What Happens When No One Believes American Threats?
The United States can avoid war with North Korea, but the “fire and fury” episode will still do long-term damage.
For a few minutes, I found something perversely comforting about Donald Trump’s seeming threat of military action against Venezuela, of all places, on Friday at the end of a week of escalating bluster about North Korea. Not because the prospect of launching wars on multiple continents simultaneously struck me as prudent, but precisely because it seemed so outlandish. Venezuela? Really? The guy who ran for president in part on justifiable skepticism of U.S. military commitments overseas, whose program explicitly devalues the kind of human-rights and democracy concerns that might justify coercive action against Nicolas Maduro’s authoritarian regime, is going to use the “military option”? He can’t be serious.
And if he’s not serious about that military option, he could easily have been bluffing about the prospect of raining “fire and fury” on the Korean Peninsula—one that, as both Uri Friedman and Mark Bowden have detailed in these pages, would most likely result in massive loss of life in the best-case scenario. Administration officials did the rounds of Sunday shows to reassure that conflict was not “imminent,” with National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster saying “I think we’re not closer to war than a week ago.” Trump, then, appears to be a man willing to invoke the “military option” cavalierly and off the cuff—reportedly startling even his own advisers—and without any clear intent to follow through. (A Defense Department spokesperson told me Saturday that “the Pentagon has received no orders in regard to Venezuela.” Similarly, Peter Baker of The New York Times notes there have been no moves in the Pacific—like the movement of additional ships toward the Korean Peninsula, or the evacuation of Americans living there—indicating preparations for a possible strike on North Korea.)
There is some percentage of threats, both military and non-military, that Trump has in fact realized. He struck Syria with cruise missiles in April following a chemical-weapons attack on civilians, after declaring that “these heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated.” He withdrew from the Paris Climate Accords after having promised to “cancel” it during his presidential campaign.
On many other domestic and foreign issues, however, the pattern has been hyperbole followed quickly by concessions. He vowed to label China a currency manipulator and then backed off. He threatened to withdraw from NAFTA and then stayed in, pledging to renegotiate it instead. North Korea by itself has illustrated this pattern repeatedly. Trump insisted on Twitter in January that North Korea getting the ability to fit a nuclear warhead onto an ICBM “won’t happen!” The Defense Intelligence Agency now reportedly believes that it has. Last week Trump insisted that Kim Jong Un is “not going to go around threatening Guam and he’s not going to threaten the United States and he’s not going to threaten Japan and he’s not going to threaten South Korea.“ He is, and he has.
The point is that what Trump says bears little relationship to the course he intends to pursue. When he invokes the “military option” against North Korea or Venezuela or anywhere else, it could well mean he intends to use it; it could mean just the opposite. It could mean his advisers are undertaking sober analysis of all the various tools available for the United States to shape international events in its interests, of which the military is one; it could mean his advisers had no idea what he was going to say or tweet. (McMaster, who sought to calm talk of war with North Korea on Sunday, also dismissed the possibility of military intervention in Venezuela a little over a week ago.)
But this isn’t comforting at all. Kim Jong Un’s intentions are famously hard to discern, but Americans deserve to be able to understand clearly what their own president intends when it comes to the possibility of a catastrophic, and possibly nuclear, war. Some of the sharpest observers of the crisis have come away with nearly opposite conclusions. Former Defense Secretary William Perry, who led the Pentagon during one of the first North Korean nuclear crises of the 1990s, told The New York Times’s Michael Barbaro on Thursday that he worried the United States was stumbling into war. Bowden, who wrote The Atlantic’s recent cover story on dealing with North Korea, was more reassuring on the Atlantic Radio podcast: “Logic dictates against all-out conflict,” not least because the North Koreans know the country wouldn’t survive such a war and “it’s a fair bet that they wouldn’t push things to that limit.”
If American analysts and former government officials, with all their access to U.S. decision-makers and knowledge of how U.S. policymaking works, can’t clearly discern what America will do, how much of a chance does the Kim regime have when it has barely any contact with the U.S. at all? Many analysts believe that Kim has no interest in endangering his regime by launching a suicidal first strike on the U.S. or its allies—his overriding goal being to preserve his own power—but that the threat of a U.S. preemptive strike or regime change is the one thing that would make him contemplate taking the risk. So what happens if Kim guesses U.S. intentions wrong?
There’s an argument to be made—both Trump and Tillerson have made it, as has Bowden—that the two are not so much giving mixed signals as pursuing a consistent strategy. Here, Tillerson would be the good cop to Trump’s bad cop, laying the groundwork for negotiations while his boss scares the North Koreans (and perhaps their Chinese allies) to the table by reminding them of the horrific alternative. It could work. Former Defense Secretary Perry told Barbaro of the Times last week that it was the threat of military action that brought the North Koreans to the negotiating table in the 1990s. In signaling a willingness to talk to the North Koreans during a Friday news conference, Trump also noted that the approach has been tried “for 25 years” and hasn’t worked, so perhaps a change of strategy will yield a better outcome. It could also be the case that Trump’s threats helped convince the Chinese to vote in favor of new sanctions against the North Koreans at the UN Security Council.
There’s also the “madman theory” rationale—the idea that, as the international-relations scholar Robert Jervis described it to me in March, “you can strategically appear irrational in order to force concessions from a rational adversary who fears your willingness to take risks.” It’s not clear it yielded any advantages for Richard Nixon, who is seen as the pioneer of its use. “With Trump, who knows?” Jervis said then. “I’d be surprised if North Korea restrains itself from further testing on the belief that Trump is just too unpredictable. Not impossible—maybe they empathize with strangeness.”
In the longer term, it does America no favors for its president to establish a reputation for hyperbole and unrealistic threats. If Trump’s “fire and fury” comment invited comparisons to similarly over-the-top threats from Kim Jong Un, there’s also the risk that the credibility of the American president’s own words about the use of force degrades over time, to the point they’re taken about as seriously as Kim’s. The North Korean leader routinely threatens Armageddon and is routinely dismissed as unhinged. Americans may be used to presidents who choose words about military force commensurate with the gravity of the destruction it implies; this, indeed, is what made the threats of last week so shocking. But there may come a time when the American president, in threatening so outlandishly and promiscuously, invites foreign adversaries and allies alike to treat his words with the same kind of bemused disbelief or condescending indulgence with which they greet the North Koreans. And what then? Will the words of the American president be worth more than a news release from Korean state propaganda? Or do they become the same kind of dangerous joke?
The president is taking America straight into a deadly paradox: The point of threatening in this manner is to deter an adversary from behaving in a way that forces the U.S. to follow through. The less credible American threats become, the more they invite adversaries to test their limits, and the less power they have to stop anything. In New Jersey last week, the president told reporters regarding the North Korea crisis: “I hope it works out.” It’s the president’s responsibility to see that it does. And it’s his own words decreasing the chances that it will.