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Facing Off with North Korea: Victory, Complexity & Strategic Gain

Opinion: To expect cumulative strategic gain for itself and its allies regarding North Korea, including Israel, the United States must ultimately depend upon several forms of nuclear deterrence.

From the start, US President Donald Trump has declared, explicitly or implicitly, that any ongoing crisis with North Korea will end with a decisive American “victory.” In essence, such visceral declarations represent a naive reaction to enormously complex matters of law and strategy. Moreover, this simplistic reaction could raise increasingly tangible risks of catastrophic conflict and regional nuclear war.

It would exert this effect needlessly; that is, without producing any corollary or corresponding strategic gains for the United States or its allies. Indeed, major conflict in northeast Asia, especially a nuclear conflict, could immediately heighten the prospect of a nuclear war elsewhere, including the Middle East.

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On matters of war and peace, language counts. In this currently urgent matter, President Trump’s still-conspicuous concerns for achieving a so-called “victory” could drive the United States unwittingly toward policies that are sorely injurious to America’s most vital national interests and those of several allies. Whether driven by narrow considerations of public relations, or by more broadly conceived assessments of legitimate war planning, these concerns might sometime create a corrosively lethal dynamic with Pyongyang from which Washington could no longer expect to extract any advantage. This sort of creation could take place in thoroughly unanticipated increments, or instead, quite suddenly, as a more-or-less unexpected “bolt-from-the-blue” enemy attack.

In the worst case, this could mean effectively irremediable circumstances wherein an erroneously contrived search for victory creates literally tens of thousands of prompt fatalities.

For Washington, there are relevant lessons to be learned. Negotiating for “escalation dominance” is not usefully analogous to commercial marketing, or even to “making a deal.” Accordingly, Mr. Trump should cease his persistently vain affirmations that America will strive to “win,” and assert instead that any search for meaningful US strategic success will be tempered by prudent presidential concerns for national safety during any crisis escalation.

In the best of all possible worlds, the American president would also acknowledge that because nation-states no longer formally declare wars, or generally even enter into legally binding war-terminating agreements (notable exceptions are Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan), applying the traditional criteria of “war winning” can no longer make any determinable jurisprudential sense.

However, this is not yet the best of all possible worlds. It is also unlikely that Mr. Trump’s generals have any greater understanding than their commander-in-chief about the starkly unique complexities of a two-power nuclear competition where (1) there exists substantial asymmetries in relative military power position, and (2) where the allegedly “weaker” North Korean side maintains verifiable potential to inflict unacceptably damaging first-strikes or reprisals upon the “stronger” American side. Although rarely if ever acknowledged, nothing truly scientific can ever be said about pertinent probabilities in any such unprecedented situations.

In science, authentic probability judgments must always be based upon the calculated frequency of pertinent past events. Plainly, there have never been any such past events. They would be entirely unique, or sui generis.

So far, this assessment is not complicated. After all, there has never been a nuclear war, let alone the sort of prospective asymmetrical nuclear standoff soon likely to obtain between Washington and Pyongyang. It follows that because there can be no foreseeable or suitably informed scientific assessments of probable war outcomes in this Asian theatre, US President Donald Trump should approach any such war soberly, and with very great reluctance.

Recalling the “old days,” which extend well into the twentieth-century, nation-states generally had to defeat enemy armies before being able to wreak any wished-for destruction upon that adversary’s designated cities and infrastructures. In those earlier days of more traditional arrangements concerning war and peace, therefore, any individual country’s demonstrated capacity to win was necessarily prior to its capacity to destroy. Today, however, a nation-state enemy needn’t first be able to defeat American armies in order to inflict harm upon the United States as a nation, or upon certain of Washington’s allies.

Reciprocally, the United States now needn’t be able to win any particular war with an enemy state in order to threaten such a foe, or to usefully inflict upon it very considerable harms. Expressed differently, this means that the capacity to deter is not necessarily the same as the capacity to win. For the American president, the core war-planning lesson of such far-reaching transformations has two interrelated parts that may extend well beyond the Korean nuclear issue. This same lesson applies to certain American allies, especially Israel.

First, jurisprudentially, winning and losing no longer mean very much for national strategic planning. This consequential devaluation of victory and defeat should be especially obvious with regard to America’s ongoing national wars on terror. Prima facie, the US can never really “win” any war with Al-Qaeda, ISIS, or Hezbollah, etc., primarily because it can never really know for certain whether a zero-sum conflict with certain virulent sub-state or “hybrid” adversaries is certifiably over.

Here, the term “hybrid” refers to any enemy that combines assorted state and sub-state elements. In the Middle East, Israel is all-too-familiar with such enemies, today, most significantly, Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah.

Second, operationally, winning and losing are now either altogether extraneous to America’s indispensable collective interests, or, in those foreseeably unfortunate cases where “victory” is expressed as a high-priority national objective, grievously harmful. In principle, at least – and also very ironically – the naive Trump orientation to “winning” could quickly lead the United States toward huge and irreversible “losses” via certain misjudgments on “escalation dominance.” Going forward, US military posture should never be shaped according to the visibly barren expectations of clamorous clichés or irrelevant analogies, but instead upon the most disciplined theses and antitheses of dialectical strategic thought.

Long ago, Sun-Tzu had reasoned famously: “Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.” To meet current US national security objectives vis-à-vis North Korea, this ancient Chinese military wisdom suggests that Washington now emphasize deterrence rather than victory. At the same time, any such informed emphasis should remain self-consciously connected to the stringent requirements of controlling military escalations. If these requirements are disregarded, any resultant regional conflict could have decisive “spillover” implications for other parts of the world, especially the Middle East.

Before this connection can be counted upon, US President Donald Trump must finally understand that the logic of strategic nuclear calculations cannot simply be extrapolated from a purely personal history of real-estate negotiations or transactions. Instead, as he will need to recognize, this multifaceted logic demands an entirely discrete and nuanced genre of decision-making, one that calls for much greater intellectual refinement than do narrowly commercial deals about money and stature. As an example, casually expecting an American president to leverage Chinese and Russian sanctions on behalf of the United States misses two key intersecting points: First, the regime in Pyongyang will never back down on its overall plan for nuclearization, however severe such sanctions might eventually become. Second, counting upon any meaningful sanctions from Beijing or Moscow would be inherently problematic for President Trump, as both China and Russia are ultimately more substantially worried about their traditional national enemy in Washington than about any future dangers from Pyongyang.

If these points should suggest that a nuclear North Korea is already a fait accompli, this American president should focus much more purposefully upon initiating long-term nuclear deterrence with North Korea, both for the benefit of the United States, and (as “extended deterrence”) (a) for its directly vulnerable allies in South Korea and Japan; and (b) per previous observation concerning prospective trans-regional nuclear implications, for its indirectly vulnerable ally in Israel.

In the final analysis, it must be remembered in Jerusalem as well as Washington that the world is inevitably a system, an interdependent whole wherein strategic gain or loss in any one part can quickly impact safety and security elsewhere.


This article was first published at  Israel Defense


Louis Rene Beres is professor emeritus of political science at  Purdue University. Beres’ lectures and research focus on international relations, terrorism, and international law. He is the author of several books, including, “Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy,” which was published in 2016 by Rowman & Littlefield.



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