Trump’s Cultural Disadvantage

This may sound like arm-chair foreign relations and it is but I now know my degree in International Relations, two years working at the UN and fifteen years working on every continent other than Australia gives me more qualifications to speak about U.S. foreign relations than almost everyone in President Trump’s Cabinet. Their lack of experience is also disturbing to Richard Haass, president of the Council of Foreign Relations and a high-ranking State Department official in the administration of President George W. Bush.

Because of the Trump administration’s decentralized, improvisational approach to foreign policy Haass dubs it an “adhocracy.” Haass noted that the Trump administration “could have built a disciplined process to compensate for its relative lack of experience. Instead Trump modeled his administration on his decades of success in business, where he relied on a improvisational style.” Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival Haass said the result has been hard for the administration to have a single doctrine or policy. This has been especially true as it relates to North Korea where Trump’s behavior appears to be beyond amateurish and now jeopardizes the well-being of millions of people.

Apparently Trump thinks he can use the same “branding” technique, he employed during the U.S. Presidential election, when he assigned degrading names, like “Little Marco” and “Lying Hillary”, to each of his opponents to the leader of North Korea. He now calls Kim Jong-un, “Rocket man”. Trump seems to have no idea how this name calling plays directly into the play book of the young “Supreme Leader” who needs an antagonist to show his people he is their protector.

I can’t help but remember how after working in dozens of cultures from North Africa to Japan and all of Europe the inferiority complex exhibited by Koreans, with whom I worked. Having worked in the UN I was particularly sensitive to making sure I did everything I could to demonstrate to people I was as respectful as possible. This of course was true when I worked in Seoul South Korea and yet, regardless of my attempts at being respectful, I was met with a great deal of reticence, to the point of me becoming overly self-conscious of it. Thinking back on it I have to believe that because of the overwhelming U.S. military and business presence in South Koreans since the 1940’s Koreans didn’t want to show Americans they were “less than” Americans in any respect.

I must say I found this behavior by my Korean colleagues more than surprising. It seemed like they felt they were somehow a defeated enemy wanting to show Americans they were no longer defeated. Yet they were never the enemy and with the grand success of their economy more than demonstrated they were never defeated. Probably not unlike the feelings America’s founding fathers had toward the British and we all know how that ended.

As I reflect on it now I can’t help but believe that this is the behavior I see emanating from Pyongyang. Clearly Kim Jong-un knows his country has no chance surviving a military conflict with the United States but I have to believe he also knows his people have the same inferiority feelings I saw in South Koreans and they adore him for standing-up to the ugly Americans. That’s not some great psychological insight I have about Koreans and Korean culture. It’s just my experience working wth individual human beings all over the world and seeing how all want and need the respect of others.

Much of the fight in Irish people against the British was a demand for respect and recognition they were the equal of any citizen of Great Britain. It was the same among Kenyans and their demand to be respected by whites, and once again especially the British. Ethiopians are a proud regal people of Africa and yet they were humiliated by Italian colonization. When I worked in Addis Ababa I found the people to be extraordinarily warm and welcoming but they did not tolerate any sense of viewing them as something other than the proud people of Africa they knew themselves to be.

In all of my work outside of the United States I found there was one rule that made my relationships with others work and that was to demonstrate the utmost respect for my host’s humanity and culture. Generally, that meant I had to behave very modestly. That was mostly because there was still a sense of the ugly American syndrome in many parts of the world. Ironically that was often in countries where residents were better off economically, like most of northern Europe.

It appears to me Kim Jong-un is speaking directly to his people. His insistence on possessing nuclear weapons is not because he intends to use them but to demonstrate to any nation that would oppress North Korea that Koreans are their equal and demand respect. In doing so Kim Jong-un garners the respect and adoration of his own people. President Trump can do nothing but reinforce the inferiority complex of the Korean people by name calling and responding to every verbal provocation of the “Supreme Leader”. Koreans are not people who are afraid of the “counterpunch” Trump thinks his opponents fear. We all need to understand that North Koreans do not fear Americans. They despise us. Death to them is preferable to living in humiliation, especially the humiliation from a western “oppressor”.

Culture is the human advantage. We form our minds to create collectives to which we identify and those collectives often become protective shields that keep all others at a safe distance. They also inhibit dialogue and understanding. We have a choice, however, we can see differences or similarities between our identifiers. In the end we’re all human whatever cultural settings we have been programming our self with. President Trump and his administration would do well to keep this simple fact in mind as they work to manage the demands and idiosyncracies of Kim Jong-un and his proud people. It would be a small price for the leader of the collective we call “The Free World, to pay but it would also require some humility on Mr. Trump’s part and that may be the greatest cultural disadvantage of all.

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