Wishful thinking makes for bad policy

Wishful thinking is a dangerous addiction, for nothing warps one’s judgement like the temptation to believe that something will happen because you passionately want it to happen. And it’s true for both politics and journalism. “The desire for a turn in the narrative, says Jay Rosen, commenting on reports claiming to discern more consistency in Donald Trump’s behaviour since John Kelly’s appointment as his Chief of Staff, “is one of the more insidious forms of press bias”.1

We’re seeing wishful thinking at the moment in two interesting areas. One is the belief that Donald Trump’s presidency is simply too preposterous to endure; the other is in the widespread American conviction that North Korea will — somehow — be prevented from developing an ICBM capable of delivering a nuclear strike on the US mainland.

At home, liberals continue to be astonished, outraged and baffled by Trump’s behaviour in office. They see him as being pathologically irrational and inconsistent, and take comfort from the steady increase in the number of Americans who disapprove of what he’s doing, and how he’s doing it. They fondly imagine that there will eventually come a tipping point after which their tormentor will be impeached (or fail to be re-elected in 2020), and that those Republicans who currently support him will be punished in the 2018 mid-term elections.

I think they’re wrong. Trump has a strategy and he’s sticking to it like a barnacle. The strategy is to keep his core supporters happy, and he’s doing that brilliantly. The New York Times of August 4 reports a Gallup poll showing that his approval rating among conservative Republicans is 89 per cent — “almost exactly what it was in Inauguration Day”. The White House strategy, according to Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s counsellor and former pollster, is to make this group feel respected and listened to by the President and his staff. “So many of them look at this administration”, she said, “as a rescue in the making. “It’s not just about policy but respect. And they just haven’t felt respected.”

What’s behind the strategy is smart electoral politics. Right-wing conservative voters make up 36 per cent of the electorate according to Gallup. And the ones who are the hardest-core Trump supporters are capable of cutting up very rough if they think that their hero is being undermined by Republican lawmakers in Congress. There are mid-term elections coming soon, and many sitting Republicans who disapprove of Trump are scared of what might happen even in safe, gerrymandered seats if irate Trump supporters are moved to disrupt the primaries because they think the incumbent is insufficiently ‘on message’. So the Presidential behaviour that so riles and puzzles liberals is actually very astute. And he’s sticking to that particular playbook.

Meanwhile, on a broader canvas there is the ‘problem’ of North Korea. Conventional wisdom in the US — which appears to be shared by Trump — is that Kim Jong-Un’s determination to develop a nuclear weapon to deter US intervention in the Korean Peninsula and extract concessions from the international community is (a) irrational and (b) so unacceptable to the US that it won’t be tolerated. Exactly how Kim’s plans will be thwarted is however totally unclear because the risks for South Korea of a US pre-emptive strike on the North are incalculable. So at the moment, wishful thinking appears to characterise US official policy towards Kim Jong-Un.

Funnily enough, we have been here before, as Max Fisher explains in a terrific New York Times piece. The key to understanding North Korea’s strategy, he argues, may lie in the recent past of another Asian nuclear state: China.

Mao Zedong’s China began, in the 1950s, as a pariah state, isolated and threatened by the United States. It became, in the 1960s, a rogue nuclear power. And then it rose, through the 1970s, into an accepted member of the international community, embraced even by its onetime adversary.

North Korea appears bent on following that progression. A nuclear program that can threaten the United States, making war unthinkable, would be only step one — and may, with the missile tests this summer, now be complete.

China ultimately won acceptance by playing the United States against the Soviet Union, not by rattling nuclear sabers. Its size and power also made it impossible for other nations to ignore it, advantages that North Korea lacks.

But North Korea’s desperation, as well as its longtime obsession with China, may have led it to see the possibility, however misguided, of achieving success by following Beijing’s script.

Looked at it this way, the next logical step for North Korea would be the removal of the US forces which police the demarcation zone between it and South Korea, followed by the eventual ‘reunification’ of North and South. Here again the template is what happened with China.

Most people nowadays forget that, following the Chinese revolution, in 1949 the ousted regime fled to an offshore island — Taiwan — and this tinpot regime (the ‘Republic of China’) was internationally recognised as ‘China’ and actually occupied the country’s seat on the UN Security Council.

“For years”, writes Mr Fisher,

the United States recognized Taiwan, where it based troops, as the rightful Chinese government. But that relationship flipped in 1979, when the United States normalized ties with Beijing and broke its alliance with Taiwan.

North Korea may hope to use a similar playbook, splitting the United States from South Korea. The break would not need to be so drastic to fulfill the North’s goals; official neutrality would do.

The current Chinese government — representing the People’s Republic of China — has always maintained a claim to Taiwan (now a prosperous high-tech economy) but has to date shown no inclination to enforce the claim and thereby ‘unify’ the Chinese state. If this is indeed the model that Kim Jong-Un is working towards, then ‘normalisation’ of relations with the United States is the logical first step. And — who knows? — in the end a rational government in Washington might reach the same conclusion as Richard Nixon did when he decided in 1971 that he would make an official visit to China: best to acknowledge reality and act on that realisation. If a future US administration does decide to abandon wishful thinking about North Korea, then maybe Kim will get his handshake one day.2

  1. And, en passant, it glosses over the fact that the US is becoming dependent on military figures to keep the President under some kind of control. 

  2. It’s worth noting, though, that Nixon was using the about-turn to drive a wedge between the Chinese Communist regime and the Soviet Union. One problem with Kim’s policy (if that is indeed what it is) is that it’s difficult to see what the analogous motive would be for the US recognising his regime.