On N. Korea, Trump is bluffing again

The world is already living with a nuclear North Korea. If that reality cannot be reversed through negotiations and diplomacy

By Fareed Zakaria (Hard Facts)

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Fri 11 Aug 2017, 9:49 PM

Last updated: Fri 11 Aug 2017, 11:51 PM

How did we get here? Why does it appear that we're on the brink of a war in Asia, one that could involve nuclear weapons? North Korea has had nuclear-weapons capacity for at least 10 years now. Have its recent advances been so dramatic and significant to force the United States to wage a preventive war? No. The crisis we now find ourselves in has been exaggerated and mishandled by the Trump administration to a degree that is deeply worrying and dangerous.
From the start, the White House has wanted to look tough on North Korea. In the early months of Trump's presidency, before there could possibly have been a serious policy review, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned that the era of strategic patience with North Korea was over. Last week, national security adviser H.R. McMaster said that North Korea's potential to hit the U.S. with nuclear weapons was an "intolerable" threat. Not North Korea's use of weapons, mind you; just the potential.
Trump, of course, went furthest, stating publicly on Tuesday that if North Korea did not cease its threats, it would be met with "fire and fury like the world has never seen."
When pressed on Thursday, Trump doubled down, saying, "If anything, maybe that statement wasn't tough enough." In other words, Trump has made clear that the United States would respond to North Korean nuclear threats with a massive military strike, possibly involving nuclear weapons.
Is this credible? Again, no. The United States is not going to launch a preventive nuclear war in Asia. Trump's comments have undoubtedly rattled Washington's closest allies in the region, Japan and South Korea. Empty threats and loose rhetoric only cheapen American prestige and power, boxing in the administration for the future.
So why do it? Because it's Trump's basic mode of action. For his entire life, Donald Trump has made grandiose promises and ominous threats - and never delivered on either.
Even now, as he deals with a nuclear crisis, Trump has made claims that could be easily shown to be false. He tweeted that his first presidential order was to "modernize" America's nuclear arsenal. In fact, he simply followed a congressional mandate to authorise a review of the arsenal, which hasn't been completed yet. Does he think the North Koreans don't know this?
When the United States watched as Stalin's Soviet Union developed nuclear weapons, it was careful in its rhetoric. When it saw a far more threatening leader, Mao Zedong, pursuing nuclear weapons, it was even more cautious. Mao insisted he had no fear of a nuclear war because China would still have more than enough survivors to defeat Western imperialists. And yet, successive US administrations kept their cool.
The world is already living with a nuclear North Korea. If that reality cannot be reversed through negotiations and diplomacy, the task will be to develop a robust system of deterrence, the kind that kept the peace with Stalin's Russia and Mao's China. Bluster from the president can increase the dangers of miscalculation or cause a downward spiral of words and deeds.
"I think Americans should sleep well at night, have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days," said Tillerson on Wednesday. This was an unusual, perhaps even unprecedented statement.
The secretary of state seems to have been telling Americans - and the world - to ignore the rhetoric, not of the North Korean dictator, but of his own boss, the president of the United States. It is probably what Donald Trump's associates have done for him all his life. They know that the guiding mantra for him has been not the Art of the Deal, but the Art of the Bluff.
- Washington Post

More news from