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Trump: Accidental Nuclear Genius?

Love him or hate him, when it comes to North Korea, Trump just may be frustratingly suited for nuclear negotiations. Unpredictability, emotional outbursts, irrationality, and other descriptors that have been applied to the sitting president are likely qualities a president should not have in general. According to Cold War-era nuclear deterrence theories, however, they may be an ideal foreign policy tool for nuclear negotiations.

Where Are We and How Did We Get Here?

Over 25 years have passed since the end of the Cold War, when the international order changed from a bipolar system to a unipolar one. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fundamental questions facing the US and international security scholars underwent a seismic shift as the world reoriented itself to a new international order under US hegemony. While this shift was necessary to reflect new realities, some important Cold War-era questions were discarded as relics of the previous era. Among these forgotten topics, mountains of scholarship applied on the question of nuclear strategy were left to gather dust in libraries and archives. New questions of proliferation have since replaced the older questions of nuclear strategy between superpowers.

Now that North Korea has developed nuclear weapons along with the missile technology capable of reaching Washington DC, however, some of the lessons from the 60s and 70s are worth dusting off and reintegrating into our understanding of nuclear diplomacy. And as we wonder what on earth the president is thinking vis-à-vis North Korea, some of his actions seem to come straight from Cold War nuclear strategy, either intentionally or unintentionally (or, more likely, both).

Strategy in the Nuclear Age

War is the continuation of policy by other means,” goes the old adage by the father of modern military strategy Carl von Clausewitz. This placement of war at the end of a spectrum of policy tools remains constant to this day. What have changed drastically, however, are two conceptions that comprise military strategy in the nuclear age. The first is the nature of strategy itself. Until 1945, military strategy was typically understood in the context of a zero-sum game in which a clear winner imposes its will on the loser. With the introduction of nuclear weapons and corresponding developments in game theory, military strategy ceased to be a simple question of winning and losing. Instead, nuclear weapons required more careful bargaining and the balancing of potential outcomes that are better or worse for both sides. The second changed conception is the consequence of nuclear weapons’ ability to devastate entire cities and populations without a state first having to defeat enemy armies or even achieve air superiority.

With these two changes, military maneuvering was replaced by nuclear threatening, posturing, signaling, alliance making, brinkmanship, line-drawing, and related activities. Most will recognize these activities as the defining characteristics of the Cold War. While the application of nuclear strategy must certainly be different for North Korea than for the Soviet Union of the Cold War era, this analysis focuses on the role of executive leadership in escalatory nuclear conflicts.

Incentive for Irrational Leadership

Thomas Schelling, perhaps the best known nuclear deterrence theorist of the Cold War era (and ironically enough, also a 2005 Nobel Prize Laureate for his work’s application to the field of economics), wrote, “It is a paradox of deterrence that in threatening to hurt somebody if he misbehaves, it need not make a critical difference how much it would hurt you too –if you can make him believe the threat.” To make this threat believable, it is another paradox of deterrence “that it does not always help to be, or to be believed to be, fully rational, cool-headed, and in control of oneself or of one’s country” (see Schelling, 1966: 36).

This understanding is not without precedent. Both JKF and Khrushchev practiced the art of “impetuosity, irrationality, and automaticity” to great effect during heightened times of Cold War conflict. Responding to the Soviet positioning of missiles in Cuba, JFK departed from his policy of proportional responses and promised that the US would launch a “full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union” if they were to launch any missile from Cuba towards any country in the Western hemisphere. While this is more formal than Trump’s threats of “fire and fury,” it is essentially the same message. Both declare: if you launch a strike, there will be an uncalculated, automatic, angry, and total response that will snuff out your government. Speaking to the US regarding escalation over a divided Berlin, the Soviet Union’s Khrushchev echoed this same principle, declaring angrily that, “if you send in tanks [to Berlin], they will burn…If you want war, you can have it…our rockets will fly automatically” (see Schelling, 1966: 36-43).

Because coercion is successful only where it causes the coerced to act (or refrain from acting) without actually having to apply the threatened force, its successful application hinges on the coerced’s interpretation of coercive threats. If coercion is attempted but the coerced thinks the coercer is bluffing and thus does not change their behavior, the coercer is faced with the choice of having to follow through with their threat or with losing their credibility. Where there is irrationality, unpredictability, and impetuosity, therefore, there is greater uncertainty and fear on the side of the coerced whose risks escalate in the face of uncertainty.

Uncertainty and Decision-Making

While North Korea might have been able to make decisions based around a “rational” Obama administration and to believe, with some degree of certainty, that Obama would not authorize “fire and fury” or nuclear bombing campaigns in response to their continued efforts to achieve full nuclear armament, they have not been able to reach similar conclusions during the Trump administration. This inability is best evidenced by their attempts to hire Republican analysts to explain Trump’s decision-making. Covering the story, the Washington Post wrote, “Outreach…will become more urgent as Trump and Kim have descended into name-calling that, many analysts worry, sharply increases the chances of potentially catastrophic misunderstandings. ‘Their number-one concern is Trump. They can’t figure him out.’”

This tit-for-tat blustering between Trump and Kim Jong Un has been an embarrassment for many Americans, but it has served important functions for signaling in the absence of any normalized relations between the governments. Trump’s threats have communicated the US Government’s intentions and have drawn a number of red lines. North Korea is tasked with interpreting these communications and deciding whether they want to risk calling a bluff. Such a decision would come with questionable gains and, on the other side, terrifying potential for the destruction of their own regime. For this reason, uncertainty regarding Trump could be a disincentivizing factor for continued aggression. At the very least, it reduces their ability to calculate the impact of their policy decisions, raising uncertainty.

On the US side, this itself has become a source of information. According to the current CIA director Mike Pompeo, Trump’s tweets on a range of issues from North Korea to terrorism (tweets that have otherwise been characterized as “undisciplined,” “inflammatory,” and “disruptive” by the former CIA Director and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, among others) have served as an informal tool for measuring important intelligence indicators. “I have actually seen it help us,” Pompeo stated. “I have seen things the president has put on his Twitter account actually have a real-world impact on our ability to understand things that are happening in other places in the world…that is, our adversaries responding to those tweets in ways that were helpful to us, to understand command and control issues, who’s listening to what messages, how those messages are resonating…” While the tweets do seem to be harmfully “undisciplined and disruptive,” to use Penetta’s words, this intelligence utility provides a silver lining in the way they permit signals to flow both from the US and back into the US.

Unfortunately, the informational value from these communications may not be worth their escalatory function in the conflict. Spokespeople for the North Korean government have responded angrily to both Pompeo and Trump’s criticisms of their government, stating they have made “a provocation against us by impudently criticizing our supreme leadership which is the heart of our people…These confrontational warmongering remarks cannot be interpreted in any other way but as a warning to us to be prepared for a war on the Korean peninsula.”

Conclusion: Risking the Worst Case in Pursuit of the Best Case

It seems reasonable to believe that Trump has not cultivated his reputation for impetuosity with North Korea and nuclear strategy in mind. Most likely, his overall reputation is only partially cultivated with some level of intentionality. Regardless of whether or not Trump’s impetuosity and outbursts are the product of a carefully calculating administration, they have at least one application, potentially accidental, that is beneficial for the US: information gathering as North Korea and other adversaries discuss Trump’s controversial statements among themselves and respond externally.

The future of US-North Korean relations is uncertain, but at a moment where nearly half of Republicans favor first strike options against North Korea, one optimistic outlook is that Trump’s bellicosity and Republican hawkishness are simply posturing and signaling that support the broader coercive policy the US continues to apply towards North Korea. From such a perspective, the softer and more peaceful tone of many in the Democratic camp could have the unintended consequence of signaling to North Korea that the US will not follow through with their promises of military response.

More negatively, however, hawkish signaling could simply increase the likelihood of violent conflict and military action with an estimated potential to cost as much as 20,000 lives per day. Only hindsight will be able to tell whether current decisions are the beginning of a deadly collision course or a path to eventual de-escalation. At the moment, de-escalation and nuclear disarmament of North Korea (and even regime change) could still take place in the context of applied violence and force, or in the context of nonviolent, coercive bargaining and strategic nuclear diplomacy.

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Michael Brooks

Michael Brooks

Michael Brooks is an OODA analyst and MLitt Candidate in International Security Studies at the University of St. Andrews. Previously, he spent three years working on global health and economic development projects in Central and Eastern Africa and the Middle East.