Between Trump and Kim: Navigating Unpredictable Escalations

As US President Trump prepares for crisis bargaining with North Korea's Kim Jung-un, he will need to understand the vital difference between genuinely cost-effective intellectual foundations of an inevitable escalation, and plainly shallow "fire and fury" bellicosity. Opinion

Photo: AP

In preparing for nuclear crisis bargaining with North Korea, Donald Trump will have little meaningful precedent upon which to rely. When examined together with this president's plainly limited capacity to succeed in any such complex negotiations, the United States has much to consider. In essence, as Mr. Trump is apt to hand over any moment-by-moment crisis deliberations to his most senior military deputies, it could quickly fall upon "the generals" for rescue.

They too, however, would be guided by largely visceral or "seat-of-the-pants" bargaining calculations. This is not a per se criticism of the generals by any means, but merely an acknowledgment (1) that scientific probabilities must always be based upon the determinable frequency of pertinent past events; and (2) that there have been no pertinent past events. Whatever ultimately unravels between Washington and Pyongyang, therefore, these unique ventures in competitive risk-taking will be navigated in uncharted waters.

Here, too, the experiential uniqueness would be mutual. But such mutuality would not necessarily prove in the best interests of the United States. This is because an overly confident Kim Jung-un and/or Donald Trump could quickly generate a more-or-less uncontrollable cycle of move and counter-move, one leading inexorably toward mutual catastrophe.

Mr. Trump and his counselors ought never forget that this sort of rapid cycle deterioration could be rendered even more precarious as a result of still unforeseen interactions between one side's fully executed moves, and the other's. In technical terms, such perilous interactions would be known formally as "synergies." Significantly, as there are no extant experts on nuclear war – not in the United States, not in North Korea, not in Israel, not anywhere on this beleaguered earth – there could even emerge a hideously complex "synergy of synergies."

This conspicuously indecipherable sort of multilayered and overlapping intersections is what the computer scientists are apt to call "cascades."

All things considered, Mr. Trump should proceed in any impending North Korean crisis with exquisite prudence and abundant caution, recalling at absolutely every point the inherently limited body of available strategic thought. At the same time, he will need to bear in mind that while nuclear war avoidance is obviously most important, maintaining "escalation dominance" could also be thoroughly central to American national security. Success will require an almost unimaginably meticulous "balance," a delicate level of analytic equilibrium that has rarely been witnessed or perhaps even expected.

President Trump's strategic plan for North Korea ought never to be constructed ex nihilo – out of nothing. Yet it must, by definition, still be the result of assorted deductions or extrapolations from various pre-nuclear forms of conflict management. For these deductions and extrapolations to be up to the utterly herculean intellectual task at hand, they must accurately represent the determined outcome of expressly dialectical modes of military reasoning. Plato, in the middle dialogues, describes the dialectician as the one who knows best how to ask and then answer sequential questions.

Going forward, US strategists and negotiators must use far more than "common sense." They must learn to become capable dialecticians.

In brief, this certifiably ancient method of seeking answers by correct reasoning remains best suited for the North Korean crisis now lying ahead. There is no elaborate computer program or algorithm that can possibly substitute for such indispensable reasoning. Still sorely needed to rescue the United States from certain corollary nuclear hazards are exceptionally imaginative human beings, most notably those thinkers who have been nurtured by impressively broad sectors of knowledge and learning, and not just by the latest in vogue statistical techniques or technologies.

In all expectedly nuanced deliberations with the North Koreans, America might do far better to rely, at least in part, on talented diplomats, poets, philosophers and mathematicians than exclusively career soldiers. To be sure, in the grievously measureless history of warfare, the military professional has occasionally made a few consequential mistakes. Looking ahead, we would be demanding that these trained strategists avoid major future errors in planning an altogether unique form of warfare, one for which their training has been largely extraneous, and with which they could literally have had no tangible acquaintance.

For the United States, the North Korea crisis, whether protracted or episodic, will immediately be one of "mind over mind," and not just "fire and fury." During this daunting intellectual struggle, each side, as long as it remains recognizably rational, will be seeking "escalation dominance" without simultaneously endangering its own national survival. Significantly, if the American side should sometime calculate that its North Korean counterpart is not fully rational, the apparent incentives to undertake far-reaching military preemptions could then become overwhelming.

This is the case even if the American calculation on enemy rationality should turn out to be wrong. Also relevant here would be certain understandably anticipated prospects of any North Korean plans to "preempt the preemption," cautionary scenarios that could make genuine strategic sense in Pyongyang. Predictably, President Kim's closest military counselors could sometime seek to clarify for their leader that the United States would have considerable damage-limiting advantages to striking-first, especially while North Korea's nuclear weapon and ballistic missile assets were still in conspicuously early stages of development, and still relatively few in number.

If push comes to shove, US President Donald Trump could decide to undertake selective military action against North Korea. In response, Pyongyang – then having no realistic option to launching certain presumptively gainful forms of armed reprisal – could choose to strike American military forces in the region, and/or certain other carefully selected targets in Japan, Guam, or South Korea. Whatever North Korea's preferred configuration of selected targets, Kim Jung-un's retaliatory blow would likely be designed not to elicit any unacceptably massive (possibly even nuclear) American counter-retaliations.

Assuming enemy rationality, of course, this assumption is persuasive even if Kim were correct that he already has required range-capacity to strike American cities.

If Mr. Trump should sometime decide to launch a defensive first-strike, a "preemption," the North Korean response, whether rational or irrational, could be "disproportionate." In that very unstable case, one rife with potential for a more continuously unfettered escalation, any contemplated introduction of nuclear weapons into the mix might not be easily rejected.

Nor would such an introduction have to originate on the American side. This sobering inference is unassailable, in part, because North Korea had previously displayed certain verifiable forms of nuclear weapons/ballistic missile capability. According to sources within the South Korean intelligence services, North Korea maintains approximately one hundred nuclear-related sites. In certain escalating circumstances, Mr. Trump could settle upon using a strategy of pretended irrationality vis-à-vis President Kim.

Again, as these would be entirely uncharted waters, such a strategy could conceivably fail promptly and catastrophically.

If, on the other hand, President Donald Trump's defensive first strike against North Korea were recognizably less than massive, a fully rational adversary in Pyongyang might determine that his own chosen reprisal should be correspondingly "limited." But if Mr. Trump's consciously rational and systematically calibrated attack upon North Korea were wittingly or unwittingly launched against an irrational enemy leadership, the response from Kim Jung-un could then be an "all out" retaliation. Such an unanticipated response, whether nuclear or non-nuclear, would expectedly be directed at some as yet undeterminable combination of US, South Korean, and Japanese targets.

Cumulatively, this sort of response could inflict very substantial harms. North Korea's unconventional weapons already include advanced biological and chemical agents. Even a perfectly rational North Korean leadership could sometime calculate that all-out retaliations would make perfect strategic sense.

In facing off against each other, even under optimal assumptions of mutual capability and rationality, both President Trump and President Kim Jung-un would have to concern themselves with possible miscalculations, errors in information, unauthorized uses of strategic weapons, mechanical or computer malfunctions, and cyber-defense/cyber-war. In other words, even if both President Trump and President Kim were abundantly sane and focused – a generous assumption, to be sure – northeast Asia might still descend rapidly toward some form or other of uncontrollable nuclear war. If this dire prospect were not sobering enough, it is also reasonable to expect that the corresponding erasure of a once-prevailing nuclear taboo would substantially heighten the likelihood of nuclear conflict in certain other parts of the globe, especially southwest Asia (e.g., Pakistan and India), and the Middle East (e.g., Israel and Iran).

When Pericles delivered his famous Funeral Oration, it was to express confidence in an ultimate victory for Athens. Simultaneously, as recalled by Thucydides, the Greek historian of the Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BCE), Pericles had also expressed various deep fears about self-imposed setbacks along the way. "What I fear more than the strategies of our enemies," lamented Pericles, "is our own mistakes."

Today, as President Trump must prepare to face off with Kim Jung-un, the expected consequences of any American mistakes could be vastly destructive, perhaps even intolerable. It follows that in choosing a cost-effective style of escalation and negotiation with Pyongyang, the United States must remain cautious of locking in to any lethal pattern of interaction for which the other side's reaction must invariably be deeply harmful to the United States. A lesson may be learned here from Yehoshafat Harkabi, a former Chief of Israel's Military Intelligence Directorate (AMAN). Drawing upon the Bar Kokhba rebellion in ancient Judea (132 CE) for future operational guidance, Harkabi urged as follows: "In choosing a style of fighting, be wary of warfare in which the reaction required of the enemy, from the enemy's point of view, may lead to an action detrimental for you. [...] This is an important lesson in nuclear circumstances; refrain from a provocation for which the adversary may have only one response, nuclear war."

Harkabi's sound advice merits President Donald Trump's riveted attention.


Louis René Beres, a frequent contributor to Israel Defense, is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue University. He is the author of many books and articles dealing with national security studies and Israel's nuclear strategy. 

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