Existential Risks of Unhinged US Presidential Belligerence

US President Trump's posture toward North Korea rests on the false presumption that successful deterrence of Kim Jung-un requires ungraduated threats of "total destruction." Instead, he should focus purposefully on lawfully nuanced threats. Opinion

President Donald Trump speaks at Andrews Air Force Base (Photo: AP)

In world politics, there is no proven or necessarily plausible connection between threats to "totally destroy" an enemy and successful deterrence. Logically, at least, such uncorrelated threats can have a starkly reverse effect. This is especially the case in those patently unstable and unprecedented crises involving already-nuclear adversaries.

Significantly, everything about the current crisis with Pyongyang is sui generis. Even if we should somehow "count" the 1962 Cuban missile crisis as an authentic precedent, this inclusion would ignore the far greater symmetry that had existed between Washington and Moscow than now obtains between Washington and Pyongyang.

In dealing with North Korea, it is high time for the American president to draw upon several generations of highly refined strategic thinking, rather than rely solely upon his own crudely visceral and seat-of-the-pants nuclear intuitions. From the Eureka moment when Manhattan Project Head J. Robert Oppenheimer famously cited to the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred book of the Hindus ("I am become death, the shatter of worlds"), a number of genuinely smart people have been fashioning coherent and purposeful strategic doctrine. Oppenheimer's remark followed his bearing witness to the world's very first nuclear weapon explosion, deep in the New Mexico desert.

Presently, of course, both North Korea and the United States have access to far greater levels of nuclear destructiveness than was exploded at "Trinity" on July 16, 1945.

What next? Mr. Trump should proceed in any North Korean nuclear crisis with uncharacteristically abundant prudence. At the same time, he will need to keep in mind that while immediate nuclear war avoidance must always be his overriding objective, maintaining "escalation dominance" would also be more-or-less critical to US national security. In any event, President Trump's strategic plans for North Korea ought never to be constructed ex nihilo – that is, out of nothing but vacant personal intuitions.

Instead, they should draw systematically upon the carefully garnered insights of established, nuanced and intellectually refined nuclear theory. The bewildering challenges here are never amenable to anecdotal extrapolations from commercial real estate transactions in Palm Beach. Always, they are much more complex than just another "art of the deal."

Meaningfully, for the United States, any nuclear North Korean crisis would be one of "mind over mind," and not of "fire and fury." During this preeminently intellectual struggle, each side, as long as it remains visibly rational, will seek strategic advantage without further endangering its national survival. Moreover, if President Trump should sometime calculate that his North Korean counterpart is not fully rational, incentives to undertake far-reaching US military preemptions could then become overwhelming.

In this connection, it is clearly counter-productive to launch into childish or ritualistic ad hominem attacks upon Kim Jung-un. Calling him "rocket man" may resonate usefully with the refractory political "base," but it could also encourage precisely the dangerous adversarial behavior we all so desperately seek to avoid.

It's quite obvious. Publicly demeaning the North Korean leader can never diminish the threat of nuclear war. It can only increase this threat.

This is the case even if the president's calculation on enemy rationality should turn out to be wrong.

For a variety of reasons, US President Donald Trump could sometime decide to initiate 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 American counter-retaliations.

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 conspicuously unpredictable case, one rife with the potential for more continuously unfettered escalation, any contemplated introduction of nuclear weapons into the mix might be hard to rule out.

There is more. During any ongoing pattern of escalation, President Trump could adopt a "mad dog" strategy vis-à-vis President Kim. In these untried circumstances, the American leader could then make himself dependent upon a tenuous strategy of pretended irrationality, or what I have called in my own published books and monographs over the past fifty years the "rationality of pretended irrationality." Any such belligerent dependence could rapidly backfire, thereby opening up a potentially irreversible path to certain fully unstoppable escalations.

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 calibrated attack upon North Korea were wittingly or unwittingly launched against an irrational enemy leadership, the response from Kim Jung-un could be "all out."

In facing off against each other, even under optimal assumptions of mutual 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 myriad forms of cyber-defense/cyber-war. Even if both President Trump and President Kim were altogether capable, humane and suitably focused – a generous assumption, to be sure – northeast Asia could 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 other parts of the globe.

Today, as President Trump must prepare to face off credibly with Kim Jung-un, the expected consequences of any American mistakes could be vast and far-reaching. It follows that in choosing a purposeful style of escalation and negotiation with Pyongyang, the United States must remain wary of locking in to any lethal pattern of interaction for which the other side's reaction must inevitably be injurious to the United States. Accordingly, President Trump and his counselors must refrain from any conceivable provocation for which their North Korean adversary could soon have only one plausible response: Nuclear war.

There is a last point, one more expressly jurisprudential than strategic. It is that US presidential threats to "totally destroy North Korea" represent an egregious crime under authoritative international law, even if maintained entirely as "just a threat." Ironically, the blatant impermissibility of Trump's "total destruction" rant at the United Nations is plainly codified at the UN Charter, the Nuremberg Charter and Principles, and even at the Genocide Convention.

Prima facie, actually carrying out any such threat against literally millions of North Korean civilians would constitute a grievous crime of war and crime against humanity.


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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