There was a palpable sigh of relief when General John Kelly was selected as White House chief of staff and when National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster finally began purging the nationalist Pepe-fanboy Bannonites from the NSC. Combined with the presence of SECDEF Jim Mattis, Nikki Haley’s star turn at the UN, and a more assertive Rex Tillerson, there was almost a sense that the Axis of Adults would help mitigate the crazy. When news broke that North Korea was close to mounting a miniaturized warhead on an ICBM capable of reaching U.S. territory, there was a hope that the experienced military team around Trump would turn this crisis into a foreign policy win.
Then came “fire and fury.”
It wasn’t just that the tone and rhetoric were dangerously dumb and wrong; it was that the grownups had no idea it was coming. As The Weekly Standard reported, “The White House, including the national-security team, was unaware President Trump was preparing to speak publicly about North Korea when he did so Tuesday at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey.”
As we enter a dangerous moment on the Korean Peninsula, Donald Trump’s rhetoric is that of a schoolyard bully, not an American statesman informed by 75 years of successful nuclear deterrence. “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” said Trump. Oh, goody.
There’s an unspoken rule post-Cold War American Presidents have used when describing the awesome power of our nuclear arsenal; the more devastating the ability to destroy the enemy, the more restrained the language should be. The terrible and awesome capabilities of America’s nuclear arsenal are well known. Yes, we could reduce North Korea to a shimmering plain of radioactive glass, and still get in 18 holes of golf. Yes, if they nuke Guam or Hawaii or Seattle, the Kim regime better stock up on SPF 5,000,000 sunscreen.
However, Trump’s chest-puffing makes us look weaker, not stronger. It’s a red line he didn’t need to draw. The form of a threat in a deterrence model is always in the form of “If you attack us with nukes, we’ll return in kind,” not “If you keep threatening to attack us with nukes, we’ll immerse you in a sea of flame.”
The Kim family’s pesky, poverty-stricken slave state has vexed his predecessors running back to Harry S. Truman. When North Korea’s nuclear ambitions began to flower in the 1990s, it seemed that danger to the American homeland was impossibly remote. The complex chain of engineering dependencies – a functional warhead, an effective launch system, a re-entry vehicle, targeting capability, and a manufacturing chain to support the whole mess – are all approaching an ugly moment where the Hermit Kingdom has the ability to deliver a nuclear attack over a meaningful fraction of the U.S., but they’re not there yet. The can’t scale enough to pose an instant threat.
The Trump Juche position on North Korea is, “But Clinton...but Obama...but why cannnn’t I use nukes?”...which shocks no one but doesn’t address the actual crisis we face. Every other President in the modern era failed to stop North Korea’s nuclear program, for a whole host of reasons. Donald Trump’s bluster alone can’t stop it except at an extraordinary cost in lives.
So we’re back to the deterrence and diplomacy model that has kept the world from nuclear war since 1945. The purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter. The mission of deterrence to make all parties in possession of nuclear weapons never, ever use them. No sane, stable President would be willing to let a few million South Koreans die, along with about 100,000 Americans in Korea, out of pique, and he would recognize deterrence and diplomacy is the only path.
The deterrence model depended on having at least one rational actor on both sides of the divide. Despite our tensions, wildly differing objectives and ideologies, there was never a truly irrational actor on either side of the U.S.-Russia divide. Deterrence provided a hard guardrail on the side of the road. Did both sides test it, either deliberately or inadvertently? Certainly.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was a product of both Khrushchev and Kennedy pushing nuclear weapons systems closer to the respective borders of the other. The hot moments of the Cuban Missile Crisis brought us close to the edge, but both sides knew that the costs of turning those keys were unimaginable. In the 1980s, before the Soviet Union’s death-spasm, there were policy drivers that raised the stakes – the deployment of modernized nuclear weapons delivery systems like the Ground-Launched Cruise Missile and the Pershing II on NATO’s behalf, and the Soviet deployment of the SS-20.
There were moments where deterrence looked fragile; in an era where both nuclear arsenals were programmed for launch-on-warning, false alarms indicating an incoming nuclear attack were more common than is generally known. Incidents like the KAL-007 shoot-down and the Able Archer 83 NATO exercise that Soviet intelligence read as a preemptive attack were moments that in retrospect give intelligence officers and war planners a frisson of horror.
Deterrence, though, did what it was intended to do. Rational actors on both sides viewed the preemptive use cases for nuclear weapons as essentially non-existent. Their value came from the restraint a symmetric threat from our opponent posed. Now, we have a crisis with two irrational actors. This isn’t game theory. It’s a chilling fact.
Trump’s rhetoric isn’t 10-dimensional chess. The more powerful and capable party in these kinds of rhetorical contests gains from language that is restrained, not florid and exaggerated. Does he think Kim Jong Un doesn’t grasp the scope and power of America’s nuclear arsenal? Does he understand that his “Don’t you know I’m loco, ese?” act will only empower the North Korean regime when he doesn’t actually nuke Pyongyang? It’s unlikely.
Trump’s inability to relate actions to consequences, his profound intellectual ambivalence about history, strategy and facts, in addition to his notoriously delicate ego, combine to create a risk we’ve never seen in a President during a nuclear crisis. Trump has broken norm after norm, and his horde has cheered him for it. There’s a certain sense that this kind of puffed-chest swagger is what his base elected him to do, based on their narrow understanding of the realities of the world.
The burdens on Mattis, McMaster, and Kelly would have been great no matter who was President. Their mission in Korea is to impose rationality and control over a man who has never displayed much of either...and their mission in the United States is exactly the same.