When presidents talk tough

When US presidents talk tough to foreign leaders, does it work?

This question arises, of course, due to President Trump’s strong rhetoric this week about North Korea and its developing nuclear program. First Mr. Trump vowed to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea if it threatened the US.

Then he doubled down, saying that his original choice of words might have been too tepid. At 6:30 a.m. on Thursday, the president tweeted that if Pyongyang acts unwisely “military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded.”

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Presumably Trump’s point here is to make North Korea’s leaders think twice about continuing work on miniaturized warheads and missiles capable of reaching the US mainland.

(He may also want to project an image of firmness to a domestic audience; according to some accounts, the “fire and fury” line was an offhand ad lib.) If so, he’s doing something lots of other US chief executives have done. Presidents have long used what experts call “statements of resolve” to clarify positions and draw red lines in international disputes.

Presidents make these demonstrations of public firmness to try and get adversaries to behave in a manner the US wants. In some instances, such as the Cuban missile crisis, declarations of White House resolve have indeed contributed to geopolitical solutions, according to political scientists who study this topic. It’s not always empty bluster.

But few past presidential threats have been as inflammatory as Trump’s. And history shows that foreign leaders weigh other factors, such as a president’s perceived credibility and domestic popularity, when judging White House resolve and their own best course of action. Unsurprisingly, they also take military balance into account.

In the current situation it’s also possible that North Korea’s President Kim Jong-un hasn’t noted Trump’s words this week as much different from past US statements. After all, Pyongyang makes lots of flamboyant threats itself. The Hermit Kimdom may register “fire and fury” as typical rhetoric.

“For us this is incredibly novel and interesting and bizarre,” says Jonathan Mercer, a University of Washington political science professor. “We don’t know what it seems like to the North Koreans.”


Presidents talk tough in all manner of ways. The spectrum of rhetoric ranges from explicit threats of force – think President George H. W. Bush vowing that the…

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