As a result, American alliances would likely suffer irreparable damage. Competitors like Russia and China would capitalize on the blunder to advance their own interests, and U.S. foreign policy would be consumed by the task of reconstruction for years. Jeffrey failed to acknowledge this horrific toll.
In addition to the ruinous human, financial, and political costs of U.S. military action against the North, it’s hard to see how Kim Jong Un could take the South and live to rule it. With America’s heavy troop presence and longstanding security guarantees with countries across the region, his expansive objectives would undermine his most central one—survival. He simply cannot take the South while holding the North.
McMaster’s logic, then, is undermined by both the history of the Korean Peninsula, as well as the military realities of invading it. Basic strategic analysis further unravels his case.
Consider McMaster’s assessment of Kim’s supposed irrationality. If Kim is irrational on matters concerning his nuclear weapons and missiles, it’s reasonable to assume he’d be similarly irrational across the board. If he cannot be stopped from trying to reunify the two Koreas, further U.S. or UN sanctions are also unlikely to alter his cost calculations. Why would a first strike by America restrain him? Irrational actors are irrational in all domains—Washington does not have the luxury of picking and choosing where deterrence prevails.
The belief that Kim can’t be deterred from conquest but can be deterred once the United States has brought force against him demonstrates a highly selective strategic understanding. What form retaliation would take, again, is up to Kim, not McMaster. Yet the national security adviser seems to hold an erratic view of strategic dynamics that conveniently supports a use of force by the United States against North Korea, and privileges this path over all other options.
McMaster and Jeffrey’s defense of him also failed to consider the message of dismissive disinterest this logic sends to America’s allies in the region. McMaster has emphasized that the threat posed by North Korea’s long-range missiles is unacceptable. But by declaring North Korea’s ICBMs—as opposed to any of Kim’s other weapons systems or behavior—to be its red line, the Trump administration is saying that it is easily deterred. Such a declaration gives Pyongyang ample notice that Washington’s extended-deterrence commitments to its allies will become less credible once Kim deploys long-range missiles, and that the United States values its homeland far more than it values its international partners. It signals that we are gravely concerned for ourselves, but that allies are no more than a passing worry.
This is a strategic choice, not a strategic inevitability—and a deeply unwise one. Consider how the United States handled a similar credibility challenge during the Cold War. After the Soviet Union acquired ICBMs, the United States managed to hold NATO together without unraveling its security guarantees.