Geopolitics

On North Korea, Trump Has Now Gone Full 'Madman'

The U.S. president's threat to 'totally destroy' a nation is beyond the pale. But is there method to it?

Trump leaving the podium after his speech on Sept. 19
Trump leaving the podium after his speech on Sept. 19
Aaron Blake

-OpEd-

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump took to the floor of the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday and, in his maiden speech there, called the leader of North Korea "Rocket Man," decried "loser terrorists' and said certain parts of the world are "in fact, going to hell."

But Trump's perhaps oddly chosen colloquialisms masked what was an astounding escalation of his rhetoric when it comes to North Korea. Just to be clear: The president of the United States threatened to wipe a country of 25 million people off the map.

"Now North Korea's reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles threatens the entire world with unthinkable loss of human life," Trump said. He later added: "The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself."

This seems to be Trump even more fully embracing the so-called "madman theory."

Trump's rhetoric on North Korea has been very tough before. He turned heads last month by threatening to unleash "fire and fury" if North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong Un, threatened the United States. But Trump's speech Tuesday ratcheted things up in two respects: saying the United States would also unleash a massive response on behalf of its allies, and threatening to "totally destroy" the country.

"Fire and fury" could be interpreted as a threat to simply remove Kim and his government; "totally destroy North Korea" seems to be a signal to the North Korean people that they, too, could face annihilation alongside their government leaders. It sounds a lot like Trump is threatening an unprecedented effort to wipe out an entire nation, whether through nuclear weapons or more conventional means. It's a remarkably big statement, and the White House will undoubtedly be asked to clarify.

It's also different from the "fire and fury" comment in that this was Trump delivering a prepared speech, in which his words were undoubtedly pored over extensively beforehand. The White House acknowledged after Trump made the "fire and fury" comments that they were ad-libbed, and analysts generally agreed that perhaps the commander in chief got a little carried away and became hyperbolic — as he tends to do.

Rolling Stone magazine's Oct. 5 cover

Trump's address to the United Nations on Tuesday should erase any doubts that he is threatening an unprecedented military strike against North Korea. This seems to be Trump even more fully embracing the so-called "madman theory," in which he makes himself so unpredictable that other world leaders fear setting him off.

But that approach isn't without its downsides. Former general David Petraeus described it thusly a few days back:

"There is some merit to this. You can argue perhaps there is some merit to it in international relations, although it obviously can go too far. My concern there with the so-called "madman theory" — that actually Richard Nixon put forward through Kissinger where he had Kissinger tell the Soviets, "You know, Nixon's under a lot of pressure right now and, you know, he drinks at night sometimes, so you guys ought to be real careful. Don't push this into a crisis." There may, again, be some merit into the madman theory until you get in a crisis. But you do not want the other side thinking you are irrational in a crisis. You do not want the other side thinking that you might be sufficiently irrational to conduct a first strike or to do something, you know, so-called "unthinkable.""

Polls show the American people are not confident in Trump's ability to handle the North Korea situation, with 61% saying they are "uneasy." Trump's words Tuesday likely won't calm many fears, but he's clearly gambling on North Korea backing down in the face of big talk.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Society

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel

-Essay-

BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.


Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ