North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-Un, is often portrayed in western media as crazy, pursuing nuclear weapons at the expense of feeding his people.
On the other hand, the same media picture US President, Donald Trump, as similarly psychologically unbalanced.
For example, when Jong-Un recently boasted of having a nuclear button on his desk, Trump’s one-upmanship made him claim that he too had a button, but that his was ‘bigger’.
But it is mistaken to attribute this macho phallo-diplomacy solely to their unhinged mental states. In the first place, no reputable psycho-therapist should engage in the “Goldwater Rule”.
This was a response, by the American Psychiatric Association, after the 1964 Presidential election, where some therapists imputed candidate Barry Goldwater’s psychological health.
But, without actually listening to a patient, no therapist is capable of pronouncing on anyone’s mental health.
Yet, if we examine the mutual brinkmanship of Jung-Un and Trump from a political viewpoint, we see there are structural and historical reasons why they adopt such a stance.
And both reflect not just the feeling, but the fact of weakness in the geo-political arena. Ironically, this David and Goliath stand-off forms a global mirror image of long-term limitations.
Far from being a sign of insanity, Jong-Un’s attempt to produce nuclear weapons, makes abundant sense, in terms of his own, and his regime’s, survival.
This is the lesson derived from US removal of troublesome dictators, as in Iraq, Libya, and nearly in Syria.
Jong-Un seems to have calculated that only if with a nuclear capability is he guaranteed immunity from US-orchestrated regime-change.
Trump’s counter-threats, however, are also symptoms of weakness: the long-term decline in the USA’s position as world hegemon. After apparently winning the Cold War, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States was seemingly the only planetary super power.
Nevertheless, this period of unipolar dominance was short-lived, and a multipolar global system has developed.
Instead of Francis Fukuyama’s dream of an “End of history”, with the triumph of liberal democracy, Samuel Huntington’s nightmare vision of a Clash of Civilizations has proved more prescient.
Firstly, this is seen via the civilizational, and religiously-driven, division between aged western liberal democracies, and the demographically younger congeries of the Islamic nations.
Secondly, there is a more traditional, but also civilizational, superpower competition between China and the USA, for suzerainty, if not over the globe, then East Asia and the Pacific.
Graham Allison referred to this as the “Thucydides trap”, drawing on the ancient historian’s “History of the Pelopponesian” War. The trap is sprung when a declining power is challenged by a rising power.
And this was already predicted by Paul Kennedy in his seminal “The fall and rise of great powers”. Like a wounded lion, a great power is most dangerous when weakest, inclined to lash out violently.
With respect to countries which have suffered from US imperialism, for example in Latin America, it may be that the world is more dangerous with the waning of US power, than when it was strong.