by Mark Haichin
Well, it’s hardly surprising that something went wrong with Donald Trump’s trip to Asia. It seemed to be going fairly well at first, too, at least by the standards set by Trump’s behaviour this past year – mostly due to the fact that he avoided raising uncomfortable topics such as human rights and democracy in China and the Philippines. But then he found himself defending Vladimir Putin’s denials about meddling in the US elections last year and being forced to awkwardly clarify his remarks when it was pointed out that the US intelligence community strenuously disagreed. And on November 12th, he responded to an earlier statement by the North Korean government that referred to him as an “old lunatic” with a passive-aggressive tweet where he called North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un “short and fat” (though for whatever reason he didn’t take offense to being described as a lunatic).
The fact that the President of the United States is petty enough to launch insults at other heads of state over Twitter, especially in the way a stereotypical teenager would, is a problem in itself. It transcends merely embarrassing behaviour to become an outright national security concern, however, when those insults are aimed at the leader of a hostile nuclear weapon state that is already feeling seriously threatened by a number of other tweets and hostile signals, as North Korea has over the course of the past year. Perhaps most blatantly, an earlier tweet by Trump in late September, which stated that North Korea’s leaders “won’t be around much longer,” was explicitly referred to by the North Korean government as a declaration of war (which is admittedly a frequent statement). Bizarrely, threatening another state apparently doesn’t count as a violation of the Twitter terms of service, as presidential statements are considered newsworthy by default and thus supersede pesky rules like not harassing and threatening people.
All of this serves to indicate the broader issue that Trump’s use of Twitter is circumventing the usual means of conducting diplomacy – which is especially concerning in light of reports that his administration is essentially gutting the State Department. In the past, professional diplomats have been key in preventing conflict by communicating with each other and clearing up possible misperceptions that leaders might have about the intentions of their peers. Such misperceptions have a tendency to lead to war between states, as leaders on both sides overestimate the other side’s actual hostility and willingness to fight until one or the other decides they need to strike first.
Unfortunately, this seems to be what’s happening between Trump and Kim Jong-Un at present. North Korea’s government has long been concerned about the US invading and removing it from power (given that they had fought during the Korean War and has never fully ended hostilities with US-aligned South Korea), and invested significant resources into developing a nuclear arsenal in order to prevent this. The present consensus is that if the North Korean government believes that it is about to be attacked by the US and overthrown, it will retaliate with every weapon at its disposal – after all, if Kim Jong-Un and his lackeys are removed from power, they’ll likely be killed like Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi were, so what would they have to lose at that point? By threatening this kind of retaliation, the regime’s intent is to make any attempt at overthrowing it a suicidal venture, especially since the Kim family’s style of governance over the years have made it readily apparent that they are willing to do anything to stay in power. Naturally, the reasonable thing for other states to do in this situation would be to avoid any kind of signal that would lead the North Korean government to think it will be attacked, such as threatening to “rain fire and fury” on it in response to its nuclear tests.
Trump, however, seems to lack the filter that most heads of state possess, and regularly tweets whatever he’s thinking without so much as consulting advisors and diplomats as to whether it would be a good idea to do so (or to make sure his remarks are anywhere close to factually correct). Moreover, as the leader of the US, his comments are easy to interpret as his country’s official position. So when Trump tweets that the US has prepared military solutions to deal with North Korea, it’s only logical for the North Korean government to seriously consider the possibility that an attack is likely. Given the heated rhetoric on both sides, it is likely that either North Korea or the US ends up believing that the other side is about to attack and decides to strike first, even if it turns out that no such attack is imminent. While there have been calls in the US to mitigate this by removing Donald Trump’s authority to launch a nuclear first strike (with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee actually debating this), Trump’s erratic tweets could still help provoke a war by giving the impression that there may be a conventional attack.
The fact of the matter is this: Donald Trump’s habit of blustering and threatening leaders on social media is not just unbecoming of a world leader, but is a threat to US national security in its own right, as it may lead other states to believe an attack is imminent even when this is not the case. If a nuclear war were to break out, that threat could end up having dire consequences for states beyond the belligerents, especially if other nuclear weapon states like China (which is technically allied with North Korea, if only out of perceived necessity). Shutting down Trump’s Twitter account seems like a simple solution to this, if only because it would force him to think about what he says a little more and potentially go through somewhat more sensible advisors. Yet Twitter’s moderators claim that even his most threatening tweets don’t actually violate their terms of service due to their newsworthiness, and thus his account shouldn’t be shut down or even suspended in response. We can only hope that they decide to change their minds before one of Trump’s tweets leads to disaster.
Mark Haichin is a PhD candidate with the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. He has a Masters in International Relations (Research) from the London School of Economics, UK. He specialises in issues relating to nuclear deterrence and proliferation. In addition, he has strong research interests in terrorism, ethnic conflict, and international relations.