Friday, August 11, 2017

MAD to NUTS: US Nuclear Strategy, Donald Trump, and North Korea

Asking are we on the brink of war with North Korea is the question of the day.  For many the fear is that we have two leaders–Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump–who are  hotheads, willing to engage in public threats and not private diplomacy.  They look like two drunks in a bar at 2:00 a.m., standing chest-to-chest with one another, neither really wants a fight but neither can back down, and the conditions are ripe for the confrontation to tip out of control.  Yet the conditions for why this confrontation are so unstable reside in the evolution of US nuclear strategy which has gone from MAD to NUTS, and because so many of the conditions that actually mad the Cold War stable are not present here.

The stability of US nuclear strategy during the Cold War was MAD–mutual assured destruction. In a bipolar world divided up between the USSR and the USA, part of what kept either country from using nuclear weapons and going to war was that both countries would face certain  destruction.  Neither country would be able to prevail over the other without also suffering significant damage.  Fear of mutual assured destruction prevented nuclear war.  But the stability of the Cold War also was premised on several other factors.

First, neither country seriously questioned the regime legitimacy of the other nor that it genuinely contested each other’s core spheres of influence.  Yes there were surrogate battles across the world such as the Congo or Vietnam, but both he USA and USSR generally acknowledged the security interests of one another and did not try to cross it.  The one major instance where that line was breached was the Cuban Missile Crisis, nearly resulting in a major war.

Second, in part as a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the USSR and USA developed communication strategies to stay in contact.  The Hot line in one famous example.  The point is that the two countries talked to one another, they had ways to try to resolve conflicts through diplomacy.  Without talking to one another, the USSR and USA would have been locked in the classic prisoners’ dilemma where acting alone there was incentive to confess (go to war) instead of remaining silent  (Maintaining peace).  While the Cold War era was scary, MAD worked and it prevented nuclear war.

Yet beginning in the 1980s and especially into the post-Cold War era US nuclear strategy went NUTS--Nuclear utilization target selection.    NUTS was about the idea that the US had the capabilities to engage in limited nuclear war.  It could do so because of the precision of our missiles, the overwhelming force the country had, or the defenses that it had to repel an enemy attack.  In addition, as a result of the demise of the USSR, the USA as the “winner” of the Cold War felt that it potentially could make limited nuclear war just another option among others in its military menu because it did not face the threats of mutually assured destruction.  In effect, the USA could win a  limited nuclear war.

What successfully prevented nuclear war during the Cold War is missing from the confrontation with North Korea.  MAD is missing.  The US will win a nuclear or any type of confrontation with North Korea, and that alone is destabilizing because it creates incentives to take a chance and escalate a shouting match into a military confrontation.  In the case of Trump, he may be convinced we win a limited nuclear battle if it escalates to that, or that because of his apparent indifference to our third parties, a battle that inflicts damages to Japan or South Korea is acceptable.  In effect, a false or genuine belief that the USA will not face assured destruction is destabilizing,  thus moving North Korea from MAD to NUTS.

In addition, it does not help that in the last few days Trump and his Secretary of Defense have threatened the legitimacy or existence of the North Korean regime.  This too is destabilizing, but it also fits into North Korea’s game plan.  That country is an oppressive totalitarian state whose legitimacy in the eyes of its people resides in constantly stirring up fears that its very existence is under threat from outside forces such as the USA.  This appeal to fear makes it possible to extract the sacrifices the regime gets from its people.  The more Trump responds to blusters with blusters, the more it both feeds into the ability of North Korea to maintain a tight gripe on its people but also  it fuels insecurities about regime existence that can escalate into conflict.

Finally, unlike during the Cold War era, there is little in terms of back door communication channels to prevent the prisoners’ dilemma miscalculation.   Many of the statements from North Korea are blusters directed more for internal than external purposes and historically have been dismissed as such.  Yet now Kim Jong-Un’s rhetoric may be backing him and Trump into corners they cannot escape.  Neither Trump not Kim may know how far to go before their words get away from them.  In an era now (as opposed to even a year or so ago) where the two nations must deal with one another as nuclear powers, it is simply not clear how past behavior controls or directs the current conflict.

Overall, Kim and Trump may be hotheads but they face a context far different from the Cold War or from what has defined North Korean-US relations for 70 years.  It is the uncertainty of this new context that is what makes this situation so dangerous.

Final note:  Take a look at this blog of mine from last year--a work of political fiction involving Trump, North Korea, and nuclear weapons.

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