When Chinese President Xi Jinping sat down with U.S. President Donald Trump in Mar-a-Lago last month to enjoy “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake ever seen,” his expectation was likely not that dessert would be interrupted by news of a U.S. missile strike in Syria.
But amidst conversations about militarization in the South China Sea and North Korea’s nuclear program, Trump broke in. “Mr. President,” Trump reportedly told the Chinese head of state, “we’ve just launched 59 missiles… heading toward Syria and I want you to know that…” Trump claimed that Xi Jinping “paused for ten seconds” before asking “the interpreter to please say it again.”
And so deepened the narrative of Trump’s unpredictability; his tendency to act on a whim; his disconnect between setting policy and implementing it. How could a man so previously skeptical of U.S. involvement in Syria so quickly make this 180? What was next? Would he ratchet up rhetoric and might against the increasingly belligerent North Korea? Was the Syrian strike a testament to Trump’s irrationality, or was there something more to it?
No Coincidence: Credibility Over Chocolate Cake
Prominent theorist and Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling proposed that successful coercion requires four components: capability, credibility, communication, and calculation. Schelling also determined that unpredictability, a marker of Trumps’ presidency, increases a leader’s credibility and the state’s bargaining power by complicating an adversary’s calculation of risks, costs, and benefits.
Although Trump’s unpredictability has resulted in an anxiety inducing first hundred days, the campaign in Syria, undertaken while dining with Xi Jinping, is no coincidence. The Syria strike was a calculated move that sought to re-capture U.S. credibility in a way that would shake Beijing. “Obviously, the U.S. felt that it didn’t need to wait until after that summit [to strike Syria], so they didn’t hesitate to do it right in the middle of the summit,” said senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, David Dollar. “That’s definitely sending some kind of message to Xi Jinping.”
Days before the meeting, North Korea had launched a Scud-ER ballistic missile, which many claim was an act of defiance against the United States. Yet, since meeting with Trump over that piece of chocolate cake, China has begun to scramble in a way that never seen under previous U.S. administrations.
The East Asian powerhouse went so far as to publish a rare criticism of North Korea, even calling for more sanctions should Pyongyang conduct any more nuclear tests. Beijing was fiercely rebuked by North Korean state run media, which said that “China had better ponder over the grave consequences to be entailed by its reckless act of chopping down the pillar of the DPRK-China relations.”
Now caught between two seemingly unpredictable actors, Trump and Kim Jong-un, the stakes have been raised as Beijing attempts to appraise the validity of U.S. military threats against North Korea. And indeed, Beijing has much to lose should North Korea find itself in a military confrontation with the U.S. A collapsed North Korean regime would send a flood of refugees over the border into China, and would almost certainly guarantee a prolonged U.S. military presence in the Korean Peninsula for years to come.
The Rationality of Irrationality: Communicating Threats
Pyongyang’s lashing out, whether through missile tests or military parades, is nothing new, and hardly unpredictable. Rather, the state’s behaviors fit squarely within the framework of why a country like North Korea would cling so desperately to its nuclear weapons program: a show of power and prestige on the international stage, while building legitimacy around the regime at home.
In fact, North Korea has long taken pages out of Schelling’s playbook—from provoking the international community when faced with condemnation to careful posturing and shows of military might—all to increase the leverage that could result in aid and sanctions relief in exchange for peace.
“North Korea’s system might look bizarre to us from the outside,” says Andrei Lankov, a professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University, “but the Kims are the ultimate political survivors, hard-edged rationalists whose actions have always had a clear purpose: keeping the family in power. Seeing them as madmen is… wrong.”
In this sense, North Korea, like Donald Trump, is not as irrational as it seems. Rather, North Korea has perfected the art of commitment, as the U.S. seizes the opportunities accompanying Trump’s unpredictability to do the same. Or as theorists Kenneth Waltz and Art Jervis would say, Trump is showing an unprecedented U.S. commitment to coercive diplomacy, effectively creating in North Korea “the expectation of costs of sufficient magnitude to erode [its] motivation to continue what [it] is doing.”
No Fear: Showcasing U.S. Capability
But communicating threats, mudding calculations, and reclaiming credibility are not enough to ensure successful coercion. Schelling echoed this sentiment in 1966, saying that “nations, like people, are continually engaged in demonstrations of resolve [and] tests of nerve.“
It is thus that capability, and a show of sheer U.S. might, seems to be at the forefront of Trump’s coercive diplomacy. The deployment of the U.S.-designed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea greatly degrades North Korea’s nuclear capacity, while twisting Beijing into uneasy knots as it claims that THAAD could be used to detect Chinese missiles, effectively undermining its nuclear deterrent.
But, in perhaps an even bigger show of force, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, while giving an interview in South Korea, defied orders to remain behind the military demarcation lines separating North and South. But Pence insisted on giving his interview from the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), with North Korean soldiers standing fewer than 100 feet behind him—a theatrical display of might to accompany Pence’s message: that President Trump would handle the North Korean regime unlike any U.S. president ever had.
“We’re going to abandon the failed policy of strategic patience,” said Pence from the DMZ. The Vice President then quickly pointed to the U.S. strikes in Syria to reinforce the seriousness of the matter, saying “North Korea will do well not to test [Trump’s] resolve or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region.”
And yet, while regaling the crowd of reporters with the language of coercive diplomacy, North Korean soldiers stepped closer to snap photos of the Vice President—an often used tactic to intimidate North Korean adversaries. Pence, however, clad in a leather bomber jacket and perhaps mirroring the same resolve and strength as the country he represented, never seemed to flinch.
North Korea’s Last Clear Chance
The United States’ threats of unilateral action, combined with its pressure on Beijing and a well timed show of force in Syria, has built credibility around the idea that as far as the United States is concerned, Pyongyang is facing its “last clear chance” to comply with the U.S.’s tacit ultimatums. Trump’s perceived irrationality, combined with credible threats, may be a foreign policy based on fear—but it is one that weakens North Korea’s bargaining position and whittles down its policy options as it confronts the prospect of certain regime death.
So within Schelling’s framework, the answer to the question proposed earlier emerges as yes—there is indeed an underlying rationality to Trump’s seemingly irrational policies. And seizing on the power of unpredictability, Trump is sending a message to North Korea, loud and clear: the time for deterrence has passed, and the era of coercion is here.