“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” we all learned to say as a child. The idea was, as I recall, don’t let a verbal bully get your goat. But if he gets physical with you, it’s okay to nail him in the forehead with a fastball.
This is still pretty good advice, notwithstanding the fact that when heads of state open their mouths, really bad real things can follow. Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump are each, in their own ways, bullies. Both have been frothing at the mouth lately about nuclear weapons and missiles, and a lot of people have become frightened by it. If you are among them, try to relax—and here’s why.
When the North Koreans foam at the mouth, it’s deliberate. They seek attention, because to them attention from the likes of the United States translates into status, both in East Asia and in the world, but also internally in the DPRK. Sometimes they try to barter this attention for more goodies from China. Sometimes they try to parlay it into a form of extortion wherewith to evoke propitiatory gestures from the United States, Japan, and other countries, which has worked several times in the past.
When Donald Trump foams at the mouth in response to a North Korean verbal provocation, he is—to use the scientific-technical term—“stepping in it.” Acting like the mental junior high schooler that he seems to be, Trump has helped the DPRK propaganda machine do its work.
Note the contrast between Trump’s demolition-derby style of diplomacy and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s understated manner when the UN Security Council recently passed new sanctions against North Korea for its continuing missile tests. Tillerson was so relaxed that South Korea’s Foreign Minister felt obliged to raise the emotional level. While Tillerson apparently remains clueless about how to be Secretary of State in most respects—if this New York Times feature on Foggy Bottom can be even partially believed—he’s got this part of the job locked down tight.
Now it is true, of course, that North Korea’s recent provocations have not been all words. Missile tests are acts without an explicit script, as are nuclear-capable U.S. Air Force bombers flying near Korea in response. So the verbal exchanges are only part of the picture. Still, tests and bomber exercises are more like words than sticks or stones. No one has gotten hurt, and no one has to get hurt.
I lose no sleep worrying about North Korea’s nuclear weapons shenanigans. Kim Jong-un has proved himself in his short tenure homicidally insane, but he has given no evidence of being suicidally insane. The country experts—American and otherwise—all tell us that Kim Jong-un sees himself as responsible for the Kim family dynasty, pointed back to father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, as well as forward to future generations. In that light, provoking the United States Air Force to turn his country into an irradiated ruin—which he knows is North Korea’s certain fate if he strikes out at either the United States or Japan with nuclear weapons—is not on his calendar.
Yes, it’s true that a nuclear-armed North Korea complicates the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence in East Asia, and it complicates the triangular relationship between the United States, South Korea, and Japan. But it also complicates China’s life in ways potentially useful to us in the fullness of time, and the challenges it does create are not very hard to master. The danger here is that this Administration will not master those challenges because it doesn’t understand the larger picture. If U.S. alliance credibility deteriorates on account of this lack of understanding—as it already has to some degree in Europe—it will likely lead Japan, South Korea, and perhaps other regional states to step up their military spending and preparations, including potentially nuclear preparations.
That would on balance be bad, because it could prove to be accident-prone. The point of U.S. post-World War II alliances in Asia as well as in Europe has been to suppress such security competitions because they make the world a more dangerous and poorer place. What Donald Trump, in his two-dimensional, zero-sum brain, cannot understand is that a little “freeriding,” as he and others have called it, is far preferable from a U.S.-interests perspective to an unrestrained regional security competition, and certainly to multiple sets of such competitions. That was true during the Cold War, but it is still true today.
If we do what it takes to maintain the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence in the region, what North Korea does or does not do fails to fall into the category of a vital U.S. interest. As I have sketched it out before (for example, here), we can tell when a vital U.S. interest is put at risk if a threat involves, in descending order of severity: a credible existential threat to American life, limb, and constitutional order; or threatens a treaty ally in such a way; or will likely touch off a significant regional war; or, short of war, jeopardizes the security and flow of resources critical to the wellbeing of the global economic order. North Korea’s obtaining a nuclear-weapons capability would do none of these things.
We have assured the DPRK leadership, publicly and through private channels, that we do not seek regime change. We have assured it repeatedly that we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the Korean peninsula, presumably at the DPRK’s expense. We have tried—yet again, it must be said—to leverage Chinese interests in our favor against North Korea; it didn’t work beyond the spilling of a few harsher words, but it was worth a shot under new circumstances. We want to talk things over; they refuse. We’ve done about all we can reasonably do; so, yes, we “watch and wait.” And no, we do not start a nuclear war for all the wrong reasons. It’s not as if we’ve got nothing else on our plate about now.
Please understand that the foregoing analysis should by no means be taken to imply that nuclear weapons proliferation is always a non-vital threat to U.S. interests. Whether it is or isn’t depends on the context. To see the point more clearly, let’s compare the threat posed to international security by North Korea to the one posed by Iran.
North Korea possesses no interesting economic resources. It is not enmeshed in an active security competition with near equals in power, because in Northeast Asia there are no near-equals: China and Russia are huge; South Korea and Japan are orders of magnitude wealthier and more capable polities; and the number of state actors is fairly small. The DPRK is not trying to aggressively project power directly or via proxies into its region, because it can’t. It does not purport to export an ideology or belief system, for its wack-a-doo juche doctrine, whatever else it is, focuses relentlessly on self-reliance—as appropriate, perhaps, to a “Hermit Kingdom” sort of place. In such a situation, deterrence is calculable because it is essentially dyadic, U.S. extended deterrence can be reasonably unambiguous as having been long extended to key democracies, and hence it is very likely to work.
Now let’s consider Iran. It has oil and gas, lots of both. It is enmeshed in an active security competition with many near-equals in power, and in a region composed of a great many state actors. It is a competition that could trigger a catalytic regional war and implicate the security, availability, and price of the vast energy resources found there. It is aggressively projecting its influence into the wider region, directly and very much via proxies. It is the font of an evangelizing belief system—Shi‘i Islam in its revolutionary politicized form. In such a situation, deterrence would be much shakier: There would in due course be multiple nuclear-weapons possessing actors, and U.S. extended deterrence would be much less credible as newly extended to non-democratic states.
You would think that this very dramatic difference in context would be obvious to anyone who claims to be serious about such subjects, right? You can think whatever you like.
Obviously, the North Korean nuclear weapons program is somewhat more advanced than the Iranian one, and Pyongyang’s bellicosity is stunning. (I have always envied the linguistic freedom enjoyed by North Korean speechwriters.) But in the longer run—and it is not that longer a run, regrettably—the Iranian program is a vastly greater danger to international security and to U.S. interests. It is not presently in U.S. interests, for a variety of reasons, to abandon the Iran deal or cause it to be defunct, whatever its shortcomings. But it is presently in the U.S. interests to think hard and plan carefully for what to do about the threat Iran poses, and will pose acutely in just a few more years.
If you simply must lose sleep over something, try to make sure you’re having the right nightmare.