Assad, Putin, Iran, North Korea — what they have had in common is the West’s perception that all are madmen who will stop at nothing if pushed beyond the limits of their tolerance. Donald Trump’s recent barrage of Tomahawk missiles has now called that long-successful bluff
We habitually think about events, especially significant international ones, in terms of their own dynamic merits, without considering the psychological traits and defense mechanisms of the individual leaders or nations involved. Were we to do so the resulting insight might help us gain a better understanding of bristling autocrats, tyrants and international outlaws.
Begin by considering the gradual deterioration of the relationship between the West and Putin’s Russia. Mostly, this has come to be determined by Russian actions — Moscow’s “acting out” on the international stage. This is one tough, ruthless customer, we conclude, a man who may well have no limits on the lengths he is prepared to go in order to achieve his ends. Such determination can strike observers as a madness, but it also has guaranteed him respect. Who wants to provoke a madman waving a gun?
And there are many madmen, or those who a happy to be perceived as mad. Assad, Iran and the North Korean chieftain with that unoriginal name (let’s just call him Kim Junior) comport themselves in the international arena as barely sane, quite deliberately projecting attitudes of dangerous unpredictability. One of Putin’s mouthpieces even declared a readiness to activate nuclear weapons during the Crimean crisis. That kind of talk prompted Angela Merkel to describe the Russian leader as “living in a world of his own”.
By appearing for all the world to see as perpetually peeved and barely controllable, Putin has won a considerable degree of freedom of action. Who of right mind would tangle with a man who speaks so loosely of using nuclear weaponry? There is profit in this kind of systematic madness. Consider Putin in terms of his actions towards Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Ossetia, Crimea and Syria, plus his veilled threats to Baltic States. Peeps of protest from the rest of the world have been barely audible.
The Iranians repeatedly and provocatively launch ballistic missiles while forever stating and re-stating their intention to one day blanket Israel with mushroom clouds. Obama did not intervene, other than to ship pallet-loads of bank notes to Tehran in return for the regime’s laughably bogus “promise” not to be naughty with the nukes it continues to build. Assad was openly gassing his domestic enemies, yet all the UN and Obama could manage in response was another impotent finger-wagging and pleas that he a good boy in future.
Trump’s barrage of Tomahawks finally broke that pattern of Western non-reaction.
Now consider North Korea’s Kim Junior, who inherited power from Daddy, who inherited it from Grandad, and no sooner took the reins himself before threatening the US with nuclear attack, provoking his South Korean and Japanese neighbors by shelling their military, capturing their fishing vessels and boarding their naval vessels. More worryingly, he also built and tested missiles with ever-longer ranges and exploded crude nuclear devices, all in direct violation of explicit UN Security Council resolutions.
Once again, the UN did no more than wag a limp finger in his direction, which Kim Junior – Surprise! Surprise! – ignored with contempt and yet another a bellicose reprising of his grievances against the rest of the world. Here was the very image of an unpredictable and deranged despot, one who lets it be known that he executes his internal opponents with anti-aircraft guns, flame throwers and heavy mortars. Has he deployed a pack of ravenous dogs yet? No doubt that will come. Such unhinged conduct has had its desired and cautioning effect. Both Kim Junior’s patrons and those attempting to negotiate with him wonder what he might do next, so kid gloves have been the order of the day.
Once again, Trump’s response has broken from the template of bended-knee deference. He understands that North Korea, Assad, Iran and all the rest behave provocatively because behaving provocatively has worked very well indeed.
Needless to say, none of these amigos is actually insane, no matter how hard each tries to project the impression of implacable madness. Rather, each is focused on survival. Having witnessed regime changes in Ukraine, Libya and Egypt, they understand the fate that awaits should they ever be stripped of power. In order to survive, they must be seen as capable and willing to go beyond the limits of sanity. They know that nobody wins a nuclear war, but they find it useful to make other countries believe that their dangerous unpredictability could lead to just such a shooting match.
Having read this far, my reader is entitled to ask – what is the practical use of this little essay’s analysis? The answer is that the only efficacious response to the ‘pretend insanity’ gambit is the decisive and timely imposition of boundaries and limits, boundaries similar to those in effect under the containment policies of the Cold War.
Donald Trump inherited from the Nobel Peace Prize winner a suitcase without its handle, one too heavy to carry and impossible to throw away. He has, however, imposed real limits, not ‘red lines’. These limits are clear, as his message: personality disorder or not, your bluff will be called and the consequences will be severe.
In clinical settings, patients with borderline personality disorders often respond well to such management. It is my hope and belief that those who present themselves on the world stage as the embodiment of determined madness will do likewise.
Dr Michael Galak and his family came to Australia as refugees from the Soviet Union in 1978