BOSTON — The opening ceremonies of the 23rd Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea begin Thursday night. In theory, the Games serve as a refuge from the geopolitical environment of the times. Nations put aside their conflicts and disagreements for what is supposed to be a peaceful and civil celebration of sport and competition.
The reality is that this is rarely true. From Jesse Owens defying Hitler at the 1929 Games in Berlin to American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos defiantly raising their fists in protest at the Mexico City Games of 1968 to the deadly Israeli hostage crisis at the 1972 Games in Munich, the Games have always been tinged with politics.
This year’s Olympic Games will be no different. The issue most obviously underpinning the whole Games is the escalating tensions between North Korea and South Korea (and their allies), which is only further exacerbated by the Games being held on the Korean peninsula. In the weeks and months leading up to the Games, it has often felt like a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ kind of situation between the two conflicted nations.
On one hand, tensions between North and South have seemingly begun to thaw. The two nations agreeing to march under a single banner for the first time has made the prospect of reunification, or at least the idea of a peaceful defusion of the tensions, seemingly plausible. In fact, the North actually called for reunification in an announcement in late January, predicated on a de-escalation of military tension via curtailing the combat drills and weapons tests conducted by both sides.
In a vacuum, these developments signify the most progress made by the two sides towards diplomatic normalization since Kim Jong Un came to power in late 2011. However, the elephant in the room remains Donald Trump’s administration and its heavy-handed rhetoric regarding the Kim Jong Un regime.
President Trump has essentially owned the Korea crisis after his insistence on provoking the North Korean despot via angry tweets and his less-than-clever ‘Rocket Man’ nickname. This has been the Trump administration’s first real foreign policy test, and there is a lot on the line. For a President whose political victories have been few and far between, his ability to come out a ‘winner’ is critical.
Trump has predictably taken much credit for these recent developments in peace, however the evidence suggests otherwise.
The North’s call for peaceful reunification was contingent on the peace process involving only the North and South Korean governments and specifically ‘without the help of outside countries’.
To rationalize or try to explain Trump’s behavior and intentions in any situation, let alone in a diplomatically complex one such as this, is a fool’s errand. Many have cited the ‘Madman Theory’ of Richard Nixon’s foreign policy strategy in attempts to describe Trump.
However, it may be more likely that the irrationality and volatility that defines the theory is more of a feature (or bug) of Trump’s personality rather than a calculated decision on his part.
His mental deficiencies and unwillingness to read or pay attention to briefings are well documented at this point, and dispel any notion that beneath the bluster and brashness there’s a deliberate and thoughtful decision maker.
He’s basically willing to do anything if it means a bump in approval, however temporary that might be. Although his approval rating has recovered slightly in recent weeks to about 40%, the unpopularity of the President at this stage in his term is unprecedented. And in this situation where the President is in dire need of a win, what actions may he be enticed to consider, whether its piling on more sanctions, more angry tweets, or military measures?
The prospect of a pre-emptive, “bloody nose” strike appears more likely each day. It’s no secret Trump has explored the option of preemptive military actions, such as destroying critical military infrastructure and missile bases. Sources inside the Pentagon last month in a New York Times report expressed the defense community’s reservation about presenting the President with these military options out of fear he will actually use them.
Reports also suggested a disturbing characteristic; Trump’s unhealthy obsession and fascination with nuclear weapons.
By all accounts, a preemptive military strike would escalate tensions exponentially, and would most likely lead to full-scale war on the peninsula. Unfortunately, conflict tends to be good for presidential approval polls. Bush II saw serious bumps in the weeks following 9/11 and the ensuing invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Even Trump’s approval rating experienced a modest spike after his decision to take retaliatory action against the Syrian regime following the use of chemical weapons. For someone obsessed with polls and public perception, a preemptive strike to gain a foreign policy win appears to be within the realm of possibility.
Trump’s desperation for a win, his erratic behavior, and his eagerness to use deadly military force raise the stakes significantly for VP Mike Pence, who will be attending the Games. Pence will attempt to use this opportunity to conduct his own diplomacy on behalf of the President at the Games, where high-level North Korean emissaries will be in attendance. However, at this point, North Korean officials have declined any potential meetings with any American representatives.
This could be a pivotal moment in the peace process. If Pence is able to wedge the US into the talks, it will be a huge win for the administration. It will prove that the administration is not a lame-duck in foreign policy and there will be something tangible to show for all of Trump’s social media bluster.
They will be able to own the process simply because they had a seat at the table. Should the talks break down, or should the US get left out in the cold, it would expose the cracks in the ‘America First’ foreign policy strategy; In other words, a total loss.
President Trump can seemingly only make decisions and think of the world in terms of winners and losers.
And as we know, when Trump loses, he tends to lash out. Look at his Charlottesville response. Rather than cutting his losses and moving on, he doubled down and held probably the most despicable and incoherent press conferences is modern political history. The stakes here are significantly higher. There are quite literally millions of lives hanging in the balance.
The Games themselves will undoubtedly serve as a welcome distraction from the political shitstorm du jour. It will be interesting to watch how the political intrigue behind the scenes will play out and what the larger implications might be.