There are seven postulates that ought to inform U.S. policy regarding North Korea.
First, our objective. Nothing is more important than to be clear about what we are trying to accomplish. Our purpose should be to provide for our own security and that of our allies, especially South Korea and Japan, while avoiding war. Our purpose should not be regime change in Pyongyang or forcing Kim Jong-un to abandon his nuclear weapons program. Both of those may be desirable. Neither is worth a large-scale war.
Second, the adversary. Kim Jong-un is a loathsome dictator who presides over a repressive state that keeps its impoverished people in bondage. That said, and notwithstanding his consistently provocative behavior, no evidence exists to suggest that Kim is irrational. Of course, speaking with absolute certainty on these matters is impossible. Yet the pattern of Kim’s behavior is not that of someone courting suicide. It appears far more likely that, working from a position of extreme weakness, he is employing one of his very few available assets to ensure the survival of the North Korean regime. Kim is not “begging for war,” as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations foolishly claims. He is merely sabre rattling, hoping thereby to keep his enemies at bay and to dissuade his few friends from selling him out.
Third, the regional context. The North Korean crisis is a subset of a much larger development, namely, the ongoing redistribution of power in East Asia that is rendering obsolete the post-1945 order. Victory in World War II elevated the United States to the status of regional hegemon, a status symbolized even today by the presence of U.S. forces in Japan, South Korea, and outposts such as Guam. China’s rise to great power status poses a direct challenge to American primacy, while necessarily prompting anxiety among those accustomed to outsourcing their own security to the United States. Of far greater moment than North Korea is the challenge of creating a new regional order that accommodates China without doing great harm to U.S. interests or creating panic among China’s neighbors. In that regard, while a war on the Korean Peninsula would be a disaster, a war between China and the United States would be an unfathomable catastrophe. U.S. policymakers must never lose sight of that greater danger.
Fourth, the allies. U.S. behavior over the past couple of decades has done little to inspire confidence among our friends and allies. We specialize of late in starting needless wars that we then cannot finish. We promise liberation and democracy, but sow chaos. Then we elect the preposterous Donald Trump president. Small wonder that once reliable allies think we’ve taken leave of our senses. Affirming that view by blundering into a needless war in Korea would be the height of folly. To repair damaged relationships and restore trust in American leadership, it is essential that the U.S. response to North Korea demonstrate that the United States remains capable of prudent action undertaken in concert with others after due consultation. No more our way or the highway. No more you are either for us or against us. In that regard, overheated rhetoric threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen” or making reference to wars of “total annihilation” is not helpful.
Fifth, the media. The national media is obsessed with Trump and is determined to bring him down. Why pretend otherwise? The attacks that the New York Times and Washington Post directed at Richard Nixon back in the days of Watergate or at Reagan during Iran-Contra seem tame by comparison. Apart from Fox and a handful of outliers, just about anyone capable of reaching a wide audience piles on. Trump may well deserve every bit of obloquy heaped on his head. You won’t find me rising to his defense. Yet with regard to Korea, hyping the crisis as a way of playing up the gap between Trump’s Make-America-Great-Again promises and actually existing reality accomplishes one thing only: It fuels a full-fledged war scare, which serves only to increase the risk of miscalculation. In any earlier time, a call from the White House might persuade select editors and producers to tone down their coverage. In this instance, news executives who care about the well-being of their country, not to mention the planet as a whole, might do so of their own volition.
Sixth, strategy for the near-term. Experience during the seven decades since Hiroshima and Nagasaki shows that deterrence works. It can work with a nuclear-armed North Korea as well. Yet effective deterrence requires not only possessing a credible retaliatory capability—we’ve got that in spades—but conveying to a potential attacker and to all other interested parties an unmistakable intention to respond forcefully to any attack. This is best accomplished by employing language that is clear and unambiguous. Back in January 1954, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles put the matter simply: “The way to deter aggression is for the free community to be willing and able to respond vigorously at places and with means of its own choosing.” Dulles was speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations—and to the Soviet Politburo. To make his point, Dulles had no need to resort to histrionics. President Trump and his advisers should heed his example.
Seventh, strategy for the longer term. Deterrence won’t solve the problem posed by North Korea, but will keep that problem within manageable bounds. Making the problem go away will require progress toward the larger challenge of reconfiguring the distribution of power in East Asia. As others have noted, the one country with sufficient leverage to influence North Korean behavior is China. In his first encounter with President Xi Jinping, Donald Trump seemed to think that Xi would happily do his bidding and bring Kim Jong-un to heel. That was never going to happen. As a self-described master at cutting deals, Trump ought to know that Xi will expect something in return. What does Xi want? Broadly speaking, he wants recognition of the fact that China has now emerged as a global power of the first rank. That, in turn, implies hammering out the terms of a new power sharing arrangement that will provide for the stability of East Asia in the present century—a Grand Bargain, if you will. Negotiate that Grand Bargain—a task worthy of a Metternich, a Bismarck, or a John Quincy Adams—and the North Korea problem subsides into insignificance.
Unfortunately, an administration top heavy with generals, burdened with a somnolent secretary of state, and headed by a bombastic and unprincipled chief executive is almost surely incapable of recognizing either the problem or the opportunity that it faces.
Andrew Bacevich is The American Conservative’s writer-at-large.