The Logic of Madness

History can be revealing if it is not abused as a record of names and dates but is considered as a process. One of these revelations is that, repeatedly rational calculations regarding the future proved to be wrong. History might have a logic, but this logic reflects the irrationality of its actors and consists, therefore, of the consequences of their misjudgments.

For instance, Hitler could have won the war had he not done what was not makeable. It was the confirmed lesson of Napoleon’s demise and of WW1, that the central power, in this case Germany, could not win a two-front war. Frustrated by British resistance in the West, he chose to overcome his problem by attacking his Soviet ally in the East. Comparable cases abound in history but also in that aspect of our present that determines the shape of the future. Venezuelans will agree that Maduro’s comportment illustrates what is meant.

Once again, Kim and Trump have met. In Trumpian style one can say about the meeting that it was a “great” opportunity to achieve something “terrific” through a “deal”. That deal did not happen. The only outcome is a private insight.

Modern times have given us systems that are run by infallible demigods. Accordingly, these have total control over a society -and frequently an advanced military technology. Such totalitarians, -the Mussolinis, Hitlers, Stalins, and Maos – have shaped our world even if they could not entirely determine its evolvement. Kim, diminished not by ambition and determination, but by the turf he dominates, fits into the crowded “also run’s” of the group.

Why did the ultimate grab of global power elude these leaders? Kim’s case might suggest an answer. The Korean is being offered a good deal which is, being a “deal”, limited even if it is profitable. The push and the shove to which Pyongyang is exposed attempts to cajole NoKo to accept its luck. The rational mind will find it evident that, the lion’s share of the pie brought down from the sky should be eagerly grabbed. In practice, Kim wants the whole cake, the pan, and the silver, too.

There is an explanation for this. Totalitarian leaders are living gods, infallible, “Marshalls”, great savants, and so on. The adulation, the cult, is at the outset a tool of propaganda. In time, the secular deity will believe the praise his quire chants.
With that, the tyrant will order actions based on his know-it-all infallibility. Mussolini believed that he is heading an updated version of the Roman Empire. Hitler did not need nudging to proclaim himself the “Greatest Warlord of All Times”. Mao decided to change nature’s balance and millions starved as a result of his war on sparrows. Ditto for the “Great Leap Forward” which ended with an early landing in dung. Romania’s Ceausescu proclaimed himself to be “The Genius of the Carpathians” and his wife with six years of schooling rose to be his realm’s greatest chemists.

Stalin’s escapades into self-anointment were numerous and ruinous. Being the greatest of everything, his intuition convinced him that genetics and cybernetics are “imperialist science” and that learned skills can be inherited. Therefore, the till then internationally highly rated Russian science-community’s members died early. The upshot: once food exporting Russia could not feed itself and, as the joke told, she had to build the world’s greatest rockets because it had the largest chips.

Ultimate ruin does not come from the uninformed notions of unqualified prophets alone. A key supporting pillar of totalitarian rule is the dogmatic belief that a conspiracy rules that part of the world that does not yet have the good fortune of being led by the redeemer of the lucky select. The worldview that legitimizes power is based on an alleged global struggle in which the “Party” is predestined to triumph once the forces of evil need to be crushed. This belief does more than to justify, it even demands, expansion, the mass murder of the “class enemy”, crushing the Jewish conspiracy, or to cleanse the Party of dissidents and spies.

A key element of such fantasies is that an enemy is incessantly at work and that he is omnipresent even within the ranks of the ruling elite. This demands constant “alertness” and that the “Party’s fist”, the security services, crush the masked foe. An irrational consequence by the standards of conventional sanity is, that the “cleansing” eliminates the people the leader needs. By having his officer corps exterminated, Stalin contributed to the initial record-breaking reverses of the Red Army.

This “fist” will crush all critique of the “spearhead” of advancement, demolish the possible sources of criticism, and liquidate those to whom the ability to be critical is attributed. The resulting system, which is one of preventive self-destruction for the sake of securing power, might sound like a form of madness until its premises are accepted. Kim, who is the personal center of such a construction, has erased not only the leadership he had inherited but, imitating Turkish Sultans, also much of his family. Even if the adjective “madness” fits, in the artificial world it created, it will exhibit, by its own standards, a logic to government by institutionalized purges.

Where defending the system is seen to demand that everyone who has risen to significance in its service be suspected, and that the suspect be eradicated, is not built on trust but on fear. However, in the international arena, the preventive destruction of competitors is only of limited utility. Naturally, ruling by subjugation is easier than governing by consent. Within a country total dominance might be possible. Albeit tempting, globally, the same is hard to achieve as fear provokes overwhelming coalitions against the perceived common threat.

Even if that might be a “lesson” of history, the long-term practice of total power at home to achieve submission, and cooperation abroad with diverse systems in a Westphalian order, tends to be difficult. Dictatorship for export creates international tension, and the attempt to apply the rules by which the homeland is governed in the society of nations fuels conflicts. This is the problem dictators face: The total control of the domestic opposition can hardly be applied in the international arena.

Let us turn back to Kim, Trump, and denuclearization. Mr. Trump’s dilemma is relatively simple. He needs to make an arrangement that ultimately depends upon trust although it involves a party that violates its agreements. Such faith is only possible if, by the standards of self-interest, once projected upon NoKo, this interest argues for the observation of future agreements. It needs to be acknowledged when the probability of compliance is calculated, that violating a nuclear disarmament agreement can appear to be of great advantage to conflict-oriented power-politicians. Admittedly, extending the needed trust is facilitated by the lack of the full appreciation of the hazard involved.
In Kim’s case denuclearization is a precondition of modernization. As in the case of the Ottoman Empire, the power of an entity that is excluded from the modern world must ebb. At the same time, the system that produced Kim, and upon which his power depends, cultivates mistrust and has the habit of overcoming differences by destroying their source. Making peace, while holding an ideology that asserts that history’s motor is an irrepressible conflict, demands an intellectual summersault. On this level, Kim is being asked to jettison a key component of the system through which he rules at home. Besides needing to be convinced that the measure is worth it because it is necessary, the “Leader” must feel strong enough to weaken a pillar of his domestic power and to be confident that the “enemy” will not use the agreement to undermine NoKo. This means that Kim must conclude that America will not do to him what he would do to the US if he would be in her position.

In the light of the foregoing, negotiating an effective system of coexistence with Kim Jong Un will be, irrespective of the concessions offered, an arduously long process. Even so, its conflict-preventive political conclusion will not necessarily materialize because rehabilitation therapy by kindness is a strategy of modest results.

Ultimately, compliance is the test of the pudding. Compliance depends on trust, and trust is an expression of a quality relationship. In this case, we have distrust at the start, and the deal to be negotiated is to create the mutual confidence that usually serves as the point of departure of security through negotiation. Reversing the normal sequence of things might be possible. Easy it will not be.

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