A certain amount of unpredictability is a virtue in foreign policy. When one’s adversaries—and perhaps one’s allies—don’t know precisely what a country will do, it gives that country a little extra power in the relationship. Like all virtues, it turns into a vice when used in excess. Donald Trump, Fred Kaplan recently argued, offers an extreme test of Richard Nixon’s “madman theory,” the Vietnam-era approach of letting enemies think Nixon might really be insane and do anything.
As my colleague Kathy Gilsinan wrote last week, the hazards of this approach are on display in the latest American standoff with North Korea—a contest between two leaders who delight in bellicose rhetoric and erratic action. “When two leaders each habitually bluster and exaggerate, there’s a higher likelihood of making a catastrophic mistake based on a bad guess,” she wrote, including the threat of nuclear war. Even for those who espouse unpredictability, the presumption is that at least the putative madman has some sense what’s going on, even if no one else does. The point is the appearance of unpredictability, not true chaos.
That brings us to a baffling news item on Tuesday.
On April 9, as tension between the U.S. and North Korea over missile tests rose, the U.S. announced it was dispatching the USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier, and its retinue, toward the Korean peninsula. “U.S. Pacific Command ordered the Carl Vinson Strike Group north as a prudent measure to maintain readiness and presence in the Western Pacific,” a Navy spokesman said at the time.
There was one flaw in the plan, as The New York Times reports:
The problem was, the carrier, the Carl Vinson, and the four other warships in its strike force were at that very moment sailing in the opposite direction, to take part in joint exercises with the Australian Navy in the Indian Ocean, 3,500 miles southwest of the Korean Peninsula.
The result is the sort of thing that would comical if it didn’t involve nuclear brinkmanship. The announcement of the Vinson’s movement jacked up the tension between Washington and Pyongyang, which called the travel “reckless” and thundered, in a statement to CNN, “We will make the U.S. fully accountable for the catastrophic consequences that may be brought about by its high-handed and outrageous acts.” Had the North Korean government, unsure how to interpret Trump’s tough rhetoric, actually started a hot war, the Vinson would have been 3,500 miles away, rather than ready to act.
How did this happen?
You can read the rest at the Atlantic Monthly.