Incendiary rhetoric is better than incendiary weapons, and to date President Trump's strong words on North Korea, as with his limited strikes on Syria, have suggested a desire for peace through strength rather than a hunger for war.
Not since Lyndon Johnson have we had a president who so obviously saw politics as being like a dog park or a nature film, in which the alpha male seeks deference by intimidation. This often gets Trump into trouble, but in foreign policy, especially when buttressed by the counsel of prudent men such Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, it can work well.
The alpha male doesn't actually fight much. A bark, a snap, a pounding of the chest does the trick because it makes clear to potential rivals that he is ready to fight, and will win swiftly and overwhelmingly. This was how Trump's limited missile strike in Syria should be seen, and it is also the way to interpret his talk of a military that is "locked and loaded" to inflict "fire and fury" on North Korea.
We don't know whether it will work; Pyongyang's crackpot tyranny is not obviously amenable to diplomatic pressure. But we do know that there has been a generation of consistent failure under the ameliorative policies of Trump's several predecessors.
In Syria, former President Barack Obama foolishly drew a red line which he was not prepared to defend. So, when dictator Bashar Assad crossed it, our president looked like a chump, and our nation looked weak. Trump's language on North Korea was aggressive, but he didn't draw a red line. And it is already clear that both Pyongyang and Beijing take the new rhetoric seriously, believing it articulates a new readiness to use force. That's why the language from Kim Jong Un's regime is increasingly hysterical, and it's why China joined the rest of the U.N. Security Council in voting for sanctions against the rogue state.
In any negotiation, one needs to persuade one's counterpart that there will be an unpleasant alternative should negotiations fail. Absent that, there is no reason to reach a deal. Ever since President Bill Clinton haplessly allowed former President Jimmy Carter to hijack U.S. policy toward North Korea in the 1990s, the Pyongyang dictators have known that their best policy was to play for time while developing weapons. They simply did not take seriously America's threat that all options were "on the table." They knew the military option was gathering dust somewhere out of sight. As a result, they now have, or nearly have, the ability to hit the United States with nuclear missiles.
But things have changed with Trump. His administration is deliberately doing a good cop-bad cop routine, with Trump relishing the role of the baddest cop ever, and Tillerson playing good cop but not actually contradicting his more threatening partner. The result is that North Korea is increasingly hemmed in by the international community. By Friday morning, China was nervously warning its troublesome neighbor to back down. The security-obsessed tyrants in Beijing want absolutely to avoid turmoil or war on its southern border.
America has dealt with forces more potent than North Korea before; Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia are two obvious examples. But it has perhaps never dealt with a regime that seems so close to being certifiably insane as it is with Pyongyang. So, no one can be certain that we are not on the brink of war. But it seems more likely that, so far, Trump is making the world safer.
Some liberals depict him as a Dr. Strangelove, relishing Armageddon, but he was, rather, the more anti-war of the two presidential nominees. He was also less hawkish than most of the Republicans on the debate stage in 2015 and 2016, and certainly less war-happy than the media's favorite Republicans, Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain.
If Trump hates war as he suggests he does, then it's reasonable to believe and hope that his tough talk is a projection of force aimed at avoiding war. We may be witnessing a demonstration of Ronald Reagan's maxim, peace through strength.