After canceling a summit with North Korea, President Donald Trump must set realistic goals. Most urgently, he must back off from the idea that Pyongyang might be amenable to discarding its nuclear weapons or missile-delivery systems. At best, Kim Jung-un’s definition of “denuclearisation” is limited to temporarily halting his country’s already effectively completed schedule of nuclear testing. Although Kim has made vague hints in the past that his country would consider eliminating its nuclear weapons in tandem with “denuclearisation” of the Korean Peninsula, there is little reason to believe that he would go meaningfully beyond a promised cessation of nuclear weapons testing.
Trump, if he reschedules the summit meeting, should focus on areas of true strategic commonality – in essence, readily-identifiable concessions that his counterpart in Pyongyang might be expected to consider. Alternatively, to continue expecting that Kim would willingly surrender his most meaningful source of national and international power is foolhardy by any serious metric.
‘Mind over mind’
Ultimately, for the United States and also for South Korea, Japan and other allies, any negotiations with North Korea should be oriented toward dialectical struggles of “mind over mind.” As historian FE Adcock wrote in The Greek and Macedonian Art of War (1962) “...the highest achievements of the Greek art of war are more to be found in the triumph of mind over mind, than in the triumph of mind over matter.” These prospective diplomatic contests should be less about curtailing specific North Korean weapons systems than about diminishing overall enemy threats from Pyongyang.
Predictably, each side, as long as it remains recognisably rational, will seek viable forms of “escalation dominance.” Accordingly, Washington and Pyongyang will each strive for this vital objective without needlessly endangering its own indispensable prospects for enhanced national security. Always, such agreements require delicate and irremediably subjective balance. And always in such high-stakes matters, antecedent judgments of rationality are critical. For example, if the US side should calculate that its North Korean counterpart is not fully rational, various incentives to undertake a military preemption could become more compelling in Washington – even if the anticipated costs of any such defensive first strike would likely be overwhelming.
US preemption against North Korean hard targets, in the context of expected nuclear aggression from Pyongyang, might qualify in pertinent legal terms as “anticipatory self-defence;” nonetheless, it could come at too high a cost. After all, what would it mean to be legally correct at the expense of grievously high fatalities? Of what conceivable benefit could it be for the United States to claim that its defensive first strike was permissible, only to suffer enormously destructive retaliation – nuclear or conventional?
Creation of a predictably stable nuclear deterrence regime between Washington and Pyongyang is required, one that also accounts for the presumptive expectations of both Moscow and Beijing. Should this deterrence regime ever be allowed to falter or fail – and should Trump decide to undertake selective military actions against North Korea – the general contours of Kim’s response are easy to anticipate. Pyongyang could choose to strike a) the US homeland; b) US military forces in the region, c) other targets in Guam, Japan or South Korea or d) any combination of these. Such choices would be more or less available to the North Korean leader whatever the specific missile or artillery ranges and accuracy of his relevant military forces.
Kim’s retaliatory blow would likely be designed so as not to elicit unacceptably massive, possibly even nuclear, US counter-retaliation. Such reasoned conclusion by Kim would depend, inter alia, upon the dictator’s own willing adherence to rational decision-making and the largely unpredictable synergies between Kim’s determined level of rationality and the reciprocally rational calculations of Trump. By definition, such synergies – what the generals call “force multipliers” – could conceivably produce instability more insidious than the sum of their “parts.”
If Trump should decide to launch a non-nuclear defensive first-strike, the North Korean response, whether rational or irrational, could then be “disproportionate,” including extraordinary harms to the security of US citizens in South Korea or residents of Seoul. In that prospectively chaotic case, one rife with unprecedented potential for accelerating competitions in risk-taking, the introduction of nuclear weapons into an already-volatile mix might not be discounted. If Trump’s defensive first strike against North Korea were non-nuclear, tangibly less than massive, a rational adversary in Pyongyang might then determine that his chosen reprisal should be correspondingly “limited.”
If Trump’s consciously rational and systematically calibrated attack upon North Korea were wittingly or unwittingly launched against an irrational enemy leadership, the expected response from Kim could still be some form of all-out retaliation. Any such North Korean response, nuclear or non-nuclear, would be directed at some as yet undeterminable combination of US, South Korean or Japanese targets. In short, the utter unpredictability of all possible scenarios is the only element of crisis that can be reliably predicted.
Any advancing strategic “game” between Washington and Pyongyang, even if played by rational adversaries, would demand each player to strive for “escalation dominance.” It would be in the manifestly unpracticed dynamics of any such perilous rivalry that the prospect of mutual catastrophe could rapidly emerge. Logically, this mutually unwanted outcome could be produced in unexpected increments of escalation by one or both players, or by any sudden quantum leap in destructiveness undertaken by either side.
These are serious and challenging intellectual problems, not just fodder for shallow propagandists or marketing specialists in Washington. To be sure, the conflict is bewilderingly complex and foreseeably unprecedented. It follows, in facing off against each other for “escalation dominance,” even under the most reassuring assumptions of bilateral rationality, both Trump and Kim must also prepare for possible miscalculations, errors in information, unauthorised uses of strategic weapons, mechanical or computer malfunctions, and measureless nuances of cyber defense and war.
Americans cannot realistically expect such inestimably scrupulous preparation.
There is one final reminder for the US president: Science cannot assign genuine mathematical probabilities to unique events. A nuclear exchange between North Korea and the United States would represent precisely such a singular event – one with unforeseeable interactions and synergies. It follows that no one could predict with useful accuracy whether such a conflict would be more or less likely.
Should Trump decide to strike North Korea preemptively on the optimistic assumption that his generals have “everything covered,” he must then be reminded of the warning from Carl von Clausewitz. Long before military planners could have imagined a nuclear war, the Prussian general and strategist cautioned leaders in his classic On War about “friction,” or “the difference between war on paper, and war as it actually is.” Accordingly, nuclear brinksmanship between Washington and Pyongyang would necessarily take place in uncharted waters, requiring both leaders to steer a consistently steady course between escalation dominance and national survival. Whether this hideously difficult requirement could actually be met is anyone’s guess.
Nuclear diplomacy is not a casino game. It’s not about bluffing in real estate transactions. Inevitably, it is a complex contest of strategy, never one of mere chance.
In any such game where there exist certain overriding common interests between the players – most notably national survival – choosing the best course of action ultimately depends upon what Trump can expect from the other side.
Kim will not accept Trump’s definition of “denuclearisation.” This suggests that Trump’s most ambitious objective – not merely his diplomatic fallback position – should be to acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear weapons state and accept a stable nuclear deterrence “regime” between Washington and Pyongyang. Although substantially less satisfying than the plainly fanciful idea of actually eliminating North Korean nuclear assets, such a security regime remains the best available strategic option for Northeast Asia. Moreover, because world politics is best understood as a system, what happens in the Asia Pacific region will have gravely serious implications for what could happen elsewhere, especially in the Middle East and South Asia regarding nuclear powers Pakistan and India.
This article first appeared on Yale Global Online.