Nuclear Jenga — in a Bouncy Castle

I’ve waited for about 36 hours before saying this, hoping someone with a bigger and more relevant microphone would do so. But, to the best of my knowledge, no one has yet — so here goes:

The people of the world with an interest in self-preservation should do anything — anything — to keep Trump from “negotiating” with North Korea.

It is hard to dream up a scenario with more possible disaster-level downsides and zero realistic upsides. If Trump sits down at that table, it is like shaking a Magic 8-Ball of awful outcomes; we trade the status quo for something unpredictable in its details — except that it will predictably be worse.

At its most basic, “Game Theory” consists of building a tic-tac-toe style chart of moves and possible countermoves, then seeing which actions by your side create the best resulting circumstances.

But sometimes the best move is no move. In bull-meets-china-shop scenarios, there is no safe path to leave both the bull and the merchandise uninjured. A wise bull-owner keeps his bull outside, placated with alfalfa or female cows, or literally whatever it takes.

Trump negotiating with North Korea is a grand-scale example of just such a no-win scenario for America. Not for Trump himself, mind you — he uses a different calculus — but for America.

Nuclear diplomacy is tricky.

This is why, in the 1940s, we formed the RAND Corporation* and staffed it with many of the world’s greatest minds — to professionally think about the complexities of managing a Mexican stand-off featuring end-of-the-world level weapons. They puzzled and re-puzzled about these mammoth issues, with the full backing of a supportive government.

* I lived for a number of years near RAND’s headquarters in Santa Monica, California — a location chosen in part to continuously remind its personnel how much better surf-shorts and milkshakes are than nuclear holocausts.

Say what you will about the Cold War, but one fact can’t be ignored: We’re still here. Armchair quarterbacks can spin counterfactuals on how it might have been done better, but history only gives us one try — and on a pass/fail grading system, we passed.

And with the stakes what they were, “we” doesn’t just mean America, but the entire human species.

Despite lasting almost a half-century, The Cold War featured surprisingly few “showdown moments” where either side tried to shunt the strategic balance by more than a hair’s-breadth at a time. The cost of failure was just too high. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the most famous “eyeball-to-eyeball” moment; the Berlin Airlift, a close second. There were a few US-Soviet summit meetings, but the tensions there were not at a hair-trigger for conflict.

In all cases, at all times, the decision-makers treated nuclear danger with catastrophic seriousness.

The representatives at the nuclear negotiating tables who preserved us against armageddon — both on our side and Russia’s — all shared certain characteristics:

  1. They were familiar with, and placed a high value on, the very best foreign intelligence available to them;
  2. They viewed nuclear stability as the most important part (and often the only part) of their job; and
  3. They carried overriding incentives to maintain peace and stability.

Reading this list today should horrify us.

Why? Because NOT A SINGLE ONE of these prerequisites will describe the dragon-tickling invitation to disaster we would create by allowing Donald Trump to negotiate with North Korea in America’s name.*

* I say “in America’s name” rather than “on America’s behalf” for reasons that follow.

I consider myself a political conservative on very few issues — but apocalypse-avoidance is one of the few. When the downside risks involve the un-corking of nuclear genies and destabilizing the entire world, I vote “better safe than sorry.”

The grim-but-effective tenets of our 20th Century predecessors is the best road map we’ve got on nuclear diplomacy. And it didn’t involve improv, bravado, name-calling, or “winging it.” It was serious business.

So — if you haven’t already stopped reading and begun writing your Congressperson — what follows is a brief sketch of why Trump is a fork-in-the-eye to the three fundamentals of the Nuclear Negotiator Playbook.

1. The Best Intelligence Available

The U.S. may have great intel on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and motives. We may not. Frankly, I don’t know — and unless you work in the foreign intelligence services, probably neither do you.

But there are people whose job it is to know, and to keep the President informed.

But these are the people whose daily briefings Trump refuses to read. They’re also the people he bad-mouths as having cooked up the “Weapons of Mass Destruction” that got us into Iraq — blaming the intelligence community instead of the cherry-picking and motivated inflation by the Bush Administration. In short: Trump, our putative Commander-in-Chief, doesn’t believe the best intelligence we are capable of providing him.

The painstakingly-gathered fruits of our intelligence services’ labor was considered a major job perk by past Presidents.

But for Trump…not so much.

2. Distraction vs. Destruction

“I like chaos,” Trump told a roomful of journalists a few days ago.

Unlike many of his statements, there’s reason to suspect this one may actually be true. And even if he doesn’t “like” chaos, exactly — he does seem to exude it. So it’s reasonable to assume he may have learned to like it. After all, if you had a conjoined twin, wouldn’t you try to make friends?

But a swirling cloud of chaos is not what you want in a nuclear policy meeting. Think of every single action movie where a hero is trying to defuse a live nuclear weapon rigged to blow… And then imagine the hero has a magic dial that can turn up or down the level of ambient chaos in the room.

Exactly zero of those white-knuckled heroes would “like” more chaos in that situation. Chaos is uncertainty. And uncertainty is the enemy.

“When you’re trying to play nuclear Jenga, you don’t do it in a bouncy-castle.”

Trump is surrounded daily by a whirlwind of bellowing adversaries, rotating-door staff hirings-and-firings at the White House, and scandals on pretty much every topic possible to scandalize — all at once.

Even the most raving Trump fans must agree: All this has gotta be distracting.

Even if Trump, in his natural state, were the ideal person for a nuclear negotiation job, it’s nonsense to imagine that he could focus through his current chaos to reach the Zen-like calm needed to give North Korea his “full attention.”

Given the stakes, can we accept anything less than full attention from a U.S. nuclear negotiator?*

* This is what’s known in the trade as a “rhetorical question.”

3. Misaligned Incentives

The Cold War had a parity that kept everyone honest: Mutually Assured Destruction. The USSR could kill most of us — and we could kill most of them, too.

This murderous equivalency doesn’t exist in today’s face-off between the U.S. and North Korea. Kim Jong-un might be able to hurt us, but not destroy us — and the way this fact tilts the playing field makes a huge difference.

All previous U.S. Presidents faced with a nuclear showdown carried the understanding that if they triggered a nuclear conflict, it most likely meant their own death, plus the deaths of everyone they loved. The “best case” scenario involved them surviving to face the impossible task of governing their countrymen through nuclear winter.

For Trump in 2018, it’s a much rosier picture. If a North Korean nuke can “reach the U.S. mainland,” as we’re told, that most likely means a local apocalypse for California. Not for New York or for Washington D.C.

And let’s face it — California is a “blue state” filled with anti-Trump voters, sanctuary cities and “Mexican rapists.” From Trump’s perspective, a North Korean nuke landing smack in the middle of San Francisco has its upsides...

  • The rest of the horrified nation would rally around the flag. And — by proxy — around Trump.
  • The Trump Administration could ram-rod “emergency measures” through Congress to dwarf the Patriot Act and ensconce Trump in powers that would be totally out of reach otherwise.
  • Any citizen who remained concerned with the scandal-bouquet currently surrounding Trump could be demonized as “internal enemies” and fifth columnists, and dealt with accordingly.*
* Remember the Trump supporters at campaign rallies who cheerfully beat up protesters? Imagine their anger stoked by the deaths of a few million Californians — a yearning for vengeance could be turned in any direction. Internal dissent could be crushed.

Before you write off this disaster scenario as crazy, bear with me. I’m not saying this is Trump’s best-case scenario.

I am saying: it’s not his worst-case scenario, either.

On the other hand, it is probably the American public’s worst-case scenario.

This diverging preference of possible outcomes is why we can’t allow Trump to negotiate in our name.

Trump, author of the (ghost-written) book The Art of the Deal, is familiar with the concept of BATNA: the “Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement.” BATNA is a negotiator’s fall-back position; It’s what happens if negotiations fail. If you and the party opposing you can’t come to terms, BATNA is the best that you can do without the other party’s consent or cooperation.

But if Trump meets with North Korea, his personal BATNA looks nothing like America’s. The deal-making devil on Trump’s shoulder will whisper: “Listen, Don, you need to push for an amazingly aggressive deal against these North Koreans. Because, win or lose for the USA — Trump wins. If they cave to your demands, you look like the big, tough hero, and you get re-elected. All that stuff you say about being a brilliant negotiator… People will believe you after this! Your detractors will be totally undercut! You went to Korea, laid your dick on the table, dared him to measure, and he backed down. You can add your face to Mount Rushmore — bigger than the others!”

And if Trump pushes “too hard,” boxing Dear Leader Kim into the nuclear-armed version of a Waco, Texas compound…who’s to say the third-generation princeling won’t choose “death before dishonor”? He wouldn’t be the first person to do so. History is pock-marked with stories of violent, suicidal grandiosity.

What looks like nuclear terrorism to us could look like the Alamo to him.

Kim Jong-un could launch his missiles and proudly await the U.S.’s apocalyptic reply.

Heads, Trump wins. Tails, we lose.

A limited nuclear exchange with North Korea would be a sideways win for Trump. His every incentive, unlike ours, is to force a break in the status quo.

The current status quo does suck — but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be very much worse.

In past occasions of nuclear brinksmanship, even if honor and ethics hadn’t constrained past U.S. Presidents, their instincts toward self-preservation always did. But this isn’t the case with today’s situation.

In Trump’s presidential campaign, he said “America First” a lot. But then he was talking about nation-states, and everyone understood that. He personally — Donald J. Trump — wasn’t on that list.

But now pretend that you’re Donald Trump, and prioritize the following:

  1. America
  2. Trump


  1. Trump
  2. America

The answer you just came to is the opposite of what you want in a nuclear negotiator.

Even if I’m wrong, I’m still right.

I don’t have to be totally correct about anything I’ve written here to be right in the sense that counts.

Many terrible ideas can be performed lots and lots of times before anything bad actually happens. You can smoke cigarettes for years and remain cancer-free. You can drive drunk. You can walk under ladders. You can go trail-running at nighttime with upturned forks in both hands.

In all cases, you’ll probably be fine.

But having things work out 9 times out of 10 — or 99 times out of 100, or whatever — still doesn’t make any of these behaviors good ideas.

Trump the Nuclear Negotiator is one of those ideas that just doesn’t measure up. The risks outweigh any possible rewards.

This is a guy who — let’s face it — can’t even successfully negotiate the payment of hush money to a porn star.

This should not give us confidence.

It should fill us with cold fear and a looming (but motivating) sense of dread.

Write to your Congressperson. Talk to your friends. Link to, or plagiarize, this post. If part of the U.S. winds up as a radioactive ash-heap, it won’t be on your conscience.

If, on the other hand, Trump manages to pull a rabbit out of his hat and does a superb job with North Korea, you can say with your head held high: “I honestly thought an ex-game-show-host wasn’t our best choice to negotiate nuclear disarmament.”

And if that one small lapse is the worst thing anyone can say about your judgment…then maybe YOU should be President.