The United States and North Korea: Deterrence, Not “Denuclearization”

For the United States, the Singapore Summit was based upon incorrect goals and strategies. Going forward, President Donald Trump should aim at creating a secure nuclear deterrence regime with Pyongyang, not self-delusionary plans for enemy nuclear disarmament. Opinion

“Men as a rule willingly believe what they want to believe.” (Julius Caesar, Caesar's Gallic War, Book III, Chapter 18)

Following the manifestly inconclusive Singapore summit, when not even the definition of "complete denuclearization" could be agreed upon, the United States will need to implement a secure and long-lasting nuclear deterrence regime with North Korea. Whatever US President Trump's in-principle preferences, Chairman Kim is not about to consider dismantling his already-credible nuclear weapons capacity. Whatever these personal preferences, a nuclear North Korea is now a fait accompli, and effectively irreversible.

There is more. To reassure Mr. Trump's South Korean and Japanese allies, America needs to expressly solidify rather than undermine its pertinent and codified commitments to collective self-defense.  Ironically, however, by recently suggesting his prospective willingness to remove US troops from these friendly and important nations, the president has already threatened to eliminate an indispensably core component of American alliance resolve. This is because since the end of World War II, especially during the time that US troops were stationed in West Germany, the key point of any such American deployment has been to support deterrence as a "trip wire." In essence, with such evident deployments, the receiving ally (once West Germany, now South Korea and Japan) are meaningfully assured of the automaticity (or near automaticity) of US military support.

How, then, should Washington best proceed? To begin, it must reconstruct its now still-inchoate North Korean strategy with a much greater sensitivity to underlying historical and intellectual dimensions. Accordingly, such construction should never be left to any "seat-of-the-pants" or ad hoc extrapolations from the worlds of commercial real estate or casino gaming. International statecraft is never the same as haggling over prices and profits.

Indeed, to be carried out successfully, it requires practitioners with a recognizably wide and commendable range of erudition.

In other words, it's about serious learning and understanding. It's not about "attitude" or "gut feelings." After Singapore, the United States will need to present itself credibly to North Korea as both willing and capable of inflicting unacceptably damaging retaliations in exchange for any acts of nuclear aggression. In certain circumstances, the credibility of particular US nuclear deterrent threats directed toward Pyongyang could even vary inversely with the extent of North Korean-threatened destruction.

To be sure, there could exist no fully scientific ways of determining what specific levels of US deterrent threat were appropriately optimal. Nonetheless, it stands to reason that calibrating American retaliatory threats to the particular level of expected North Korean harms would generally offer a more prudent and promising strategy than simply posturing with various spasmodic, intermittent and across-the-board "MAD-style" threats. In this connection, it could sometimes even be prudent to signal Pyongyang of America's readiness to wage a “limited nuclear war.”

More than anything else, this is because of the conspicuously asymmetrical nuclear capacities between these two prospective enemy states, and because Washington must always seek to minimize the chances of any pertinent misperceptions or strategic misunderstandings by Pyongyang.

Mr. Trump will also need to proceed with a suitably fashioned analytic template, a posture that could account for both the rationality and intentionality of primary enemy decision-makers in Pyongyang.

In brief, Washington should soon approach the North Korean nuclear threat from a more consciously disciplined conceptual perspective. This means, inter alia, factoring into any coherent US nuclear threat assessment (a) the expected rationality or irrationality of all principal decision-makers in Pyongyang; and (b) the foreseeable intentional or unintentional intra-crisis behaviors of these decision-makers.

"Theory is a net," quotes (from the German poet Novalis) the philosopher of science, Karl Popper, and "only those who cast, can catch." In all such bewilderingly complex strategic matters, nothing can be more practical than good theory. Always, explanatory generality is the key to specific meanings and predictions. Inevitably, having at hand such comprehensive policy clarifications could help guide President Trump significantly well beyond otherwise vague or impromptu appraisals.  

Under no circumstances, this president must be reminded, should such multi-sided crisis possibilities be assessed (implicitly or explicitly) as merely singular or ad hoc phenomena.

There is more. Going forward after Singapore, capable American strategic analysts guiding the president should enhance their newly-planned nuclear investigations by first identifying basic distinctions between intentional or deliberate nuclear war, and between unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war. The derivative risks resulting from these at least four different types of possible nuclear conflict are apt to vary considerably. It follows that those American analysts who might remain too completely focused exclusively upon a deliberate nuclear war scenario could too-casually underestimate an even more salient nuclear threat to the United States.

This is the undeniable threat of unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war.

One additional conceptual distinction must be mentioned and duly inserted into any US analytic scenario "mix." This is the subtle but still very serious difference between an inadvertent nuclear war and an accidental nuclear war. To wit, any accidental nuclear war would have to be inadvertent; conversely, however, there could be certain determinable forms of inadvertent nuclear war that would not necessarily be accidental.

Most critical in this connection are various significant errors in calculation committed by one or both sides – that is, more-or-less reciprocal mistakes that could lead directly and inexorably to a genuine nuclear conflict. Here, the most blatant example would concern assorted misjudgments of enemy intent or capacity that might somehow emerge during the course of any one crisis escalation. Such misjudgments would likely stem from an expectedly mutual search for strategic advantage occurring sometime during a competition in nuclear risk-taking.

There is more. There would then also need to be offered various related judgments concerning expectations of rationality and irrationality within each affected country's core decision-making structure. Accordingly, one potential source of unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war could be a failed strategy of "pretended irrationality." A posturing American president who had too "successfully" convinced enemy counterparts of his own irrationality could thereby spark an otherwise-avoidable enemy preemption.

"Played" in the other direction, an American president who had begun to take very seriously Kim Jung-un's presumed unpredictability could sometime be frightened into striking first himself. In this distinctly alternate case, Washington would become the preempting party that might then claim legality for its allegedly defensive first-strike. In any such expressly "dicey" circumstances, those US strategists charged with fashioning an optimal strategic posture would do well to recall Carl von Clausewitz's oft-quoted warning (in On War) concerning "friction."

This famously "Clausewitzian" property represents the unerringly vital difference between "war on paper" and "war as it actually is." It's not a distinction readily determinable by "attitude."

Also possible, amid any such chess-like strategic dialectics, the first "game" might end not with an enemy preemption, but instead with Washington deciding to "preempt the preemption." Here, US president Trump, sensing the too-great "success" of his own pretended irrationality, might quickly foresee Kim's consequent insecurity, and then (maybe quite rationally) decide to "strike first before he strikes first."

If the game were played in the other direction, it might sometime end not with a US preemption generated by overriding fears of enemy irrationality, but rather with an enemy first-strike intended to preempt a then-anticipated American preemption. In any event, implementing long-term successful nuclear deterrence between Washington and Pyongyang would obviously be in the very best interests of both parties. It follows that US President Donald Trump now has a distinct opportunity to make calculable progress on the North Korean nuclear problem, but only if he can finally get beyond the patently futile hope for eliciting enemy "denuclearization."

The very best use for American nuclear weapons in this ongoing US-North Korea negotiation will be as elements of dissuasion, and not as actual weapons of war. In this regard, the underlying principle of strategy goes back long before the advent of any actual nuclear weapons. Recalling the ancient Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu in his On War (Chapter 3, "Planning Offensives"): "Subjugating the enemy's army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence."

For the United States, fashioning effective nuclear management policies regarding North Korea must always be seen as a fundamentally analytic or intellectual task.

Under no circumstances should such policies ever be fashioned according to various disconnected hopes for peace and security.

In world politics, hope is never a strategy.

Under no circumstances should US President Donald Trump ever allow himself to be influenced by actually believing merely what he wants to believe.


Louis René Beres is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. A frequent contributor to Israel Defense, he lectures and publishes widely on matters of Israeli security and nuclear strategy.

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