I spend a lot of time watching military parades. It’s not because I particularly like them — in fact, I find them tedious and jingoistic — but because often they are a source of valuable information about countries such as Russia, China and North Korea, where that’s usually hard to come by. Analysts like me scrutinize both the military hardware on display and the leaders watching the parade.
The Russians, Chinese and North Koreans know we’re watching, of course. That’s part of the game — parades are massive propaganda efforts that these governments mount to convey a certain message both to their own people and to the rest of the world. Our job as analysts is to decipher the message Moscow, Beijing or Pyongyang is trying to send, and then scrutinize it closely to discover the things that they perhaps don’t want us to notice.
Last year, for instance, we caught a glimpse of Kim Jong Un’s sister working frantically behind the scenes, which was one of the first hints that she was an important person behind the throne. This weekend, we see her representing her brother at the Olympics.
Squint hard enough at the details in a parade, and you may catch a glimpse of the future.
Parades in places like China and North Korea only make sense if we understand the broader propaganda context in which they take place. And from my experience analyzing parades there, I can predict how the military parade President Trump wants to hold in Washington this year might play in Moscow, Beijing or Pyongyang.
It will not, despite what Trump may think, be seen as a sign of American confidence.
American presidents haven’t felt the need to have annual grand military parades to demonstrate either the nation’s strength or convey their control over the armed forces.
Independent analysts here and abroad have so many ways to monitor U.S. defense programs and our nation’s political shenanigans that we haven’t really felt like the absence of parades is some kind of hole in our understanding of our country.
But parades are already a recurring leitmotif of the Trump era: One of the president’s fondest memories, going by how often he mentions it, is leading cadets from his military academy in a Columbus Day parade. Trump reportedly wanted to include military vehicles in his inaugural parade, and now, having seen a grand military parade in France for Bastille Day, he’s pushing the idea with the Pentagon again.
Are we really going to be looking at where John F. Kelly sits or how Trump reacts to him to determine whether Kelly is likely to remain as chief of staff or be removed in a staff purge? Or wondering whether the inclusion of an F-35 flyover means that the program no longer suffers presidential disapproval? I suppose we are.
And yet, of all the reasons to be uncomfortable with the idea of a parade, I am not bothered that the United States will look like Russia, China or North Korea. Trump is a stain on our democracy, parade or no parade.
There is a deeper, more disconcerting issue here, though, that goes beyond whatever divisions and military equipment march down Pennsylvania Avenue. In an interview with The Washington Post before his inauguration, Trump placed the issue of parades in a broader context about signaling military strength: “We’re going to show the people as we build up our military. … That military may come marching down Pennsylvania Avenue. That military may be flying over New York City and Washington, D.C., for parades. I mean, we’re going to be showing our military.”
But does this actually convey strength?
In North Korean state media and other sources, the line on the way the United States brandishes nuclear weapons is rather counterintuitive: Pyongyang doesn’t seem to think we’re acting tough. Instead, the U.S. posture is projecting a picture of what frightens Washington most of all. The North Koreans are fond of saying a “frightened dog barks loudest.” But you really get a sense of this by watching how North Korea trolled the citizens of Hawaii after the false alarm about an impending missile attack in an article titled “Americans Suffer from Nuclear-phobia”: “Nuclear-phobia by the nuclear force of the DPRK has now caused a tragicomedy in the U.S. … The citizens and tourists in great disarray went busy evacuating amid the heightened fear and delusion of persecution about the nuclear force of the DPRK.”
That theme — that the United States talks tough about nuclear weapons because we fear them — has been a constant among our adversaries for decades. North Korean propaganda today mirrors how the Chinese communists talked about American fears of nuclear weapons in the 1960s. Zhou Enlai even went so far as to attribute former defense secretary James Forrestal’s suicide to Western nuclear anxiety: “When Secretary of Defense Forrestal, who was in charge of this issue, heard in 1949 that the Soviets had mastered atomic weapons, he was distraught, committing suicide by leaping from a building. In Western countries, most are terrified of atomic weapons.”
It would be easy to dismiss Zhou’s comment as posturing, except that it was made in private — in a speech to State Council in 1955 explaining why China was starting a nuclear weapons program. We talked about nuclear weapons so much that the Chinese communists literally concluded that we must be really frightened by them. That’s why, even though China built its own bomb in 1964, Mao continued to call nuclear weapons a “paper tiger.” He knew that his nonchalance was terrifying to Westerners, and he loved it.
Chinese communists then, and I think their fraternal cousins in North Korea today, both drew a simple conclusion: The United States talked so much about having, and preventing other nations from getting, nuclear weapons because nothing terrified us more than the nuclear holocaust. When the United States brandished the bomb, they saw a threat, but they also saw what threatened us.
In this way, I fear Trump’s parade may backfire. A massive demonstration of military might, especially if it includes some aspect of the nation’s nuclear deterrent, is only going to convince Kim Jong Un and others that the United States sees its power flagging and is frightened. It’s like telling a bully our biggest fear, except we’re putting it on a float and rolling it through downtown Washington.
Inexplicably, Trump and his ilk do not seem to grasp this, although they are extraordinarily intuitive bullies. Trump has made a career of taking up residence inside his enemies’ heads. His supporters openly celebrate flaunting democratic norms not despite the outrage they cause, but to elicit it. “Triggering libs” is a call-to-arms for millions of red-hat wearing Trumpists: “One sure way you know [the parade] is a great idea,” one such pundit wrote, “is by how upset liberals have already become.”
Why can’t they see that’s precisely what Kim Jong Un is doing to them?