The proverbial knot of Gordium was impossible to untie. Anyone clever enough to untie it would supposedly become the king of Asia. Many princes tried; all failed. Then Alexander the Great arrived and was challenged to unravel the impossible knot.
Instead, he pulled out his sword and cut through it.
Donald Trump inherited an array of perennial crises when he was sworn in as president in 2017. He certainly did not possess the traditional diplomatic skills and temperament to deal with any of them.
In the last year of the Barack Obama administration, a lunatic North Korean regime purportedly had gained the ability to send nuclear-tipped missiles to the U.S. West Coast.
China had not only been violating trade agreements, but forcing U.S. companies to hand over their technological expertise as the price of doing business in China.
NATO may have been born to protect the European mainland, but a distant U.S. was paying an increasingly greater percentage of NATO’s budget than its direct beneficiaries were.
Traditional and accepted methods had failed to deal with all of these challenges.
Bill Clinton’s “Agreed Framework,” George W. Bush’s “six-party talks” and the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” essentially offered North Korea cash to denuclearize.
When American diplomats who whined to China about its unfair trade practices were rebuffed, they more or less shut up, convinced either that they could not do anything or that China’s growing economy would westernize sooner or later.
Europeans were used to American nagging about delinquent NATO contributions, and diplomatic niceties usually meant European leaders only talked about shouldering more of the costs of their own defense.
Before Trump arrived, American diplomacy and statecraft had untied none of these knots.
But like Alexander, the outsider Trump pulled out his proverbial sword and began slashing.
If Kim Jong Un kept threatening the U.S., Trump would threaten him back and ridicule him in the process as “Rocket Man.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. would beef up its own nuclear arsenal, press ahead with missile defense, warn China that its neighbors might have to nuclearize, and generally seem as threatening to Kim as he traditionally has been to others.
Trump was no more patient with China. If it continues to cheat and demand technology transfers as the price of doing business in China, then it will face tariffs on its exports and a trade war.
Trump seemingly had no patience with endless rounds of negotiations about NATO defense contributions. If frontline European nations wished to spend little to defend their own borders, why should America have to spend so much to protect such distant nations?
There are common themes to all these slashed knots. Diplomatic niceties had solved little.
Knot-cutters may not know how to untie knots.
But by the same token, those who struggle to untie knots also do not know how to cut them.
And sometimes knots can only be cut — even as we recoil at the brash Alexanders who won’t play by traditional rules and instead dare to pull out their swords.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.