The Information Game

Understanding Putin, Xi and Kim

While the press can afford to speculate about leaders’ thought processes, governments have no such luxury. The latter build large dossiers containing even the smallest items that might indicate preferences, interests, abilities, and much more. Of course, the subjects themselves are well aware of this and try their best to confuse their opponents – and even their friends. Sometimes one or the other side win the game or at least a given move.

In the distant past, the distinct cultural differences added a facade of obscurity. In modern times, however, mutual official interests in international maneuvers have forced a rearrangement of techniques of negotiation, and even later on in action taken. A contemporary example is the manufactured openness of Russian, Chinese, and North Korean dealings with the United States. The fact is that the current American presidency is capable of the same duplicity on which these communist nations appeared to have a monopoly. One might say that the Americans have finally figured out the rules and have begun to learn how to play the game.

Of course, these rules have been well known in Europe and the rest of the world. Washington, until recently, still hadn’t figured out either the rules or the manner in which to beat them even when caught in the move. These days it all starts with the leaders and their one-on-one meetings. For that reason, information on and assessment of the thought process of the particular adversary has become transcendently important. Equally important therefore is the need to know, and understand, the forces that play upon and influence the adversary.

It cannot be said that the leaders of Russia, China, and North Korea, for example, are created from the same political cloth, even if all three have a pretense to be devoted to communism. Even that fact is open to dispute and careful interpretation. One thing has become clear: all three have accepted in one form or another, governmentally and personally, the benefits of private enterprise. No matter what they may call it, that is capitalism not socialism. As rigid Marxist approaches to political economics are set aside, so too it can be judged, will other previously held dogma. This is the sort of thing that opens the way for discussion. And they all know it.

The Chinese in particular, are very adept at bridging all political economic perceptions while pretending to their socialist commitments. The Russians have long since found little need for pretense when it comes to favorable business dealings. Chairman Xi Jinping has added another element to the matters of international negotiation. His acumen and personal charm have become devices in themselves. Certainly, neither Vladimir Putin nor Kim Jong-un are his equal in that regard, though from time to time they try. However, Xi in the end must satisfy the objectives and ambitions of the ultimately powerful leadership of the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) if for no other reason than his own desire to maintain a united governmental front.

All of which brings up the importance of what is the established Chinese practice of guanxi. It is a system not dissimilar to the social/political structure among people of the West who have similar backgrounds and familial ties and, on a more personal basis, shared schooling and club relations. The Chinese Communist Party has developed its particular guanxi beginning with those generations that participated in Mao Zedong’s “long March.” It’s the sense and reality of shared development of modern revolutionary China. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, began as a communist guerilla fighter in the 1930’s becoming distinguished in the Long March and was Mao’s youngest Vice Premier. This along with his own accomplishments and recognized intellectual capacity placed Xi Jinping well in front of his political and social class.

In North Korea the situation of inherited status is similar but different. Kim Jong-un as the grandson of the revered communist leader, Kim Il-sung, and son of Kim Jong-il who inherited his top position from his father, the earlier Kim, was a natural heir to this supposedly “communist” regime. To add to the privilege of Kim Jong-un’s background is the fact that he spent several years at an exclusive English language private school in Switzerland learning the manners and culture of a European gentleman. At the same time, he became a rabid fan of the National Basketball Association of the United States – thus accounting for his later welcoming of and friendship with the flamboyant player, Dennis Rodman. The import of this fascination remains a matter of political conjecture.

The difference with his older Chinese compatriot, Xi Jinping, is that Kim does not have a peer relationship with his military leadership and perforce must be extremely guarded in foreign dealings that run counter to North Korean military interests and advice. This was important in the recent executions of top civilian advisers and the placement of the acting Foreign Secretary in a labor camp after the failed Hanoi summit. This action has once again created a confusing circumstance with which to deal for the American president, Donald Trump. The very friendly and seemingly sophisticated Kim does not have the same intellectual, strategic and political strength as Xi Jinping. It is a hard lesson to accept for a Washington that had expected Kim Jong-un would be able to close a deal that they thought already had been worked out before the failure of the Hanoi meeting.

The foregoing points to the fact that it really doesn’t matter how much you know about an adversary if you can’t exploit the knowledge. Of course, it is better to know than not, but all that information and analysis is for naught if it cannot be effectively utilized. Ultimately the lesson to be learned here is simple: Intelligence is useful only when it can be exploited. Otherwise all that clever gathering, analyzing and cataloguing becomes merely an academic exercise. How far China and North Korea can be pushed, urged, negotiated with depends on the combination of information gained and assessed along with the ability to take advantage of that process. There are no short cuts!