Monday, February 26, 2018

Doubling Down on a Losing Hand: The Economy of Threats Yet Again

The American president is threatening North Korea again. You can find out some of the details here. I expect this threat to work just about as well as the last bunch. The problem with threats, I've tried to argue, is that they have limited effectiveness and that limited effectiveness, eventually, comes home to roost. I don't think, by any measure, that we are near the end of the line on threats. I don't think the US is anywhere near a serious confrontation in Korea. The heightened tension that both the US and North Korea created was, as it were, intentionally, as part of its own economy of threat. The North Korean government uses threats to try to accomplish its objectives because, frankly, it has precious few other resources. The US government is using them because (a) its power and influence *are* waning and (b) its government has seriously misjudged how foreign policy works (or, at least some in its government have).  The fact that threats have been uttered, however, does not mean that you, I, or anyone else can, should, or even will pay attention to them -- other than talking heads whose job depends on paying attention to them. What is interesting about this latest set of threats is not that they have been made, but what they illustrate about the economy of threats as part of IR. That is the matter I'd like to look at. What I want to argue is that the current US government does not make good use of threats as a tool of foreign policy.

Using the latest threat as an example, there are at least two things that this latest development illustrates about the economy of threats.

First, doubling down on a weak strategy -- upon threats that have little purchase -- is likely not going to get the results you want, particularly if you've already used hyperbole in previous rounds of threats. According to New York Magazine, President Trump has tried to up the ante, as it were. After imposing the latest round of sanctions he apparently said: “If the sanctions don’t work, we’ll have to go to Phase 2,” Trump replied. “Phase 2 may be a very rough thing. May be very, very unfortunate for the world.”  This is intended to increase the tension and to draw other governments in, ideally spurring action where previous US efforts have failed, because they are worried about some unnamed -- but ominous sounding -- threat.

Here is where the problems begin. The US has already unleashed the supposed toughest sanctions ever. So, if those were the toughest sanctions ever ... sanctions that would supposedly cripple North Korea ... what happened? How did we get a new round of tougher toughest ever sanctions? Was the US holding something back? Did it not make quite the toughest sanctions it could have made? In fact, North Korea has no serious international economic activity except, I read, for China and, truth is, China just ain't gonna pay attention to this. Thus a threat like this carries a twofold risk: (a) it makes previous statements look ... well ... bad. Frankly, it makes the US President sound a bit like the North Korea dictator ... and that ain't good. And (b) it will be ignored and then what do you do?

You see the point: if you are trying to use threats as a foreign policy tool, you need to be sure that the threat has a reasonable chance of working. If it has failed in the past, doubling down likely means only that it won't work a second time and, in the process, you end up harming yourself because you make yourself look blustering as opposed to threatening.

Second, there is nothing new in threats. Governments have been making them, I bet, for as long as there have been governments. In talking about an "economy of threat," what I am trying to do is draw attention to the fact that threats are a tool. I may not like them; you may not like them but that does not mean that governments will not use them.  As a tool, they can have more than one use. For instance, the target audience of a threat against a foreign country could actually be a domestic audience. By "talking tough" a political leader might be looking to solidify their positions as a tough leader in a way that appeals to voters (or, more likely, a specific subset of voters).

I suspect that some of this is what is going on with the Trump administration. After all, no one can seriously think -- any more -- that threats will have any effect on China or North Korea and so simply stating them is little more than a waste of time. They thus might, possibly be directed to a domestic audience and this makes sense. After all, Republicans faulted Democrats (well, they faulted just about everyone but especially Democrats) for the supposedly bad position of the US on the international stage. The US government was just, in their view, not acting tough enough and letting other countries get away with things. It was time to get tough and get others towing the American line. It is possible that these threats are intended to maintain that image of toughness, which was an important element of the Republican campaign and self image.

The problem is that this is where the economy of threats also breaks down. The US has duly and fully threatened North Korea already and has not accomplished its aims. Its tried upping the ante -- remember "my button is bigger" -- and it ended up looking silly, at least in the eyes of the international community. At least in the eyes of ... well ... a thousand comics, the US president looked a clown. If the goal, then, was to look tough, precisely the opposite happened. It is still possible that the Trump base found his stand and discourse convincing but ... even if that were true (and, it might be) ... then the building up of empty threats must (sooner or later) lead them to see matters differently. In other words, they must realize, after a time, that the hardline discourse they were sold as the route to power and influence is ... well ... not working. Far from having more power and influence ... it is actually having the opposite effect: few people on the international stage or, again other than those who are paid to take it seriously or at least talk about it in the media, even in the media, are offering much commentary on it.

I do not mean to say anything good about the North Korean regime but you can see how they are far more experienced players of the threat game than Trump. After making a threat, they are busy de-escalating and doing things with South Korea for the Olympics. In other words, they recognized that their credibility was gone and they needed to adopt a different tactic. Recognizing that the people of South Korea would prefer cooperation or even just live and let live (not their ideal solution to be sure) to the discourse of war, they played a different card. Rather than threatening, they look cooperative, held "high level" meetings (from which the US is excluded) and put together at least one joint Olympics team. I have no doubt that they will return to bluster because, well, they have little else but the distinction is important. Internationally, the US now looks like the aggressor.

Threats have a certain economics. They cannot just be used over and over again. After a year of Trump government one thing we have learnt -- among the others -- is that they don't really realize this. Adverse to soft power options (talks, joint projects, culture) by virtue of their very discourse but unable to really use hard power they way they promised (because, well, they just ain't gonna start a war), they are debasing their own currency: threat. In the process, rather than gaining influence, they are losing it but because their ideology is based on hard power and threat, they cannot recognize what the problem actually is and so have doubled down on a losing hand.
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