North Korea, Presidential Wars, and Trump

Trump is simply taking a similar path to that of his predecessors’.

Earlier today, my four-year old son caught a snippet of the news in which they exaggerated the current status of the relations between North Korea and the United States. Being classic “shock doctrine,” this bit of news created more than just sparks of fear in my son’s mind. It took a bit of reassurance from his mother, but eventually my youngest calmed down and [hopefully] forgot all about the North Koreans who were going to “kill everyone.”

What is the deal with Trump and North Korea, anyway?

I want to preface the rest of the post with this: I didn’t vote for Trump, much like I didn’t vote for Clinton; I saw them both as being equally bad choices, and therefore no choice at all. Douglas Adams once wrote, “… it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it … anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.” I stand in firm agreement with that statement.

War, not just with Korea, is inherently American (I’d argue, even human). The United States was born out of war, re-solidified after the Civil War, and became a major global power due to its actions during the Second World War. There is some patriotic about fighting for your nation, almost as if the tales of Greek and Roman warriors have been passed through the ages and those feelings of glory and honor still gild military action the world over. Perhaps, those on the outside see war, and those fighting on their side, as Henry Fleming in The Red Badge of Courage who likened the thought of going into battle as the of the glory found in the epics of Homer. Only, Henry found that there were more horrors to war than what were found in the stories of old.

Think for a moment on the greatest presidents in United States’ history. You may find yourself thinking of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt. What do all of these figureheads have in common? War. Respectively, the Revolutionary War. the Civil War, and World War II. While the Revolutionary War was not fought during Washington’s time in office, it did pave the path to his presidency in its aftermath. Both Lincoln and FDR rode the wave of war to successive terms in office and better public opinion. It can be said that Bush II, albeit not a great president by historical standards, used the popularity of the War on Terror and operations in the Middle East to his advantage. Obama showcased a photo of the late Osama bin Laden during his 2012 re-election campaign to help boost his image. In America, war binds the country together.

Trump is simply taking a similar path to that of his predecessors’. (Pointing out Obama’s drone strike legacy is not part of this post, but maybe a future one.) War with North Korea has a decent chance of boosting Trump’s poll numbers and maybe even leading him to a second term in office. Even though he hasn’t been in office an entire year yet, it’s not too early for him to plan for the future. With the lackluster poll numbers he’s had so far, it may take something as drastic as war to improve his odds.

So, why North Korea? The country maybe on the last bastions of 20th Century “Communism,” but their economic output and relative threat are greatly dwarfed by that of the United States. It’s almost as if the biggest kid at recess is looking to punish one of the scrawniest kids in the yard… and it’s exactly that. Dictatorships do not get into more wars than democracies; rather, democracies are more selective about which conflicts in which they engage.

If you know much about North Korea, whether it be their outlandish news reports or the impoverished state of their people, a full on assault by the United States could wipe out the country’s leadership within a week (assuming China or Russia does not provide aid). The people of the country are so impoverished that they could not withstand the invading force. Knowing this, Kim Jong Un attempts to deter foreign military action with bravado, but in the real world, the combined strength of the United States’ military is an impressive force, second only to the US Dollar.

In response to Un’s botched foreign policy, most of the world seems to ignore him with the exception of the United States. Here, much attention to the dictator’s tantrums and selected voice clips is paid; fear is a powerful force. The fact that the source of the fear is far away and poses little actual threat to a world superpower makes it an even better target for exploitation. By making himself look as if he is standing up against “evil” and those that would “destroy America,” Donald Trump succeeds in using a proven presidential tactic.

Will this move pay off for Trump in the end? That’s hard to say, but he has history in his favor.

Will America go to war with North Korea? I think that’s doubtful considering the role of China in today’s world, but underestimating the impulsiveness of Trump’s potential decisions would be folly. On this one, we will have to wait and see.

Author: Deric Tilson

I am a classically-trained economist and doctoral student at George Mason. I'm an ecopragmatist and interested in the cross-section where economics, ecology, and ethology meet. I hope to work for non-for-profits specializing in economic development and eventually moving to either the public sector or a think tank. My research interests include the political economy of war, resource economics, the applications of complexity theory, the mitigation of risk by impoverished individuals, and global water scarcity.

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