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Preparing For a Second Summit: Donald Trump, Kim Jung Un and the Diplomacy of Reason

When Donald Trump joins his North Korean counterpart for their second summit meeting, the American president should start out only with sensible and achievable objectives.

Donald Trump, Kim Jung Un : Preparing For a Second Summit

Louis René Beres, special to Jewish Business News

Abstract: For the United States, the upcoming second North Korea summit should be founded upon plausible goals and reasonable strategies. In essence, this means implementing a secure nuclear deterrence regime between Washington and Pyongyang, and not the blatantly unrealistic Trump plans for North Korean “denuclearization.”

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In the long history of international diplomacy, one core axiom emerges unchallenged: The setting of goals and tactics must always be rooted incalculable reason rather than mere hope. Derivatively, when Donald Trump joins his North Korean counterpart for their second summit meeting, the American president should start out only with sensible and achievable objectives.

Already, Mr. Trump’s senior intelligence chiefs have expressly advised the president against positing “denuclearization” as his prompt or prolonged diplomatic expectation. This is plainly good advice. There can be little or no doubt that it would be in the best interests of the United States to heed such wise counsel. Whatever the US President’s own particular preferences, Chairman Kim will never consider dismantling his country’s nuclear weapons capacity.

Why should he willfully abrogate his country’s sole premise of global power? Whatever might be the American president’s personal preferences, a continuously nuclear North Korea is predictably a fait accompli.

Kim Jung Un’s resolve to remain a nuclear power – and presumptively to continue as a still-expanding nuclear power – is therefore plausibly fixed and operationally irreversible.

During his upcoming summit meetings, Mr. Trump will need to pay close attention to many intersecting or overlapping issues and to various complex strategic calculations. Apropos of this daunting and bewildering requirement, the US president will need to credibly reassure America’s South Korean and Japanese allies about certain unswerving US security promises. Ironically, by suggesting his prospective willingness to sometime remove US troops from these two nations, Mr. Trump has unwittingly threatened to eliminate an indispensable component of American alliance reliability.

As every capable student of diplomatic maneuver and military posture surely understands, the key point of any ongoing American deployments in northeast Asia has been to function as a “trip wire.” Accordingly, once this deterrence-enhancing element were foolishly reduced or removed, any future crisis with North Korea could become more pronouncedly unstable and fearfully nuclear.

With tangible and easily recognizable deployments, the receiving ally or allies (earlier West Germany; now South Korea and Japan) is/are most meaningfully assured of the automaticity or at-least near automaticity of promised US military responses.

Going forward with planned Summit Number 2, Donald Trump must soon reconstruct his up-till-now inchoate North Korean strategy with notably greater sensitivity to pertinent historical antecedents and also to dialectical obligations of “mind over mind.” The foundation of any US negotiating strategy here will need to be intellectual or conceptual. Determining the ingredients of any such necessary foundation should never be left to “seat-of-the-pants” extrapolations from the simpler and less consequential worlds of commercial real estate or casino gambling.

In the final analysis, international statecraft is never the same “game” as entrepreneurial haggling over prices and profits. They ought never to be compared, except perhaps at the level of metaphor.

To be carried out successfully, diplomatic negotiation requires practitioners with a recognizably wide and commendable range of erudition. This means that such bargaining is about serious study, learning, and understanding. Crucially, it’s not about “attitude,” the term still favored by President Trump to prioritize what is allegedly most important to successful negotiation.

For United States dealings with North Korea, military power will need to be suitably projected. To best ensure proper US deterrence, the United States will doubtlessly have to present itself to North Korea as both willing and capable of inflicting unacceptably damaging retaliations in response to any conceivable acts of nuclear aggression. Nonetheless, in certain circumstances, the credibility of Trump-directed nuclear deterrent threats toward Pyongyang could actually vary inversely with the expected extent of US-threatened destruction.

Indisputably, these dynamic situations will never be analogous to any ordinary commercial transactions or wealth-based calculations.

It is also clear there could exist no scientific ways of determining what specific levels of US deterrent threat would be ideal or optimal. But it still stands to reason that calibrating American retaliatory threats to the particular level of expected North Korean harms would generally offer a more prudent and promising strategy than simple posturing with spasmodic, intermittent or across-the-board “MAD-style” threats. These are threats drawn from the original cold War lexicon of “mutual assured destruction.”

Here, it could even sometimes be prudent to signal Pyongyang of America’s readiness to wage a “limited nuclear war.”[1]

More than anything else, this is because of the conspicuously asymmetrical nuclear capacities between these two prospective enemy states and because Washington must always seek to minimize the chances of any critical misperceptions or strategic misunderstandings by Pyongyang. As best he can, President Trump should always prepare to possibly issue such dire threats from a wider perspective of diplomatic cooperation and international non-belligerence.

As the principal US task should concern “victories” of “mind over mind,” Mr. Trump will need to proceed with a suitably fashioned analytic template; that is, a strategic posture that could account for both the rationality and intentionality of all primary enemy decision-makers in Pyongyang. This means, among other things, that Washington should approach the North Korean nuclear threat from a much more consciously disciplined conceptual perspective. It suggests, inter alia, factoring into absolutely any coherent US nuclear threat assessment (a) the expected rationality or irrationality of all principal decision-makers in Pyongyang; and (b) the foreseeable intentional or unintentional intra-crisis behaviors of these decision-makers.

“Theory is a net,” quotes (from the German poet Novalis) the distinguished philosopher of science, Karl Popper,[2]  and “only those who cast, can catch.” In all such matters of strategic dissuasion, nothing could prove more conclusively practical than good theory. Generality of explanation is always the key to ascertaining specific meanings and predictions. Inevitably, having such comprehensive policy clarifications close at hand could help guide President Trump beyond otherwise vague or narrowly impromptu appraisals.

Under no circumstances, Mr. Trump must be reminded, should multi-sided crisis possibilities be assessed implicitly or explicitly as exclusively singular or ad hoc phenomena.

In the course of upcoming North Korean negotiations, strategic analysts guiding the US president should enhance their up-to-date nuclear investigations by first identifying the basic distinctions between (1) intentional or deliberate nuclear war, and (2) unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war. The derivative risks resulting from these at least four different types of possible nuclear conflict are apt to vary considerably. It follows that those American analysts who might remain too completely focused exclusively upon a deliberate nuclear war scenario could then all-too-casually underestimate a substantially more salient nuclear threat to the United States.

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This is the very significant threat of unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war.

One additional conceptual distinction must be inserted into any US negotiating scenario. This is the subtle but still serious difference between an inadvertent nuclear war and an accidental nuclear war. To wit, any accidental nuclear war would have to be inadvertent; conversely, however, there could be certain determinable forms of inadvertent nuclear war that would not necessarily be accidental.

Most critical here are various sizable errors in calculation or judgment committed by one or both sides – that is, more-or-less reciprocal mistakes that could lead directly and inexorably to a nuclear conflict. Perhaps the most blatant example would concern assorted misjudgments of enemy intent or capacity that could rapidly emerge during the course of any particular crisis escalation. Such misjudgments would likely stem from an expectedly mutual search for strategic advantage occurring during a tense bilateral competition in nuclear risk-taking.

There would also need to be offered various related judgments concerning expectations of rationality and irrationality within each affected country’s core decision-making structure. One potential source of unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war could be a failed strategy of “pretended irrationality.” A posturing American president who had too “successfully” convinced enemy counterparts of his own irrationality could thereby spark an otherwise-avoidable enemy preemption.

Inn case some have forgotten, US President Donald Trump has more than once mused openly about his potential fondness for a negotiating posture of feigned irrationality.

If “played” in the other direction, an American president who had begun to take seriously Kim Jung Un’s presumed unpredictability could be frightened into striking first himself. In this distinctly alternate case, Washington would become the preempting party that might then claim legality for its allegedly defensive first-strike. In any such fearfully “dicey” circumstances, those US strategists charged with fashioning an optimal strategic posture would do well to recall Carl von Clausewitz’s oft-quoted warning (in On War) concerning “friction.”

This “Clausewitzian” property underscores the always vital difference between “war on paper” and “war as it actually is.” Above all, it’s not a distinction readily determinable by what Mr. Trump optimistically describes as “attitude.”

Amid any such chess-like strategic dialectics, the “game” might not necessarily end with an enemy preemption, but instead with Mr. Trump deciding to “preempt the preemption.” Here, the US president, sensing the too-great “success” of his own pretended irrationality, might correctly foresee Kim’s consequent insecurity, and then (perhaps quite rationally) decide to “strike first before he strikes first.”

Naturally, exactly how this sort of game would actually play out would depend upon the largely indecipherable manner in which US nuclear command and control takes place. Because we are speaking here of literally unprecedented circumstances, there are a great many “loose ends” in all such scenarios.

Interestingly, if the game were played in the other direction, it might sometime end not with a US preemption generated by certain overriding fears of enemy irrationality, but rather with an enemy first-strike intended to preempt an anticipated American preemption. In any event, implementing successful and long-term nuclear deterrence between Washington and Pyongyang would be in the very best interests of both negotiating states. It follows that US President Donald Trump now has a valuable diplomatic opportunity to make progress on the North Korean nuclear problem, but only if he can finally get beyond the patently futile hope for enemy “denuclearization.”

The only reasonable use for American nuclear weapons in this upcoming US-North Korea negotiation will be as controlled elements of dissuasion, and never as any actual weapons of war. Underlying principles of such a rational diplomatic posture go back long before the advent of nuclear weapons. Indeed, in his oft-studied classic On War (see especially Chapter 3, “Planning Offensives”) the ancient Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu reminds us all: “Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.”


Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016. His other writings have been published in Harvard National Security Journal; Yale Global Online; World Politics (Princeton); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Defense; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare; Oxford University Press; The Jerusalem Post; Infinity Journal; BESA Perspectives; US News & World Report; The Hill; and The Atlantic.

His Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, first edition, 1979) was one of the first scholarly books to deal specifically with nuclear



[1] Several of the author’s early books deal very specifically with aspects of a limited nuclear war scenario. See, for example, Louis René Beres, The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis (1973); Louis René Beres, Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (1979); Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (1983); and Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (1986).

[2] See Karl Popper’s classic, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959).


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