Deterrence 101

“I’m not the man they think I am at home”  — Elton John in “Rocket Man”

On Tuesday Mr. Trump gave a speech to the United Nations General Assembly that created controversy. It seems you either hated it or loved it.  Some people agree with his “America First” pronouncements and others interpret his remarks as being muddled and inconsistent. Either way, despite the fact that much of the ensuing discussion focused on his use of the term “Rocket Man” in referring to Kim Jong Un of North Korea, there is much more to learn about Mr. Trump and about deterrence.  (Besides the third grade use of nicknames to belittle people, perhaps some of our insight into Mr. Trump’s real thoughts starts with the lyrics above.)

You can read the full speech for yourself but the focus here is on his remarks about The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or North Korea.  To me, it shows a lack of understanding of both international relations and the real ways in which nations influence other nations or deter them from taking actions counter to our own self-interests.

“The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime. The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary.”  — Donald J. Trump at the U.N. on 19 September 2017

Mr. Trump’s supporters may give him high marks for his bravado and willingness to “tell it like it is.” Okay.  But what did he really say?

Let’s put this another way.  The goal of the United States and other nations is to “denuclearize” the North Koreans.  As discussed previously in this blog, Kim Jong Un has no motivation to give up his nuclear weapons.  He cares not what happens to his population as long as he and his ruthless regime survive. The lesson he learned from Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya is that if you give in to the West and give up your Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) your regime falls and you get executed.  Not very motivational to someone like Kim.

Lesson number two comes from Mr. Trump’s speech.  Whether one likes the nuclear agreement with Iran or not, we do not have the same situation developing in Iran as is developing in North Korea.  Iran is not testing nuclear weapons.  The criticism of the agreement has many parts, mostly along the lines of the United States not drawing enough concessions from Iran.  No mention of terrorism, for example. Forgotten in the criticism is that the agreement is intended to be one aspect of a longer term engagement with Iran that does address other areas of concern to us and to them.  It showed that a deal could be made with a regime that refused to have anything at all to do with the West for decades.  It ensures that today we have only one “nuclear problem” to deal with and not two.  I might also point out that it is a multi-lateral agreement.  It is not a U.S. – Iran bilateral agreement as many in the current administration seem to address it.  The agreement includes the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the European Union representing all members of that organization, and Germany.  If the U.S. pulls out of the agreement, as Mr. Trump indicated yesterday that he will do, do not expect the other participants to follow suit.  Additionally, any other diplomatic engagement with Iran by the U.S. will die. Iran simply will not trust that the U.S. will abide by any future agreements.

This is where we get back to North Korea.  Mr. Trump demands that North Korea come to the table and negotiate a deal to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.  Hmmm.  Iran did that and now the U.S. calls the deal an embarrassment and threatens to abrogate the agreement.  Or as Mr. Trump said of Iran and the nuclear agreement:

“The Iran Deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into. Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States, and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it — believe me.”  — Donald J. Trump at the U.N. on 19 September 2017

So, let’s see this from Kim’s viewpoint.  (Who cares what he thinks, some may say?  Let’s not take any grief from those guys — Korean or Iranian. We should care only about ourselves.)  Those sentiments are understandable and in a way, correct.  Except for one thing.  We cannot get Kim (or the Iranians) to do something they don’t want to do just by bullying them.

From Kim’s point of view, those that have trusted the U.S. when it comes to getting rid of their WMD are either dead or betrayed by the U.S.  Not much of an incentive to give them up.

It gets worse.

Kim will not give up his missiles or his nuclear weapons as long as he thinks they are critical to his survival.  Period.  I cannot stress enough that he is all about his personal survival and the continuation of his regime — like it or not.  Diplomatic efforts should focus on providing a way to convince him that his regime will survive into the future with some kind of guarantees from those that share a border with him — China, Russia, and South Korea.  It might work.  But probably not.

It keeps getting worse.

Deterrence is based on several factors, as I’ve discussed in this space in previous posts.  Deterrence cannot work if the nation (or individual) that is the focus of the effort, doesn’t know what it is that they are not supposed to do.  Additionally, clear and realistic (emphasis on realistic) consequences need to be conveyed and understood by those being deterred.  They cannot do something if they don’t know what that is (or out of ignorance they may do it) and the cost/benefit analysis on their end needs to be clear and of a scale that not doing something is better than doing it.  One may think that dying is not a good outcome, but it may be if living with the alternative is unacceptable in their calculus, not ours. Understanding one’s opponent is critical.  We know very little about what goes on in the DPRK, but what we do know seems to be ignored by the current administration, or at least the guy in charge.

In sum, there needs to be a clear understanding of the behavior desired and a credible response that is unacceptable to the recipient.

With that in mind, let’s return to Mr. Trump’s U.N. remarks where he says,  “…but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies…” (meaning if the U.S. is forced to do so).  “Defend” against what?  He does not say.  In the past, North Korea shelled South Korean islands, sank a South Korean naval vessel, killed a U.S. service man in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and other provocations dating back to the capture of the USS Pueblo (AGER-2) in 1968.  Not one of these incidents generated a military response from the United States.  Expect Kim to test the efficacy of our intention to “defend” ourselves.  What will be our response if he again shells a South Korean outpost?  I would not expect that the response will be what Mr. Trump threatens, that  “…we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”  It is not a credible threat.  The implication that we will “totally destroy” a population of 24 million, with the additional implication by Mr. Trump that it will be with nuclear weapons (the only way to totally destroy a nation) is preposterous.  Or it should be in this scenario.  Kim will not see it as a credible threat.  Even if he does, it only solidifies his belief that having his own deliverable nuclear capability is his only saving grace. Boasting, bullying, and all the bravado Mr. Trump can muster will not change that and it certainly will not bring Kim to the negotiating table — other than as a delaying tactic to put the finishing touches on his arsenal.

This is why a long list of presidents, Republican and Democrat, warn that the United States “will respond at a time and place of our choosing” to provocations and attacks.  It leaves open a wide range of options from doing nothing all the way to “totally destroying” but with a myriad of options in between.  I guess that sounds wimpy to the current administration.  But leaving one’s options open is the best course.

With no clear “red line” — a term that is misused and misunderstood — that puts realistic limits on Kim’s behavior, and with no credible response for Kim to weigh in his strategic calculations, there is no deterrence and certainly no incentive for him to give up his nuclear weapons.

Mr. Trump fails deterrence 101.  There are, of course, many other branches and sequels involved in deterrence theory.  But if one does not understand the basics, that empty threats may only precipitate the action one is trying to deter, then there is little point in trying to get the finer points into play.

Furthermore, since the Korean Armistice of 1953, Kim’s grandfather and father created and hammered home the cult of personality so that today the DPRK is Kim and Kim is the DPRK.  Every citizen from the time that they can talk is taught that the Americans are the worst people on earth and that the Americans only aim in life is to destroy the DPRK.  They believe it.  The Korean War is the example taught over and over, given that North Korea was heavily damaged and lost millions of people, military and civilian, in the course of the conflict. To vilify and belittle their leader only adds gasoline to the fire. Mr. Trump handed the North Korean regime a propaganda coup with his statements about Kim and that we will totally destroy their nation. Roll the videotape! It reinforces everything that the population of North Korea has heard for their entire lives.

Which is not to say that we lay down and roll over.  The number one role of our national government is to protect our citizens.  If Kim pushes we should shove back.  We need to continue to reiterate to Kim that he cannot possibly win any military conflict with us or our allies.  End of discussion on that point. What is necessary is to convey clearly what we expect of the North Korean regime.  Patience and incremental successes may be the path to a common understanding.  We don’t back away from conflict where our national interests are at stake, but we also do not want to precipitate a war that will inevitably lead to massive military and civilian casualties on a whim or because we want to play around with cutesy phrases.  If one studies the military conflicts which we have entered since the Vietnam War, a pattern emerges.  Foreign adversaries continually fail to understand the nature of our society and misinterpret internal political arguments for a lack of will on our part to act militarily.  Mr. Trump may reinforce that perception when Kim tests his proclamation with a relatively minor infraction that we ignore (again) or when we do not “totally destroy” his country.

Kim is not a crazy man, even if he and Mr. Trump are trying to out crazy each other in their rhetoric.  It is totally sane to have as one’s primary strategic goal the survival of oneself and one’s regime.  If the United States truly wants to remove the North Korean’s nuclear capability, the U.S. will have to be more imaginative and creative in our diplomacy.  China, and now Russia which has inserted itself onto the scene, are the key players.  It is not a mission impossible, but it will take cool thinking and lots of patience.  It remains to be seen whether this administration is capable of either, much less both.

 

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