The world in which we find ourselves seems like a series of crises teetering on the edge, simmering away under the careful stewardship of world leaders and their accompanying bureaucracies. There is no starker example of this than the precarious Korean peninsula, at the epicenter of a growing war of words and threats, all with the lives of a minimum of four million souls hanging in the balance.
It is now a trope of daily life that the second deployment of nuclear weapons is expected to occur within our lifetimes. As we grimly countenance that horrifyingly-plausible thought, we look to the powers that be and hope that whatever they’re doing to stop it from happening actually works — that the brash tweets and grim warnings will be the key that deters the wavering finger above the comically-red button.
It might be a tad comforting, then, to analyse the situation around us through that prism — that of deterrence, how it should work, and where we should set our anxiety levels accordingly.
The basic notion of stopping someone from doing something seems pretty straightforward. While others have waxed more lyrically about it (most notably President Theodore Roosevelt who summarised it as “speak softly, and carry a big stick”), it all boils down to the same premise: “Don’t do that, or I’ll hurt you.”
But how this threat correlates to a genuine effect on the behavior of someone else is a tad more complex to envisage. The context of the situation in which these words are uttered usually predicts its success or failure.
First off, consider the action. One needs to isolate the “that” — the thing that we want to stop someone else from doing. It is very important that we isolate specifically the action we want to prevent. There’s no use trying to prevent someone from kicking you if they really intend to throw a punch.
Sometimes, it’s very clear-cut. For a worried EXCOMM and POTUS in 1962, it was the deployment of Soviet missiles in the neighbouring Communist state Cuba. In 1973 it was unilateral Soviet deployment in the middle of a grim Arab-Israeli war. In 2017 it was chemical attacks on a civilian population. But in the world of diplomacy and international relations, it’s sometimes not that simple. Incursions based on territorial claims, be it in Crimea or Czechoslovakia, have more intangible motives and if the intentions behind them aren’t deduced carefully, the wrong course of action might be taken, or an attempt at an effective deterrent left crippled from the start.
Secondly, consider the consequences. It should be made abundantly clear that if proscribed action is taken, there will be consequences, usually consequences that are highly undesirable. The important part is the linking of the two: actions mean consequences. Those whom one wishes to deter must understand that one will follow the other, and if that happens it won’t be pleasant.
Usually this is communicated through a demonstration of military force and capability. Sometimes, there is an institutional method of communicating this. At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, with the blockade of Cuba underway, Strategic Air Command was placed at DEFCON 2 (the second-highest defence readiness condition, one step away from nuclear war), with dialogue between the two superpowers stressing the blockade was only the minimum action the United States would take. Following Soviet overtures of unilateral intervention in the Yom Kippur War (and evidence that it was a real possibility), the Nixon administration followed suit, ordering US forces to DEFCON 3, a state of readiness for war. Sometimes the demonstrations are less subtle, as 59 Tomahawk missiles can attest.
Finally, there must be credibility. The offender must be absolutely certain that you will follow through with the consequences, that you are capable of delivering those consequences, and that they are inescapable. Not only are the consequences undesirable, they are unavoidable if the action occurs.
The overwhelming response of the military might of a superpower is something never usually taken lightly, but great powers can still get it wrong. The prelude to World War II is an excellent example of how not to do it. By the time German tanks rumbled across the Polish frontier in September 1939, Hitler had already had his way with the Rhineland, Austria, and the Sudetenland. The Munich Agreement was another concession too far — the ceding of Czechoslovakia to the Reich simply confirmed to Hitler that the Western powers, racked with indecision like the “miserable little worms” that they were, would offer no meaningful resistance to his territorial ambitions. In general, if an enemy thinks that any attempt to enact consequence can be swatted away like a fly, they won’t be too inhibited in continuing to do what they please.
This isn’t a perfect concept of deterrence, mind. You will note that it only works if the offender fears the consequences — that is, if they are undesirable to them. What do you do in the case of fanatics for whom even death is an operating cost rather than something to be avoided?
In that case, with all the threats in the world, you will not be able to effect a change of course. It’s one of the main reasons why previous practitioners of realpolitik and nuclear deterrence have walked back from mutually assured destruction (an anachronism, they argue, in a world of suicide bombers and rogue states).
Further, it’s all well and good to talk about what needs to be demonstrated, but whether the message gets through must be taken into consideration. That can sometimes depend on the subjective impressions of your target who, rightly or wrongly, might underestimate or overestimate your actual actions.
The Problem with North Korea
So, how should we view North Korea?
Action. There doesn’t appear to be a firm consensus about how to view the actions of Kim Jong Un. His unceasing attempts to get nuclear weapons can be painted as either the product of an irrational mind hell-bent on destruction (the hole in our concept of deterrence) or in the context of a dictator desperately ensuring security for his isolated rogue state. But the action that we would wish to stop, independent of the context around it, is pretty straightforward. North Korea is intent on obtaining a nuclear weapons arsenal, and it is this that we are attempting to deter.
Consequences. Depending on how you look at it, it’s at once easy and difficult to precisely nail down the proposed consequences for North Korea persisting in developing their nuclear weapons program. Obviously, our conventional knowledge is that the last resort is military force: “fire and fury” raining down on Pyongyang or something similarly pyrotechnical. But last resorts are pretty definitive, and before we get there, it’s still not 100% clear what the response will be. At present, the approach is negotiation and peaceful deterrents like economic sanctions. The official line at present from the US State Department is diplomatic options “until the first bomb drops”, which is a tad less deterring than nuclear holocaust in the interim. And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is having a hell of a time trying to keep those options open and credible with his chief executive undermining him from above. So, in summary, there’s an unwritten red line that will lead to military action, but defining where that is is murky at best at the moment.
Credibility. No one doubts the United States’ capability to wreak havoc on North Korea if it so chooses. But, as previously mentioned, no one doubts Pyongyang’s ability to make mincemeat out of Seoul, even with just conventional weapons. This makes it a bit more grey when you discuss whether the United States will actually follow through on any military threats, even if the aforementioned red line is crossed. So long as Seoul would bear the brunt of North Korean retaliation, former Senior Counselor to the President, Steve Bannon, was blunt about it: “Forget it.” This, in addition to the confused signals coming from Washington described above, would surely weigh in the North Korean decision-making process.
So, apropos to further nuclear tests, the consequences that would follow are not definitive, and their credibility is limited. Not the best ingredients for a deterrence soufflé.
Where does this leave us?
This doesn’t mean that anything bad in particular will happen. North Korea has been consistently bellicose to the extent where, ironically, its own threats are not really credible, and this to-and-fro has been par for the course across most previous administrations. The reason the situation seems so tense now is because of this grey area of the effectiveness of attempts to deter an ever-improving North Korean nuclear threat, and a President treating such a delicate situation more recklessly than historical precedent has prepared us for.
All being said and done, while it’s all right if you’re less than your usual optimistic self when considering the North Korean situation, I wouldn’t be too worried. After all, if worst comes to worst, we will all go together when we go. Ho hum.