A couple events collided this weekend that made me think about how they would possibly interact. The Winter Olympics began. North Korea, or NOKO, is present at the games. Vice President Mike Pence visited the games, sitting in the vicinity of Kim Jong Un’s sister. And, lastly, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is Monday.
It might sound like a crazy intersection of events and notables, but what if Abraham Lincoln were alive today and president? How would he deal with NOKO? Since it’s his birthday, I thought I’d give an answer a try.
I’m not a historian by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve been a prolific reader and student of history, especially America’s history. I’m also a lover of leadership and learning about others’ leadership strategies, especially those who have such monumental influence as Lincoln.
First, it’s easy to say that Lincoln would have fallen into a line of isolationists and not involved himself in international affairs except for trade. (Some say America’s founders and early presidents were not really isolationists at all, though they were definitely overly cautious of foreign entanglements.) Whether Lincoln was or not, he might have been quite the advocate of national and global security if he knew that siege artillery could be developed to the size of nuclear ballistic missiles pointed at the U.S.
Second, what’s interesting here is to ponder Lincoln’s war strategies. Of course, we know that Lincoln was a self-taught strategist with no combat experience. The closest experience he had to military battle was in 1832 (at 23 years old), when he was a captain of a militia unit that was never commissioned into action in the Black Hawk War.
Smithsonian.com noted that during Lincoln’s one term in Congress, he mocked his own military career in an 1848 speech: “Did you know I am a military hero? I fought, bled and came away” after “charges upon the wild onions” and “a good many bloody struggles with the Musquetoes.”
Nevertheless, as Smithsonian states, Lincoln “saw the path to victory more clearly than his generals.” He really did.
Here are three strategies among others that he used to win the Civil War. If he were alive today, I believe he also would employ them to overcome NOKO.
1) Lincoln would mobilize a more diversified team against NOKO, both domestically and internationally. Lincoln was a genius when it came to coalescing diverse leaders and groups, as explained in the now famous work “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and presidential historian.
Let me highlight a few critical points from Goodwin’s book review in the New York Times:
“The party in the 1860s was a coalition of politicians who only a few years earlier had been Whigs (Lincoln, Seward, Bates), Democrats (Blair, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and Vice President Hannibal Hamlin), Free Soilers (Chase), or had flirted with the short-lived anti-immigrant American Party, or Know Nothings (Cameron and Bates). In addition, several cabinet members personally disliked each other: Blair and Chase, Seward and Welles, Chase and Seward, Blair and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who replaced Cameron in January 1862.”
Lincoln’s “political genius” enabled him to herd these political cats and keep them driving toward ultimate victory.
“How did he do it? Goodwin deals with this question better than any other writer. Part of the answer lay in Lincoln’s steadfastness of purpose, which inspired subordinates to overcome their petty rivalries. Part of it lay in his superb sense of timing and his sensitivity to the pulse of public opinion as he moved to bring along a divided people to the support of ‘a new birth of freedom.’ And part of it lay in Lincoln’s ability to rise above personal slights, his talent for getting along with men of clashing ideologies and personalities who could not get along with each other.”
There’s little doubt that Lincoln would have a massive and diverse domestic and international team opposing NOKO.
2) Lincoln started out his presidency wanting to unite the Union “without saving or destroying slavery,” but he eventually made it a central goal to winning the war and ushering in a better Union. If he were alive today, I believe Lincoln would work passionately against NOKO’s regime on the single basis that it had the worst human oppression and persecution record among 50 oppressive nations, especially against people of faith.
Lincoln believed, “Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it.”
Just as he did in the Civil War, when Lincoln made the abolition of slavery it’s primary point and goal (and used it to discourage other countries from backing the Confederacy), he’d likely turn the nuclear race with NOKO into a human-rights and slavery war. In his public campaign, he would further mobilize the world against NOKO and make it virtually impossible for anyone to back the regime (like China and Russia do today).
3) Personally, I think if Lincoln tried diplomacy with NOKO, he would do it himself. I know it’s not presidential protocol today, but he seemed so unorthodox in his political and social savvy. I think he would use his uncanny (almost other worldly) ability not to hold a grudge, be malicious or vengeful or engage mana a mano. Rather, Lincoln would utilize his kindness and psycho-political strategy and finesse that can best be summarized in his question, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
What killed Lincoln most in the Civil War was that the Confederates were his brothers and sisters in the American family. As he again explained: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
I thought about Lincoln’s approach when I saw Vice President Mike Pence sitting by Kim Jong Un’s sister at the Winter Olympics. It made me wonder what Lincoln would have done if he were sitting in Pence’s seat. It’s difficult to believe Lincoln wouldn’t have gone out of his way to shake Kim’s sister’s hand, if for no other reason than political strategy while the world was watching. Then again, maybe sitting at Pence’s distance would have been sufficient for his initial step, too.
I imagine a modern world full of items like indoor ice skating rinks would puzzle and amaze President Lincoln. But I must also add: Just imagine how pleased he would be to see the first African-American hockey player (Jordan Greenway) on the U.S. Olympic hockey team in its 98-year history. It is then that Lincoln would truly understand that his labors and the war were not in vain.
Lincoln’s kindness should not be misinterpreted for naivety. Lincoln wasn’t wimpy, either, and he certainly wouldn’t cower before “rocket man” or his minions. Contraire! As Lincoln once said, “Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.” If push came to shove, Lincoln was obviously not afraid to fight, but it was a last and unavoidable step.
The big question today is this: Is there a Lincoln on the present political landscape who can discern the times and unite a team of rivals? Is there one who has the finesse to turn an enemy into a “friend”? Is there anyone who can implement a human rights war with NOKO to sway even its most ardent supporters? Or is war simply inevitable?
Top-down, double-down, I-got-a-bigger-military-than-you, mano a mano is not going to work here or win the day. Fighting fire with fire (fury or not) will only result in more fire. I think Lincoln would have shown a better way, or at least he would have died trying, just as he did.
As he concluded, “I leave you, hoping that the lamp of liberty will burn in your bosoms until there shall no longer be a doubt that all men are created free and equal.”