Kim, China, Etc: Why Trump’s ‘Madness’ Works When Reasonableness Does Not
If you saw that famous handshake across the demilitarised zone between the North and South Korea presidents last week, it was partly prompted by Trump’s mad tweets and bluster on North Korea last January.
Playwright George Bernard Shaw is credited with this observation: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man”.
The line separating unreasonable men from madmen is often a thin one, but the last 100-and-odd years prove the prophetic nature of Shaw’s statement. Whether all the change achieved by unreasonable men, including madmen, constitutes “progress” is questionable. But change, for better or worse, is more or less guaranteed.
The 20th century has seen more than its fair share of madmen ruling the world, from mass murderers like Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot to stateless lunatics like Osama bin Laden and Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi, not to speak of the Saddam Husseins and Bashar Al Assads.
Sometimes it takes madness to defeat madness. The madness of Hitler was defeated only by the dogged madness of Stalin, whose army handed him defeat on the eastern front well before the allied forces landed in Normandy. The madness of the Japanese could be defeated quickly only by the American madness in deploying an atomic bomb against unarmed civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Mao’s madness led him to kill millions of his own people before, after and during the “cultural revolution”, but it is his totalitarian madness that armed his people with basic education and health that is standing them in good stead. Every Asian despot over the last half century has delivered higher standards of living for his people.
In the 21st century, we have had fewer Hitlers, Stalins and Maos, but we are not short of mad politicians or mad ideologies. Many in America consider Donald Trump as borderline mad, and many think the same about North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Or, for that matter, the Pakistani army, which periodically threatens us with nuclear retaliation to keep us on the defensive.
If you saw that famous handshake across the demilitarised zone between the North and South Korea presidents last week, it was partly prompted by Trump’s mad tweets and bluster on North Korea last January. When Kim Jong Un pointedly said that the nuclear launch button was “always” on his table, Trump shot back on Twitter: “The North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un stated that the nuclear button is on his desk at all times. Will someone from his depleted and food-starved regime please inform him that I too have a nuclear button, but it is much bigger and more powerful than his, and my button works!”
No US president has ever threatened any other nation after the Second World War with nukes, but Trump did just that. One presumes that the nuclear button Trump has is not as easy to punch as the “Send” button on Twitter, but the message of madness sent by his tweet could not have been lost by the North Korean madman: if Trump can threaten nuclear retaliation on Twitter, it is hardly beyond his capability to undermine or try to organise something equally painful in North Korea, including possibly a coup. Everyone knows that one cannot expect sweet reasonableness or rationality from a man who has sacked half his cabinet on a whim and a fancy.
Many past US presidents have tried to defang North Korea by using interlocutors, emissaries and threats of sanctions, but it took an unreasonable one to get through.
Similar madness – the threat of trade war with China – may have prompted the Chinese to consider the possibility that they are dealing with a madman who may well deliver on this threat some time. Trump’s bull-in-China-shop moves have had a positive impact on Sino-Indian relations, as this article posits. If the US is going to make life harder for Chinese exporters, it hardly makes sense for the Dragon to keep verbal hostilities with India at the post-Doklam decibel level.
In fact, rightly understood, the Indian decision to thwart the Chinese at Doklam and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s unexpected raise in customs tariffs – which also target Chinese supremacy in mobile phones and household gadgets – should be seen as our own contribution to counter the Chinese belief in our pusillanimity and predictability. These kinds of moves were not expected from India. The last thing China needed was an India not only inflamed by border incidents, but also poised to launch a mini trade war just when Trump was about to do the same. China has a $50 billion surplus with India in trade, and it can hardly afford to write this off.
Dividends from madness in our neighbourhood can best be illustrated by Pakistan’s behaviour towards India, where its generals have kept the world on edge by periodically suggesting that any Indian move into Pakistani territory to combat terror could invite a nuclear retaliation. Not just that, Pakistan has even threatened Israel with a nuclear attack over Syria.
It is apparently the unhinged nature of Pakistani nuclear talk that makes the world kowtow to it, and the pressure instead shifts to India to make concessions to keep those madmen away from the nuclear trigger. Unreasonable men get away with murder because reasonable men can be counted on to be reasonable. We see this in families too: the bully child will always be humoured by the parent, while the quiescent and obedient one will be asked to continue being nice and accept injustice. This is why India’s mindless candlelight-wallahs and peaceniks are wrong on Pakistan.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi called this bluff when he authorised the army to conduct surgical strikes inside Pakistani territory against terror camps in 2016 – sending the message that India too can be unpredictable.
On another plane, the strongest religions are often the ones with the most irrational and unreasonable dogmas; some religions are willing to go as far as to prescribe death for apostasy, while others are willing to lie through their teeth to get people to convert. It is the pragmatic and flexible religions that end up looking weak, though this weakness may be more apparent than real.
It is possible to overstate the case for madness and unreasonableness in a world that is anyway angry over hundreds of real and imagined problems. But a degree of madness resulting in unpredictability seems important to get other real madmen and blackmailers to take notice and call their bluff.
We need not argue with the idea that the world is better off with fewer madmen than more of them, but we need not shy away from another conclusion: a demonstrated degree of unpredictability with enemies is useful as a deterrent. Predictability leads to complacence and invites trouble.
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