Misdiagnosing Kim Jong-un


If US President Donald Trump and his advisers continue to assume that traditional deterrence does not apply to North Korea, they are likely to lose the latest geopolitical chess match. History shows that those who mistake their political or military adversaries for lunatics are usually disastrously wrong.

MILAN – Throughout history, political observers have found decision-makers who are deemed “crazy” the most difficult to assess. In fact, the problem is rarely one of psychopathology. Usually, the label merely indicates behavior that is different from what conventional analysts were expecting.

This was surely true of the twelfth-century Syrian religious leader Rashid al-Din Sinan. During the Third Crusade, the supposedly mad “Old Man of the Mountain,” as he was known, succeeded in disrupting a Crusader advance on Jerusalem by directing his followers to carry out targeted assassinations. After carrying out their orders, the assassins often stayed put and awaited capture in full view of the local populace, to ensure that their leader received proper credit for the act.

At the time, such actions were incomprehensible to the Western mind. Westerners took to calling the Old Man’s followers hashashin, or users of hashish, because they regarded intoxication as the only possible explanation for such “senseless” disregard for one’s own physical wellbeing. But the hashashin were not drug users on the whole. And, more to the point, they were successful: their eventual assassination of Conrad of Montferrat led directly to the political collapse of the Crusader coalition and the defeat of Richard the Lionheart of England. As Polonius says of Hamlet, there was method to the Old Man’s madness.

Today, the problem of analyzing supposedly lunatic leaders has reappeared with the North Korean nuclear crisis. Whether North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is mad is not merely an academic question; it is the heart of the matter.

US President Donald Trump’s administration has stated unequivocally that it will not tolerate a North Korean capability to threaten the mainland United States with nuclear weapons. According to Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, the administration’s position reflects its belief that Kim is crazy, and that “classical deterrence theory” thus does not apply.

During the Cold War, US President Dwight Eisenhower reasoned that even if Stalin (and later Mao) was homicidal, he was also rational, and did not wish to perish in a US counter-strike. The logic of “mutually assured destruction” that underlay nuclear deterrence worked.

If, however, the leader of a nuclear-armed state is a lunatic who is indifferent to his physical safety and that of those around him, the entire deterrence strategy falls apart. If Kim is insane, the only option is to take him out before his suicidal regime can kill millions of people.

But is Kim truly crazy, or does he simply have a worldview that discomfits Western analysts? His dramatic overture to hold a summit with Trump by May hardly seems to fit the “madman” narrative. In fact, it looks like the act of someone who knows exactly what he is doing.

Consider three strategic considerations that Kim could be weighing. First, his regime might be planning to offer concessions that it has no intention of fulfilling. After all, an earlier nuclear deal that the US brokered with his father, Kim Jong-il, was derailed by duplicity. In 2002, the US discovered that the regime was secretly enriching weapons-grade uranium in direct violation of its earlier pledge.

In fact, North Korea has demonstrated time and again that it doesn’t play by the rules. It enters into negotiations to extract concessions such as food aid, and then returns to its objectionable activities, thus starting the entire Sisyphean cycle again. There is no reason to think that this time will be different. But the regime’s deviousness should not be mistaken for irrationality or madness. Simply by expressing his openness to talks, Kim has already won some of the political legitimacy he craves.

Second, rather than being a lunatic, Kim seems mindful of recent history. Whereas Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya paid the ultimate price for giving up their nuclear programs, Kim has advanced his regime’s nuclear capabilities and is now publicly treated as a near-equal by the most powerful man on the planet. The Kim regime has always sought such vindication above everything else.

A third and final consideration is that North Korea is playing for time. Though it has agreed to halt nuclear and missile tests in the run-up to the summit, it could be using the intervening months to develop related technologies. For example, it still needs to perfect an atmospheric re-entry mechanism to make its intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the US mainland reliably and accurately. Moreover, as long as the summit is in play, North Korea need not fear a US military strike. That is a perfectly rational and sensible prize for Kim to pursue.

All told, North Korea’s “opening” will most likely amount to much less than meets the eye. But one can still glean valuable strategic insights from Kim’s diplomatic gambit. North Korean thinking reflects cunning, to be sure; but it also betrays the regime’s will to survive, and its desire to master the current situation. This suggests that Kim is not “crazy” after all, and that conventional deterrence will still work, as it has since 1945.

That is good news for everyone, but particularly for the Trump administration, given that it will almost certainly fail to secure any meaningful concessions from North Korea in the upcoming talks.

Gaming out chess players: The Italian Renaissance and Vladimir Putin

Gaming out chess players: The Italian Renaissance and Vladimir Putin

 If learning the precious truth that we can be the danger (see my Gibbon column of last week) is the first commandment of political risk analysis, gaming out chess players is surely another. Chess players—foreign policy actors playing the long game, possessing fixed, long-term strategic goals even as they use whatever tactical means come to hand to achieve them—are rare birds indeed. Patient, low-key, but implacable, chess players do that rarest of things: they actually think ahead and are not prisoners of short-term day-to-day events, instead conditioning all that they do in furtherance of their long-term strategy.

Chess players manage to cloak their dogged, disciplined strategies, hiding them in plan sight of our frenetic 24-hour news cycle, from a world that does not generally follow such fixed principles and cannot really conceive of how others might be able to hold to a clear strategic line. In a world of tacticians, it is easy for a strategist to conceal themselves.

Pope Julius II as the true hero of The Prince

Following on from the Crusades, the western world entered a period of cultural and political regeneration we now call the Renaissance. As is true for most eras, it was more politically chaotic, brutal, and bloody than it seems in retrospect. In the confusing, uncertain milieu of early-sixteenth century Italy, a man arose who fit the tenor of his times.

Pope Julius II has been shamefully underrated by history, as his contemporary Niccolo Machiavelli–the author of The Prince, the bible of modern realpolitik—instead lionised failed Bond villain Cesare Borgia rather than the more successful pope. However, we have five centuries of distance from the swirling events of the Renaissance, allowing us to take up the more dispassionate, chess-playing view that Machiavelli urges on us. So let us here re-write the ending of The Prince, this time using Julius II as the proper analytical hero of the piece.

Julius was born Giuliano Della Rovere around 1443. Like Cesare Borgia, his path to power was speeded along by close familial contacts to the papacy. Della Rovere was the much-loved nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, becoming his uncle’s de facto prime minister. Following on from the death of Sixtus, Della Rovere assumed that he would succeed him. However, he was beaten out by Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, Cesare’s father, who assumed the title of Pope Alexander VI. So Della Rovere, in good chess player fashion, tried to undercut Alexander, knowing his time was coming.

When Alexander VI died in 1503 (and with the lightning quick demise of his successor, Pope Pius III, in just 26 days) Della Rovere at last made his long-considered move. He deceived the supposedly worldly Cesare and ran rings around him diplomatically, securing the papal throne by means of bribery, both in terms of money and future promises. With Cesare throwing the powerful Borgia family’s crucial support behind him, the new papal conclave was one of the shortest in history, with Della Rovere winning on only the second ballot, taking all but two cardinals’ votes. He ascended to the papal throne at the end of 1503.

Now that Cesare had outlived his usefulness, Julius withdrew his promised political support from him in true Machiavellian fashion, seeing to it that the Borgias found it impossible to retain their political control over the papal states of central Italy. Julius rightly reasoned that to fail to eradicate the Borgia principality would have left the Vatican surrounded by Borgia possessions and at Cesare’s very limited mercy.

Without papal support Cesare’s rule on his own—without the critical backing his father Alexander VI had provided—lasted merely a matter of months, with his lands reverting to Julius and the papacy itself. Julius had run rings around Machiavelli’s hero, fulfilling the chess-playing maxim that securing one’s political position leads to political stability and long-term rule. That, Niccolo, is what a real chess player looks like.

Making sense of Putin

 However, chess players are not just relic of the byzantine Renaissance age. Russian President Vladimir Putin is a perfect modern-day example of a chess player, as all the many devious tactics he pursues ultimately amount to a very single-minded effort to restore Russian greatness, often by blunting the west’s drives into what he sees as Russia’s traditional sphere of influence in the countries surrounding it. In other words, the Russian strong man resembles another chess player, former French President Charles De Gaulle, in his single-minded efforts to restore pride and great power status to his humiliated country.

As such, Putin’s many gambits: theatrically opposing the US despite having a puny, corrupt economy the size of Texas; pursuing an aggressive adventurist policy against the pro-western government in Ukraine; intervening to decisive effect in the horrendous Syrian war; all serve one overarching strategic goal. They are designed to make the world (and even more the Russian people) change their perceptions about Russia as a declining, corrupt, demographically challenged former superpower (which it is), and instead see it as a rejuvenated global great power, one that is back at the geostrategic top table.

Despite all facts to the contrary (and in the end, as was true for De Gaulle’s France, the facts just don’t bear out the incorrect perception that Russia will again be a superpower), Putin has been very successful in (wrongly) changing global perceptions of Russia’s place in the world. It is also the reason the current tsar has an 80% approval rating in his own country, as he has restored pride to his formerly humiliated countrymen. By knowing what ultimately motivates the chess-playing Putin, we in the west can do a far better job in assessing the entirely explicable tactical gambits emanating from the Kremlin.

The rewards for spotting the rare chess player

 Despite the difficulty in spotting them, it is well worth the time trying to game out chess players, perhaps the rarest of creatures in global politics. For once they are analytically brought to ground, the fixed, rational, patterns that chess players live by means a true analytical understanding of them is possible, as well as a far better understanding of the world in which they live.

Published by Princeton University Press, March 13, 2018

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a prominent global political risk consulting firm. For three years, Hulsman was the Senior Columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the pre-eminent foreign policy organisation. The author of all or part of 14 books, Hulsman has given over 1520 interviews, written over 650 articles, prepared over 1290 briefings, and delivered more than 510 speeches on foreign policy around the world. His most recent work, To Dare More Boldly; The Audacious Story of Political Risk, will be published by Princeton University Press in April 2018 and is available to be ordered on Amazon.




Gibbon, Decadence and Europe’s Current Decline

 Between 1776 and 1788, the peerless eighteenth century Enlightenment historian (and sometime lackluster British Whig MP) Edward Gibbon set about remaking his profession. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire fastened upon an analytical conclusion that has not only proven invaluable to historians since but lays down an incredibly challenging gauntlet for political risk analysts in particular.

Gibbon managed to conjure up through his life’s work a novel, cutting-edge answer to one of the most important historical questions of all time: why did the Roman Empire, in many ways the most powerful and durable political construct ever created, finally disintegrate? He persuasively argues that, while on the surface it was the barbarian invasions that brought it to an end, this was only the final symptom of the Roman malaise, not the root cause of the disease. For Gibbon, Rome fell not primarily because of outside pressures but rather owing to an internal and gradual loss of civic virtue amongst its citizens.

In other words, Rome was destroyed from within. Gibbon creatively saw that the political risk that overwhelmed the greatest of empires came about due to a failure to recognize and combat home-grown problems. Political risk analysts have grappled with Gibbon’s incisive analysis ever since, as there is almost nothing harder than for humans to look in the mirror and honestly say, “We are the problem.”

A Heat Wave in France

 In early August 2003, the blood-red sun rose implacably over the city of Paris. It was the hottest summer on record in Europe since at least 1540. Temperatures were regularly hovering at a sweltering 104 degrees Fahrenheit. As the heat rose to wholly unaccustomed levels, many people—particularly the elderly—started dying. According to the French National Institute of Health, in France alone 14,802 people died of heat-related complications that sun-baked August.

As is the case with most catastrophes, there was plenty of blame to go around. Saying this, one basic overriding thread connects all the culprits behind this tragedy: the absolute and ridiculous sanctity of the French summer vacation. In place of religion or ethics, many Europeans have to come to worship their comfortable (if economically unsustainable) way of life as the paramount goal of being, to the exclusion of all else.

At the time of the emergency, President Jacques Chirac was on holiday in Canada. He remained there for the duration of the crisis. Likewise, Prime Minister Raffarin refused to return from his Alpine vacation until August 14, the day before the temperatures at last began to cool. Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei also exhibited highly dubious priorities, failing to come back to a sweltering Paris when he was most needed. Instead, his junior aides blocked emergency measures—including the state recalling doctors from their holidays—to attend to the afflicted.

But even this is too simple. Do French doctors really need to be told by the government that it is their duty to come back and deal with an obvious medical emergency? Do French families really need the state to instruct them that they must cut short their time at the beach to minister to the endangered elderly relatives they have left behind?

This was a society-wide conspiracy, in that no ne was responsible because everyone was responsible. As Gibbon would have appreciated, thousands of individual, personal decisions—on their own merely dots in the national painting—all pointed in the same, indefensible position. Nothing must be allowed to get in the way of les vacances.

Europe’s present state perfectly fits Gibbon’s classic definition of decadence; it is a society that has lost the ability to deal with its problems coupled over time with abdication of responsibility for them. Gibbon would clearly see that it amounts to the psychological, political, and moral process that is destroying the old continent.

Managing, not solving

European leaders, in thrall to decadence, have gotten used to talking of ‘managing’ problems, rather than ‘solving’ them. Yet does anyone think the euro crisis, the refugee crisis, or the political crisis of the EU has been ‘solved’?

Rising above all these unmet challenges is a simple factor of math: EU countries comprise 9 percent of the world’s population, account for 25% of global GDP, but consume a staggering 50% of the planet’s social spending. The bleak truth is that these numbers are simply unsustainable. Europe is not going through some little local difficulty. The way of life it knew and enjoyed from 1950 to the Lehman Brothers crash will never return.

Conclusion: Back to the heat wave

Everyone in France that dreadful August knew that something terribly wrong was happening back in Paris. Few had the will to give up their overly-precious vacations and do anything about it. Gibbon’s old and venerable concept of decadence emerges as the primary roadblock—and the chief source of contemporary political risk—that not only obscures the knowledge necessary to save Europe but saps the will to act itself. Whether we like it or not, we are the risk.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a successful global political risk consulting firm. For three years, Hulsman was the Senior Columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the pre-eminent foreign policy organisation. The author of all or part of 14 books, Hulsman has given over 1520 interviews, written over 650 articles, prepared over 1290 briefings, and delivered more than 510 speeches on foreign policy around the world. His most recent work, To Dare More Boldly; The Audacious Story of Political Risk, will be published by Princeton University Press in April 2017.