On Tuesday night, an apparently-bored President Trump took to Twitter to drop some hot takes on North Korea and the media. Here’s what he tweeted, sending the media into paroxysms of orgasmic faux-panic:
This prompted absolute in-the-background-of-a-Kevin-Bacon-shot-Animal-House-style panic from the mainstream media. John Heilemann stated on Morning Joe on MSNBC that the tweets made Trump seem “demented and deranged.” Jimmy Kimmel stated that “we have two maniacs with nuclear warheads bragging about who has the bigger button.”
So, what are the real ramifications of the president of the United States engaging in a Spaceballs Schwartz-size-comparison with a dictator with nukes?
Not much. If anyone really believes that Kim Jung Un will launch nukes at the United States based on a tweet, ending his own life and destroying his regime with one press of a button, that’s patently nuts. The Kim family is interested only in maintaining power. They’re not interested in anything beyond posturing, and they’re certainly not interested in an actual nuclear exchange.
It’s not tweets like this that will make a difference to American foreign policy, just as it made no difference in American foreign policy when Reagan joked about nuking the Soviet Union. What would make a difference would be Trump signaling friendship or apathy about an unfriendly state making aggressive moves. Those states might feel comfortable going to war, knowing that Trump tends to bluff about the use of force anyway. I wrote this back in March 2017:
Words matter. In 1990, U.S. ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie reportedly told Saddam Hussein that the U.S. wouldn’t intervene if Hussein moved on Kuwait; foreign policy analysts have theorized that these words helped cement Hussein’s decision to invade…when Trumpian conspiracism bleeds over into foreign policy, that has actual consequences abroad. When Trump refuses to condemn Vladimir Putin’s human rights record, that matters — it emboldens Putin.
But Trump mouthing off about North Korea isn’t him appeasing states on Twitter. It’s the opposite. It’s him blustering. That may be off-putting. It may make people uneasy. But it’s not going to lead to nuclear war, so everyone should calm down. The only button on the president’s desk orders Diet Coke.