Crossing the Rubicon at the 39th Parallel?

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Poster Collection, US 3547, Hoover Institution Archives.

A historian of ancient Rome is skeptical of the comparisons between Julius Caesar and Donald Trump. After all, slamming a leader we don’t like as “a new Caesar” is one of America’s oldest traditions. It stretches from George III to Lincoln to Obama and now Trump.

Still, the news that President Trump has agreed to meet North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un might call to mind a Caesarian phrase—“crossing the Rubicon.” The expression means making a difficult decision that can’t be reversed. The phrase comes from a turning point in Roman history.

When Caesar took his army in 49 B.C. and crossed the Rubicon, a tiny stream in northern Italy, he broke the law. He defied his enemies in the Senate, who had tried to strip him of his command. Instead, Caesar marched on Rome and began a civil war, heralding a 20-year era that ended only with the fall of the republic and the beginning of rule by the emperors—the Caesars.

Now back to Korea. Trump’s decision to reverse 60 years of precedent and meet an enemy, and to do so against the advice of many experts, certainly sounds like a decisive moment. It may be an opportunity but it is also a risk, given the stakes of nuclear war, hegemony in East Asia, and North Korea’s history of lying and thuggery. In reaching out across the 39th parallel—the dividing line between the two Koreas—is Trump crossing the Rubicon?

Not so fast. Donald Trump is more prestidigitator than dictator. He likes to keep his opponents guessing. His stock in trade is misdirection, experimentation, and constant course correction. What the summit looks like today and what it will turn out to be in the end, assuming it takes place, are two different things.

Rather than crossing the Rubicon, how about applying another ancient phrase to current events? In the city of Gordium in what is today Turkey, Alexander the Great faced the challenge of untying a famously complicated knot. Anyone who succeeded, a prophecy said, would rule Asia from Turkey to India. Alexander solved the problem by cutting the knot with his sword. That gives rise to today’s expression, “cutting the Gordian knot,” that is, solving a difficult problem.

A skeptic might argue that Alexander didn’t solve the problem—he cheated. A skeptic might also note that Alexander conquered an empire by force of arms, not by cutting a knot. In fact, the Gordian episode could be understood as a publicity stunt.

Which brings us back to the Trump-Kim summit. Will it actually be held? It if does, will it represent a prudent risk or a dangerous gamble? Will it bring war or peace—and on what terms? Will it cement Donald Trump’s reputation as a statesman? Or will it merely add to his portfolio as a master of marketing?

Not even a soothsayer could make an accurate prediction.