North Korea and the Problem of Twitter Foreign Policy

North Korea has tested another ballistic missile, once again failing (but undoubtedly learning from the failure). In response, Donald Trump, the Global Crusader of Convenience, has mounted his trusty steed — well, mouse — and tweeted out another of his toothless sound bites, continuing his one-man mission to prove that while the pen may be mightier than the sword, any butter knife can have its way with the mobile device of the most powerful thirteen-year-old on the planet:

North Korea disrespected the wishes of China & its highly respected President when it launched, though unsuccessfully, a missile today. Bad!

The absurdity of a national leader speaking to his nation and the world via his Twitter account is more than simply that it makes him and his nation look frivolous, unserious — although it certainly does that. The greater problem is that whereas loose lips may sink ships, that effect can usually be averted by a rephrasing or a carefully worded follow-up observation, while loose typing, on the other hand, once sent out into the permanence of cyber-infinity, cannot be taken back or undone without the appearance of simple contradiction.

Writing, even the casual offhand writing of a Tweet, always carries the stigma of deeper commitment. Everyone knows a man may misspeak, or overstate, in the heat of the moment. But the printed word suggests forethought, review, mediation — you have to take the time to type and (presumably) edit the words, and then actively undertake the physical steps to send them into the aether.

The danger of the written word, as we’ve known at least since Plato delineated the problem, is that writing commits you to specific thoughts, while simultaneously removing those thoughts from your own control; your ideas, once written, immediately become clay for others to sculpt as they will, regardless of your original meaning.

Now if Plato, one of the greatest and most careful writers of all time, is susceptible to such a danger, how much moreso a poor and half-conscious scribbler like Donald Trump?

“China & its highly respected President.” Seriously? Did he mean to say that? Sure he did, because Donald Trump thinks his glad-handing is going to turn heads and hearts. In his mind, he’s got China in the palm of his tiny hand now. Meanwhile, what he’s really done is reveal himself as criminally stupid, praising communist China’s bureaucrat-despot in a lame attempt at self-protective triangulation, the way a scared teenager tries to avoid the taunts of a small but daunting bully by sidling up to the school’s biggest tough guy in the hopes of frightening the little bully away. He’s just signalled his reliance on China to save him from having to back up his own tough talk with action. In other words, he has shown the Chinese his lousy hand, while continuing to see himself as a brilliant bluffer.

And the North Korean missile test itself? “Bad!” That exclamation mark says it all — namely that Trump is so dumb he thinks he’s talking down to his audience when in fact he’s talking up to them. Does he really imagine the world is waiting for him to pass judgment on the self-evident?

Of course North Korea testing missiles is “bad,” you idiot. North Korea existing is bad. So what are you going to do about it? We know the answer. You are going to carelessly, thoughtlessly, cavalierly, self-importantly ratchet up the kind of back-and-forth rhetoric that might trigger a crazy, slightly frightened megalomaniac to do the hitherto almost unthinkable. (I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide who’s the crazy megalomaniac in this context.)

Why doesn’t Trump turn off the Twitter account and let America’s strength show itself in actions, if that’s his inclination? Because that’s not his inclination, as he just showed by none-too-subtly begging China to intervene. That’s not to say the U.S. won’t launch an ill-conceived bombing raid on North Korea’s missile launch sites tomorrow. Having brayed about “last chances” for a month, Trump has now wedged himself into a put-up-or-shut-up position. Given his history, he’s more likely to slink away while pretending to be strutting away — but who knows? He’s never had a stage this big on which to humiliate himself before, so anything is possible.

But that position he’s wedged himself into is the point. The problem — and it is a problem, contrary to the hero fantasies of the people who are just sure these failed missile launches were caused by Trump personally stealing into Pyongyang in the dead of night and cutting some wires — is Trump’s inclination to talk too much, rather than letting his actions speak for him. (A natural enough instinct for one whose whole political life thus far has been a lot of talk and very little action.) Eventually, your words create expectations, and when those expectations are not met, the result is a fully exposed weakness.

When he catches himself up in fruitless bluffs and flat-out pandering lies on healthcare, immigration, and other domestic issues, at least the damage he does is mostly to the fragile egos of his cultists, who hardly know what to believe from one day to the next to keep their idolatry in some sort of workable order. The same behavior in the realm of foreign policy, however, has the potential to put lives in immediate peril.

Someone please take away this child’s digital devices before he gets a million people killed in the name of his reality TV presidential attention-seeking.

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