Like a lot of people before him, Kim Jong Un has discovered that it is easy to bait Donald Trump. Last week the North Korean dictator delivered a speech promising to test-launch an intercontinental ballistic missile, a rocket that could give his regime the means to threaten the U.S. homeland with a nuclear strike.
It took just hours for Trump to respond. “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S,” he tweeted. “It won’t happen!”
In fact, if Kim’s promised launch does not proceed, it will be because the regime still lacks a functional ICBM, not because Trump is able to stop it. As the intelligence community might have informed him were he taking briefings, there was no urgent need to draw a red line: Test or no test, outside experts say that it will be years before the North will be ready to deploy such a weapon. Kim’s real aim in delivering the speech was to command the attention of the incoming American president and goad him into publicly recognizing and addressing the 33-year-old tyrant. Mission accomplished.
Kim, of course, is not the only foreign leader to try pushing his way into the president-elect’s Twitter feed. The testing of a new U.S. president by both adversaries and allies is a well-established phenomenon. What’s different about the Trump transition is the tactics some have adopted. Rather than dispatch delegations or lobby advisers, foreign governments, having taken the new man’s narcissistic measure, are doing their best to engage him personally, through tweets and other public statements.
It’s not that hard to succeed. After Trump held an unprecedented phone call with the president of Taiwan, the Chinese Navy grabbed a U.S. underwater drone from international waters. “Let them keep it!” was Trump’s baffling response, which handed a talking point to Beijing. “He seemed emotionally upset, but no one knows what he wanted to say,” mocked the Global Times, a regime mouthpiece, which went on to argue that Trump “has no sense of how to lead a superpower” — a message China wants to drive home with nervous U.S. allies in East Asia.
Trolling Trump is not the only option of course. It’s been noted in allied capitals that the man is deeply susceptible to flattery. “President-elect Trump, thank you for your warm friendship and your clear-cut support for Israel!” tweeted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after Trump criticized a U.N. resolution on Israeli settlements. “President-elect Trump has shown deep and great understanding of what is taking place in the region as a whole and what is taking place in Egypt,” proclaimed Egyptian strongman Abdel Fatah al-Sissi in an interview that was splashed by the Trumpist Breitbart website.
Even some close U.S. friends feel compelled to join in the public courtship. After Sissi withdrew the anti-Israel U.N. resolution in an attempt to please Trump, Britain helped to revive it. But days later the government of Theresa May launched what looked a lot like an effort to get back into Trump’s good graces, issuing an unusual statement criticizing Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s excoriation of the Netanyahu government. Veteran British Middle East journalist Ian Black called it an“alarming early sign of ‘Trump effect’ on fawning Brits desperate to stay ‘special’ in Brexit era.”
The undisputed master of Trump-whispering, of course, is Vladimir Putin. Whether the former KGB operative has some kind of personal or financial hold on the incoming president is unknown to the American public. But Putin’s public manipulation of Trump has offered a master class for the likes of May and Netanyahu. Take his cynical chiding of the Democrats for failing “to lose gracefully,” after Russian intelligence services tried to tip the election by hacking the Democratic National Committee; or his faux-gracious decision not to respond to the U.S. sanctions imposed afterward. In both cases, he elicited exactly the responses he wanted from Trump, who called his critique “so true” and his non-retaliation “very smart.”
What are foreign governments learning from all this? Unfortunately, the main lesson may be that this U.S. president can easily be played. He can be steered into adopting a U.S. adversary’s ideas as his own; he can be appeased by public flattery. Perhaps most disturbing, he can be goaded into statements and, perhaps, actions that play into the hands of enemies or undermine U.S. interests. If Kim Jong Un does, in fact, manage to stage an ICBM test in the coming weeks, expect him to remind the world of Trump’s “it won’t happen” boast — the first of what may be many Twitter traps to be sprung on the 45th president.