almost nothing. Even on the more optimistic models, you are as likely to change an election as you are to win Powerball. Accordingly, it doesn’t matter if your political beliefs are true or false, reasonable or utterly absurd. When you cross the street, you form rational beliefs about traffic patterns—or you die. When you vote, though, you can afford to indulge your deepest prejudices with no cost. How we vote matters, but how any one of us does not.

Imagine a professor told her 1000-student class that in fifteen weeks, she would hold a final exam, worth 100% of their grade. Suppose she told them that in the name of equality, she would average all final exam grades together and give every student the same grade. Students wouldn’t study and the average grade would be an F. In effect, this scenario is how democracy works, except that we have a 210-million person class in the United States. The downside is not merely that we remain ignorant. Rather, the downside is that it liberates us to use our political beliefs for other purposes.

Politics makes us civic enemies. When we make something a political matter, we turn it into a zero-sum game where someone has to win and someone has to lose. Political decisions involve a constrained set of options. In politics, there are usually only a handful of viable choices. Political decisions are monopolistic: everyone has to accept the same decision. Political decisions are imposed involuntarily: you don’t really consent to the outcome of a democratic decision.

Now back to football players kneeling. My friends on the Right refuse to take the players at their word. The players say they’re protesting police brutality and other ways the U.S. mistreats its black populace. My friends on the Right scoff and say, no, really they just hate America and hate the troops. This reaction is wrong, but not surprising. Imputing evil motives to the other side is essential to politics. The Left does it all the time too. If, for example, some economists on the Right says they favor school vouchers as a means of improving school quality, the Left will just accuse them of hating the poor.

It’s worth noting that since 2009, the Pentagon has paid the NFL over $6 million to stage patriotic displays before games to help drive recruiting.[i] The pre-game flag shows are literally propaganda in the narrowest sense of the word. Personally, I think participating in government-funded propaganda exercises is profoundly anti-American, while taking a knee and refusing to dance on command shows real respect for what the country supposedly stands for.

Jason Brennan is the Flanagan Family Chair of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He is the author of The Ethics of Voting (Princeton), and Against Democracy. He writes regularly for Bleeding Heart Libertarians, a blog.

Jeremi Suri: Is Trump blustering toward Armageddon?

Jeremi Suri, the editor for our America in the World series, has penned a powerful longform piece in The American Prospect, detailing how he thinks Trump could stumble into war:

“Trump will quickly and irretrievably lose control of his threats and commitments, and he will find himself pressured to pursue unwanted wars to preserve the very image of toughness that will get him into trouble in the first place. His belligerent deterrence will induce global war-fighting, as happened repeatedly during the Cold War. This time, the damage will be much greater and perhaps existential. We are witnessing the rapid demise of the American-led world order that for 70 years averted war among the largest states. The next few years, perhaps just the first year of the Trump presidency, will bring us to a dangerous new precipice in multiple parts of the globe. America doesn’t face the risk of war in just one theater of conflict. Under President Trump, the United States faces that risk in at least four separate theaters.”

Suri goes on to outline what he perceives as risks in several complicated strategic spaces: The Middle East, Europe, North Korea, and the South China Sea. Suri sets his warning in historical context, asking whether past precedent can offer a warning to current policy-makers. Read the full piece here.

Explore our America in the World series here.