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Conservatives Are Comparing Racial Justice Protestors to Maoists

In their effort to transform their discomfort with the current #BlackLivesMatter protests into a superficially sophisticated critique, right-wing “intellectuals” in the United States and Europe have latched onto a dubious historical analogy.

When former congressman Newt Gingrich, the National Review’s David Harsanyi, Breitbart’s Joel Pollak, and other right-wingers look at the protests against police violence, they see the Cultural Revolution.

The Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976, turned China upside down. Initially instigated by Mao Zedong to outflank his more liberal opponents, the Cultural Revolution drew millions of young people into a bewildering assortment of Red Guard factions that purged “reactionary” elements from institutions, destroyed irreplaceable historical treasures, and even fought pitched battles against each other. As Mao quickly lost control over the movement, the Red Guards threw China into such chaos that even the country’s nuclear weapons complex was at risk.

The Cultural Revolution lasted a decade, resulted in at least a million deaths, and led to the destruction, in Beijing alone, of nearly 5,000 of the city’s 6,800 officially designated sites of historical interest.

Keep that in mind as you read what Joel Pollak, an editor-at-large at Breitbart, has to say:

Black Lives Matter” has become America’s version of China’s Cultural Revolution — a radical, youth-led purge of the vestiges of traditional culture and authority within a one-party state.

In this case, the one-party system is the “blue archipelago” of Democrat-run cities, most of which have not had Republican leaders for decades, and likely never will again.

But whereas China’s radicals helped Mao consolidate power, Black Lives Matter may destabilize the entire country.

The most striking similarity between the two movements is the ritual humiliation of individuals seen to represent “the system.” Mobs of demonstrators have marched up to police and demanded that they kneel with them, or to them. Some officers, in a bid to defuse tensions, have obliged.

What a fascinating set of comparisons.

Only a white conservative born in South Africa would equate the traditional culture of ancient temples with statues of white racists. The United States is a one-party state, oops, can’t say that, since the Republicans control the executive and the Senate, so Pollak immediately pivots to something very different, a “blue archipelago” of cities, even though #BlackLivesMatter protests took place in plenty of “red archipelago” towns and cities as well: Wilmington (North Carolina), Odessa (Texas), Grand Island (Nebraska), and dozens of other places that voted for Trump and have sent Republicans to Congress.

The Red Guards didn’t help Mao consolidate power because they in fact destabilized the entire country. But Pollak has to make out that the current U.S. protestors are worse, so the former helped a dictator while the latter “may destabilize the entire country.” But wait, isn’t the United States already destabilized by a pandemic and an economic collapse?

And now for the only concrete comparison, which revolves around ritual humiliation. The Red Guards put dunce caps on their professors and leading cultural figures and forced them to engage in self-criticism sessions. It was quite easy to do that, since the Red Guards had larger numbers and sometimes weapons as well and their opponents were unarmed. Today’s protestors, meanwhile, are the unarmed ones, and they face the armed representatives of the state, who don’t have to defer to the protestors if they don’t want to.

No one has placed dunce caps on their heads. When they kneel, they do so out of actual solidarity, which probably troubles Pollak a good deal more than the imaginary humiliation, or else in a cynical play for the cameras.

Statues and Op-Eds

If it were just one crazy Breitbart writer, it would be easy to dismiss the violence that Pollak has committed against the art of analogy. But various conservatives, libertarians, and even a “libertarian Marxist” have seized on the Cultural Revolution analogy — probably because they believe that any associations with China are by definition bad and no one really understands references to Jacobins and the French Revolution any more.

The Cultural Revolution comparisons usually fall into two categories. In the first, the analogists want to demonstrate that the current protestors aspire to expunge the past. In the second, they want to prove that the protestors aim to prohibit free speech.

In the bizarre UK magazine Spiked!, the editor and former Trotskyist Brendan O’Neill lays out the first kind of comparison:

Britain is in the throes of a Cultural Revolution. Statues are being tumbled, past art erased, people cancelled. Wide-eyed Woke Guards, heirs to Maoist-style intolerance, are compiling lists of monuments to target and individuals to humiliate. They are remorseless. Nothing old that runs counter to their newthink can be tolerated. Tear it all down.

Sounds pretty scary. What’s actually happened is that protestors have dumped one statue — of slave trader Edward Colston — into the drink and spray-painted “racist” on a statue of Winston Churchill. The UK is now having a discussion about history and how to commemorate it. That’s not exactly Cultural Revolution-style anarchy. Rather, it’s a rather commonplace occurrence.

Even the statue-toppling is more common than O’Neill suggests. It’s not like Stalin statues still look down on people throughout Eastern Europe. Statues of ruthless colonial oppressors were pulled down throughout Africa as part of the independence process. Oh, and what about Ozymandias, the once powerful King of Kings that the poet Shelley discovered as just a pair of legs in the sand?

In the second category, the analogists are particularly exercised by The New York Times backtracking on a Tom Cotton op-ed it published on June 3. In “Send in the Troops,” Senator Cotton (R-AR) urged the use of the U.S. military to quell the unrest surrounding the #BlackLivesMatter protests.

“What you are seeing is Maoism, people who are supposed to be in public confess that they’ve been guilty, people who have to toe whatever the party line is,” opined Newt Gingrich on Fox News. “When we see an institution as famous and as powerful as The New York Times collapse totally in front of the mob, it tells you what’s going on in terms of American elites.”

The mob? The New York Times made its decision to retract Cotton’s op-ed because, first, it contained factual inaccuracies and language unbefitting The Gray Lady’s editorial page. Second, it received pushback from its own staff.

The editors concluded, “the editing process was rushed and flawed, and senior editors were not sufficiently involved. While Senator Cotton and his staff cooperated fully in our editing process, the Op-Ed should have been subject to further substantial revisions — as is frequently the case with such essays — or rejected.”

And unlike Maoist China, the Times published several pieces — by Brett Stephens and Ross Douthat — that supported the publication of Cotton’s op-ed.

None of that has stopped the National Review’s David Harsanyi from concluding during the Cotton affair that “we’re in the dawn of a high-tech, bloodless Cultural Revolution; one that relies on intimidation, public shaming, and economic ruin to dictate what words and ideas are permissible in the public square.”

Now, if Harsanyi were talking about the impact of the Koch brothers on public debate in the United States — trying to intimidate and publicly shame money in politics journalist Jane Mayer in an attempt to stop her investigations, spending millions of dollars to dictate acceptable discourse — then maybe he’d be on to something.

Which leads us to a much more apt Cultural Revolution analogy.

Trump Plays Mao

A powerful leader appeals to a group of crazy, gun-toting followers to go after his political opponents. He pits the anarchy of the mob against the level-headed policies of experts and sensible politicians.

Definitely Mao.

But also Donald Trump.

When militia members showed up outside state capitols and the houses of governors to protest stay-at-home measures, the solidly Republican head of the National Association of Manufacturers called them “IDIOTS.” In a video call, Jay Timmons continued, “These people are standing so close together without any protection — with children, for God’s sakes. And they have no concern, and it’s all about them, and it’s all about what they want.”

Donald Trump, on the other hand, was enthusiastic about the protests. He called on his followers to “liberate” Virginia, Michigan, and Minnesota. For Virginians, he had an extra message: “save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” The Second Amendment pertains to the right to keep and bear arms.

When the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death overwhelmed the anti-quarantine actions, Trump displayed the other side of Mao by threatening to invoke the Insurrection Act and deploy the U.S. military to suppress the demonstrations. Tom Cotton’s vocal support for the action notwithstanding, Trump got serious pushback from former generals and active duty military. Thanks to Pentagon chief Mark Esper refusal to support Trump’s move, America was saved from a Tiananmen Square scenario.

Rebuffed, Trump has retreated to his previous position of backing America’s version of the Red Guard. Marjorie Taylor Greene is running for Congress in Georgia on the Republican Party ticket. If she wins — and she has a very good chance — she’ll be the first member of Congress to believe in the QAnon conspiracy (think: “deep state” times crazy). In June, she posted a video of herself wielding a semi-automatic and a message for “Antifa terrorists to stay the hell out of northwest Georgia.” Trump endorsed her and then congratulated her for winning the recent primary.

After The Washington Post recently published an unflattering profile of her, Greene tweeted, “The Chinese propagandists at the Washington Post are attacking me the same way they attack Donald Trump, and other conservatives.”

I always knew that the 2020 elections were going to feature some back and forth about China. But I never could have imagined Donald Trump as Mao teaming up with Republican wackos in the garb of the Red Guards to fight the reformers who are trying to save the country from a lacerating Cultural Revolution.

And conservative pundits have the gall to twist the very same analogy into a pretzel to throw against their enemies?

Only in Trump’s through-the-looking-glass America.

Foreign Policy In Focus, June 17, 2020

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Articles Featured Korea

Time to Make a Deal with North Korea

The United States faces a new nuclear power ruled by a communist dictator. Washington is worried that the leadership of that country is crazy enough to use its new weapons — even against the United States. Meanwhile, other countries fear that the “madman” in the Oval Office might just launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack.

This description captures the situation today, with U.S. President Donald Trump facing off against North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

But it also describes a similar conflict in the late 1960s, between the United States and China. That confrontation ended not in war but in detente and a close economic relationship between the two countries. It’s an important reminder that diplomacy can work even in seemingly intractable situations.

In the early 1960s, the United States was terrified that Communist China would acquire a nuclear weapon. By 1964, China tested its first nuclear bomb. Two years later, the Cultural Revolution began, and China descended into political chaos.

Even though the Cultural Revolution would last for the next 10 years and Chinese leader Mao Zedong became increasingly senile during this period, the United States made a strategic decision at the beginning of the 1970s to engage the leadership in Beijing.

This detente started out with highly secret negotiations conducted by national security adviser Henry Kissinger. The United States was still deeply involved in the Vietnam War, and President Richard Nixon didn’t want to give the impression that he was weak on communism.

Indeed, the president was projecting the image of a “madman” on the theory that North Vietnam would accede to U.S. demands for fear of being hit by a nuclear strike. Since he had credibility as a hardliner, Nixon ultimately could sell a deal with China to Congress and the American public.

Today, the United States faces a leadership in Pyongyang that is rhetorically aggressive — and a terrible abuser of human rights at home — but a good deal less ideological than Beijing was in the late 1960s. North Korea wants a nuclear weapon for quite rational reasons: to deter any possible attacks from outside and to balance the overwhelming conventional military edge maintained by the United States and South Korea.

North Korea has also demonstrated that it’s quite pragmatic. It will work with anyone — churches, multinational corporations — if it’s a win-win deal.

North Korea has even negotiated successfully with the United States on nuclear issues: with the Clinton administration in 1994 and the Bush administration in 2005. Although it might be very difficult to negotiate away the current nuclear program, the United States could still work toward a freeze on Pyongyang’s nuclear capability and a moratorium on missile launches.

But that means, as with China in the 1970s, giving North Korea some of what it wants: a place at the international table, a recognition of its sovereignty, and some stake in the global economy.

North Korea, of course, is different from China. It’s a much smaller country, with a consumer market that doesn’t much interest U.S. businesses. Nor does it represent a major geopolitical counterforce, as China once did against the Soviet Union.

Still, despite his “fire and fury” rhetoric, Donald Trump might be persuaded to engage Pyongyang.

First, Trump wants to prove that he’s a winning dealmaker. What better way to prove that than to negotiate an agreement with Pyongyang that eluded President Obama.

Second, Trump loves to break new ground with his real estate deals. A deal that opened North Korea to U.S. foreign investment, and that included an option for a Trump Hotel Pyongyang, would be geopolitical and corporate twofer.

Third, the Trump administration has been casting around for ways to reduce Chinese influence in the world. Driving a wedge between Beijing and Pyongyang could satisfy Trump’s desire to wrangle some leverage over China.

Of course, the most important reason to support negotiations with North Korea is to avoid a catastrophic war that would leave hundreds of thousands dead. In the 1970s, when it was still knee-deep in the Vietnam War, the United States wisely decided not to denuclearize China by force and possibly spark World War III.

In the 2010s, still knee-deep in the Afghanistan War (among others), the Trump administration would be wise to learn from that example.

Newsday, September 20, 2017

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Articles Featured Korea

Trump and the Geopolitics of Crazy

The United States has beaten its head against the wall of North Korea for more than 70 years, and that wall has changed little indeed as a result. The United States, meanwhile, has suffered one headache after another.

Over the last several weeks, the head banging has intensified. North Korea has tested a couple of possible intercontinental ballistic missiles. In response, Donald Trump has threatened that country with “fire and fury,” one-upping the rhetoric coming out of Pyongyang. And North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is debating whether to fire a missile or two into the waters around the American island of Guam as a warning of what his country is capable of doing.

Ignore, for the moment, Trump’s off-the-cuff belligerence. Despite all their promises to overhaul North Korea policy, his top officials have closely followed the same headache-inducing pattern as their predecessors.

Threaten that all options are on the table? Check.

Apply more sanctions, even tighter ones, fiercer international ones? Check.

Try to twist China’s arm to rein in its erstwhile ally? Check.

As Trump flirts with the same default position of “strategic patience” adopted by the Obama administration, two other options beckon: talk or attack.

So far, the prospects for negotiations have been rather dim. True, Trump has directed some backhanded compliments at Kim Jong-un (a “smart cookie”) and broached the possibility of talking person-to-person with the North Korean leader. Backchannel discussions with that country’s U.N. mission in New York have made modest headway over the last several months on issues like the detention of American citizens. But President Trump is, by nature, erratic, and a purposefully understaffed State Department and distinctly under-informed National Security Council are not exactly firing on all diplomatic cylinders.

Then, of course, there’s the other alternative (an option also considered by previous administrations): launching a more concerted effort at regime change.  That approach clearly has some traction both with the impetuous man in the Oval Office and within his administration. CIA chief Mike Pompeo has, for instance, spoken of an imperative to “separate” the regime from its nuclear weapons (and he didn’t mean through negotiations). National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster has openly discussed a “preventive war” option against North Korea that sounds ominously like what the United States had in place for Iraq back in 2003. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley even declared at one point that “the time for talk is over.” (Presumably she meant the time for talk with, not at, since Donald Trump continues to excel at the latter.)

The fever dream of regime change has persisted in Washington for decades like a bad case of political malaria that repeated doses of realism have never quite eradicated. The irony is that North Korea is indeed changing, just not in response to what the United States is doing. As with China in the 1970s, Washington could encourage those changes by giving up its aggressive ambitions, stepping away from the lukewarm option of “strategic patience,” and actually sitting down to talk seriously with Pyongyang without preconditions.

Lest you think it’s too late for negotiations, remember that the U.S. was on the verge of bombing Pyongyang in 1994 just before Jimmy Carter went to North Korea and negotiated what would eventually become an agreement to freeze the country’s nuclear program. (Yes, once upon a time at least, the Kim family was willing to put that program on hold.) Maybe it’s the moment for the purported “adults” in the Trump administration to persuade the president to refocus on his golf game, while some quiet diplomacy gets under way.

Only then will Americans get what Secretary of State Rex Tillerson assures us is our birthright: a good night’s sleep.

The Dangers of Regime Change

Cuba had a disgruntled former elite. Iraq had its rebellious Shiites and Kurds. Libya had the unsettling tailwind of the Arab Spring, not to mention a whole lot of people who deeply hated its ruling autocrat Muammar Gaddafi.

North Korea has nothing.

Unlike those other targets of regime change, North Korea lacks any significant domestic opposition that could — at least in Washington’s version of a dream world — rush into a newly created vacuum of authority and set up a more America-friendly government. Indeed, North Korea is a veritable desert of civil society. Forget opposition parties and nongovernmental organizations. It doesn’t even have a few courageous figures like Russian nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov or Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, who openly dissented from their government’s policies during the Cold War.

The only conceivable alternative to Kim Jong-un at the moment might be the North Korean military, the sole institution with sufficient authority to nudge aside the ruling Workers Party. But it’s not clear that there’s any genuine daylight between the Kim family and that military. Moreover, were the generals to take over, they might prove more hostile toward outside powers and even more determined in their opposition to domestic reform than the current leadership.

In Cuba, Iraq, and Libya, the United States imagined that regime change would flow from the barrel of a gun — from, to be exact, the guns of the U.S. military and its paramilitary allies on the ground. However, with North Korea, even the most die-hard regime-change enthusiasts, like conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, are aware of the potentially disastrous consequences of a U.S. strike.

Pyongyang has a dispersed nuclear complex, as well as mobile missile launchers and submarines.  Its deeply entrenched artillery and rocket positions near the Demilitarized Zone, long prepared, could devastate the South Korean capital, Seoul, only 35 miles from the border, and the 25 million inhabitants in its metropolitan area. If Washington struck preemptively, the Chinese have been very clear that they would support the North Koreans, which could raise a grim and potentially devastating regional war to the level of a superpower conflict.

No matter how it played out, this would be no “cakewalk” (to use a word once associated with the 2003 invasion of Iraq).  Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people — North Koreans, South Koreans, Japanese, even U.S. soldiers and civilians — would be at risk. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry, who considered the option of a preemptive strike during the Clinton administration, now insists that, “whether or not this was a good idea in those days, I am persuaded, I am convinced it’s not a good idea today.”

For all these reasons, the top officials in the Pentagon have been risk-averse in discussing military scenarios, with Secretary of Defense James Mattis portraying the consequences of war in the region as “catastrophic” and Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford acknowledgingthat a military solution would be “horrific.” In fact, the Trump administration’s strategic review of North Korea policy explicitly advised against any military option, preferring instead to go with “maximum pressure and engagement.”

In the back of any regime-changer’s mind has to be a single obvious scenario: a replay of Germany’s 1990 reunification in which South Korea swallows the North in a single gulp. As it happens, however, South Korea has shown little interest in copying the German example, certainly not under the leadership of its new progressive president, Moon Jae-In. The current government has, in fact, explicitly rejected any war on the Korean peninsula. Moon instead favors the sort of increased economic and social engagement with the North that might someday lead to some kind of slow-motion reunification rather than an overnight absorption of that country (which would also horrify the Chinese).

Such regime-change scenarios always overlook the deeply felt nationalism of most North Koreans. They may not like Kim Jong-un or have much faith in the government, but decades of nationalist education and propaganda have turned that country’s citizens into true believers in the North’s right to independence and self-determination. Virtually everyone there has served in the military, and there can be little doubt that the population is ready to fight to defend their homeland against outside aggressors. As in Cuba circa 1961, regime-change efforts in North Korea already have the stink of failure to them.

And even were such efforts to succeed, with a catastrophic regional war somehow being averted, the results would undoubtedly rival the cataclysms that engulfed Baghdad in 2003 and Tripoli in 2011. Millions of North Koreans would potentially stream across the borders of both China and South Korea, creating a massive refugee crisis. The economies of northeast Asia would take a major hit, which might send global markets into a tailspin. And don’t forget North Korea’s nuclear weapons and material, which could elude the search-and-secure efforts of U.S. and South Korean Special Forces and fall into the hands of who knows whom.

You’d think that the examples of Cuba, Iraq, and Libya — not to mention Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen — would have cured Washington’s regime-change enthusiasts of their recurring illusions. But no such luck, especially since those hawks deeply believe that any negotiations with North Korea will prove utterly futile, merely allowing that country to further strengthen its nuclear program.

History, however, does not bear out that particular prejudice.

Negotiating with Crazy

If you think North Korea is too crazy to negotiate with the United States — or that the Trump administration is too crazy to talk with Pyongyang — think again.

Back in the 1970s, China was a much crazier place than North Korea, so crazy in fact that thousands of Chinese escaped the madness by fleeing… to North Korea! During the Cultural Revolution that began in 1966 and lasted for roughly a decade, China’s leader, Mao Zedong, lost control of his country as teenage Revolutionary Guards unseated seasoned Communist Party officials. Up to two million people died in the nationwide upheaval. The turmoil in that country was matched by turmoil within Mao himself.  In the 1970s, he was overtaken by delusions of grandeur as he began a descent into senility. And yet despite such inauspicious circumstances, the China of that era negotiated quite reasonably with the United States to get the international recognition it so dearly wanted.

In 1970, when President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser, decided to orchestrate a diplomatic opening to that country, it wasn’t because China had shown any eagerness for negotiations. The White House was instead attempting to put pressure on Moscow by playing nice with Beijing. In this period, Nixon cultivated a “madman theory” in which his aides were to claim that he was acting in a deranged fashion, leading his adversaries, fearing being nuked, to think twice about challenging him. Even so, Nixon has gone down in history as America’s great dealmaker thanks to his successful “opening” to China.

In 1972, crazy negotiated with crazy and détente was born.

In contrast to China in those years, North Korea is not in a state of chaos. Whatever else you might think about Kim Jong-un, he’s not senile. The country’s foreign policy has been relatively consistent over the decades. The development of a nuclear program has, in its own fashion, been a rational response both to the North’s loss of an edge in conventional military power to South Korea and to U.S. regime-change threats. (Remember, for instance, the way President George W. Bush tossed the North Koreans into the “axis of evil” with soon-to-be-invaded Iraq and perennially threatened Iran in his 2002 State of the Union address.) In fact, building a nuclear deterrent may be one of the least crazy things that Pyongyang has done over the years.

And don’t forget that the United States has successfully negotiated with North Korea on a range of issues from finding and repatriating the remains of American soldiers who died during the Korean War to agreements on nuclear weapons. The 1994 Agreed Framework lasted nearly a decade and effectively froze the North’s plutonium-processing capabilities. In an agreement negotiated during the Bush years, that country actually began to destroyelements of its nuclear program. The nuclear deals eventually fell apart because of violations and bad faith on both sides, but they demonstrate that talking with Pyongyang is feasible and can produce concrete results.

Beginning in 1979, aided in part by détente with the United States, China embarked on a series of major domestic reforms. If American officials paid more attention to what’s actually going on inside North Korea (aside from its nuclear program), they would see that the country is changing — in spite of, not thanks to, U.S. policy.

The Change That Matters

I visited North Korea three times in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  There were very few cars on the streets and highways. Cell phones were practically nonexistent. A few semi-private restaurants had just opened in its capital, Pyongyang. Private markets had finally appeared in cities nationwide in response to the breakdown of the government’s food distribution system, but they seemed more like stopgap measures the state tolerated than a permanent feature of the economy.

Today, North Korea’s political system remains virtually intact (minus a couple hundred officials purged by Kim Jong-un). Its widespread surveillance system is still in place. There’s neither freedom of speech nor assembly and tens of thousands of its citizens continue to suffer grim fates in its widespread penal camp system.

But North Korea is changing. Private markets have become a permanent feature of the landscape, and a rising nouveau riche and an expanding middle class are transforming the DNA of the country. Out of a population of 25 million, as many as three million people now own cell phones and there are enough cars in Pyongyang these days to generate the occasional traffic jam. Those who have become wealthy from market activities are buying and installing solar panels to power upscale appliances like wall-mounted televisions.

Capitalism, in other words, has begun to bubble up from below, even though the United States has gone to great lengths to prevent the country from having any interaction with the global economy. It’s a delicate balance for the North Korean state. The markets relieve the authorities of the responsibility for meeting certain citizens’ needs and taxing the new entrepreneurs brings money into government coffers. But the markets also are a venue for channeling more information from the outside world, as North Korean traders interact with their Chinese counterparts and movies and music from South Korea make their way in via USB drives.

This ongoing transformation of North Korean society has been noted by a few figures in Washington as an opportunity to pursue a kinder, gentler version of regime change. “We worry about the miniaturization of North Korean nukes; what threatens the Kim regime is the miniaturization of information technology,” writes former Clinton administration official Tom Malinowski in Politico. “By sharing media with family, friends, and broader networks, and by learning to avoid detection, North Koreans are also gaining skills and connections essential to independent political organization.”

It’s not clear that the market and greater access to information will, in fact, push North Koreans to organize against the state or embrace American-style democracy. But supporting such changes makes sense anyway. The experience of China suggests that such reforms, even when implemented within a non-democratic system, can reduce the threat of war and conflict. “It has worked before in other countries,” economist Rudiger Frank wrote in Global Asia after a recent visit to North Korea. “It will work again.”

In 1960, a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate warned that China’s “arrogant self-confidence, revolutionary fervor, and distorted view of the world may lead [Beijing] to miscalculate risks. This danger would be heightened if Communist China achieved a nuclear weapons capability.” Four years later, China tested its first nuclear weapon.

More than half a century has passed since that moment and China is still no paragon of democracy or human rights. Tensions persist across the Taiwan Strait and in the South China Sea, and Beijing possesses a small but significant arsenal of deliverable nuclear weapons. Few people in the United States, however, worry that China will launch an attack against Guam, Alaska, Hawaii, or the White House. China has too much of a stake in the international system to risk losing everything by acting with the “revolutionary fervor” that so worried U.S. officials in 1960. A combination of internal reforms and successful negotiations with Washington transformed that country into a more or less responsible global player.

Embedding North Korea in a similar way in the international system of economic and geopolitical negotiations, not to mention human rights conventions, will reduce the threat it currently poses to its southern brethren, its Asian neighbors, and more distantly the United States. Economic sanctions, military pressure, and intemperate threats, on other hand, will ultimately prove counterproductive, doing little but to intensify the nothing-to-lose mentality of the regime, while failing to encourage the changes already ongoing. By continuing to isolate an already isolated land, the United States is only strengthening the very wall against which it’s been banging its head for so many years.

It’s way past time for the Trump administration to take a few aspirin and a few deep breaths, and seize this opportunity to talk with the North Koreans before both head and wall sustain irreparable damage.

TomDispatch, August 22, 2017