Donald Trump’s threat to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea as punishment for its military provocations is the epitome of irresponsible leadership. By invoking the prospect of apocalyptic destruction, Trump risks alienating US allies, distracting attention from North Korean misbehavior, and escalating an alrea
dy fraught situation.
Yet even if the US wasn’t led by such an amateurish president, the North Korean crisis wouldn’t necessarily be easier to resolve. The standoff is driven most fundamentally not by the behavior of any single leader, but by the unresolvable dilemmas of US strategy in the nuclear age.
The core problem, rarely discussed openly, is that Washington has sought for several decades to do something very difficult: prevent sovereign states from acquiring weapons that they feel will guarantee their security. This challenge is all the harder because the technology needed to develop a nuclear warhead and mount it on a ballistic missile is not particularly sophisticated.
Nuclear weapons are 1940s-era technology; miniaturized warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles are 1950s- or 1960s-era innovations. If a country is willing to invest the time and money, brave the international opprobrium, and bear the associated costs -- including the ire of the US -- it can acquire a deliverable bomb. China did so in the 1960s despite being one of the world’s most economically backward and mismanaged states; North Korea is managing a similar feat today.
This conundrum has not stopped the US from trying to check nuclear proliferation over the past 70 years. Washington helped create the nuclear nonproliferation treaty in the 1960s; it has provided security guarantees to threatened allies who might otherwise be tempted to build the bomb, and invested enormous military resources in making these promises credible; it has applied sanctions and other pressure to dissuade both enemies and friends -- such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan -- alike from seeking nuclear weapons. The US even cooperated with the Cold War-era Soviet Union to prevent West Germany from going nuclear.
This concerted effort to retard nuclear proliferation has been an enduring theme of American strategy since the dawn of the atomic age. What motivates it? US officials have long feared that nuclear proliferation will raise the chances of nuclear war. They have worried that the spread of nuclear weapons will undermine US alliances by allowing American adversaries to inflict unacceptable damage on American forces or the US homeland should Washington come to an ally’s defense. Not least, American policy makers have worried that the nation’s diplomatic influence and military freedom of action will be undermined in a world in which more states possess the absolute military equalizer.
US policy has proven quite successful, if costly, over time. In the early 1960s, President John Kennedy predicted that 15 to 20 states might have nuclear weapons within another decade. More than 50 years later, the number is only nine, in no small part because of the lengths to which Washington has gone to keep that club small and exclusive.
As effective as this strategy has been, however, it has always had limits. In particular, the US has never been especially good at dealing with the hardest cases -- countries whose leadership believes that a nuclear deterrent represents the only reliable option for national defense and regime survival, and has therefore been willing to build the bomb no matter the cost.
Many of these countries -- the Soviet Union of the Stalin and Khrushchev eras, Mao’s China, the Kim family dynasty in North Korea -- were the quintessential rogue states of their times, driven by radical ideologies, an utter disregard for human life and an ingrained hostility toward the US and its allies. And so in each of these cases, American policymakers considered snuffing out the threat once and for all with preventive strikes, in the theory that military action now would be better than waiting until the threat became more acute.
But in each case, US officials ultimately decided that the costs -- both the likely human toll and the moral opprobrium attached to striking first -- were ultimately higher than those of living with the problem indefinitely.
The US therefore chose to pursue a policy we might think of as deterrence plus -- threatening devastating retaliation should Moscow, Beijing or Pyongyang ever use its nuclear weapons against America or its allies -- rather than one of prevention, distasteful as that choice may have been.
A similar calculus ought to prevail today. To be clear, a North Korean ICBM poses painful strategic dilemmas, because it gives the world’s most repressive and bellicose state the ability to target the US homeland, and thus casts doubt on whether Washington would really be willing to defend allies such as South Korea and Japan -- with nuclear weapons, if necessary -- in a crisis.
That uncertainty, in turn, creates pressure for South Korea and Japan to develop their own nuclear weapons, because it will remind them that the promise at the heart of America’s extended nuclear deterrence -- that it will trade Seattle for Seoul, or Portland for Pusan -- is inherently difficult to believe. The costs of living with a North Korean ICBM are high indeed. The likely costs of a war to destroy North Korean nuclear capabilities, however, are far higher.
This leaves only bad options. Perhaps the US and its allies can negotiate some temporary freeze of North Korea’s missile programs and nuclear tests, purchased through economic or diplomatic concessions or a suspension of US-South Korean military exercises. But such deals with Pyongyang have never held in the past, and so over the long term Washington will probably have to accept a North Korean ICBM -- just as it accepted a Soviet nuclear capability in the 1940s and a Chinese nuclear threat in the 1960s -- while trusting that the threat of US nuclear retaliation will deter Kim Jong-un, just as it deterred other rogue states and leaders in the past.
This does not mean that there is nothing the United States can do to mitigate that threat. It can increase investment in missile defense. It can pursue counter-force capabilities -- including special operations forces, enhanced cyber, precision-strike conventional weapons and highly accurate low-yield nuclear weapons -- needed to neutralize North Korean nuclear weapons should war break out. It can talk seriously with Japan and South Korea on how it might use nuclear weapons in any worst-case scenario. It can increase its deployment of impressive conventional military capabilities in the region. The US pursued similar policies during the Cold War.
None of this will bring a desirable or conclusive solution to the North Korean nuclear problem, but as most realistic policy makers understand, a problem like North Korea gets managed, not solved.
As dangerous as this crisis is, then, the greatest danger is that President Trump will not have the patience and equanimity to pursue this imperfect approach. His rhetoric will only ratchet up unrealistic expectations that the US can somehow “win” the current showdown, when in fact Washington should keep its cool and muddle through -- just as the history of the nuclear age would advise.By Hal Brands & Francis J. Gavin
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs, Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Francis J. Gavin is the Giovanni Agnelli Distinguished Professor and Inaugural Director of the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. -- Ed.(Bloomberg)