Global Thermonuclear Teatime

North Korea is doing its routine shakedown, and Our Dear President acted with the predicted level of aplomb. There have been comparisons between Trump’s Fire and Fury rhetoric to Shakespeare’s Macbeth (A tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing).

Trumps actual comments were this:

North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury, like the world has never seen.

He [Kim Jong-un, Supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] has been very threatening, beyond a normal statement and as I said they [Kim Jong’s threats] will be met with fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.

North Korea didn’t back off, as per its usual The Mouse That Roared strategy, and instead threatened to attack Guam. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to walk back Trump’s threats. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said to North Korea via official channels (I paraphrase), Guys, we totally outgun you. Don’t attack us.

Trump then (predictably) felt it necessary to affirm how badly he wants to end North Korea.

The whole world is, at this point aghast and outraged at Trump’s aggressive and inciteful attitude regarding nuclear fucking war, yet more observant minds are looking to Mattis for cues to the United States’ actual stance.

In the meantime, it’s one of those times we all should sit down for tea and shortbread, and make sure we’re all on the same page regarding this nuclear war thing. Despite the updating of the nuclear clock by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 2017 to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight (the second closest it’s been to midnight, and to existential crisis — doomsday — for all humanity), we’re actually many steps away from nuclear confrontation. It is unlikely this posturing is going to result in military action.

The TL:DR version is this: The threat of nuclear war and nuclear annihilation is still rather low, so long as Trump continues to listen to his military advisers (for whom he’s so far shown considerable respect). The situation in North Korea is, yes, delicate. Eventually, someone’s will have to create a more permanent solution so that the people of the DPRK can continue to survive without its administration escalating periodic military threats. But this can happen only when the circumstances align to let it happen. And it’s going to take someone who is willing to be delicate about it and devote a vast amount of time and effort to doing it right. Id est, probably not Trump.

So yes, this talk covers scary matters, but not under dire circumstances. Still, it is a very serious conversation requiring everyone to be grounded and measured about it. Hence: tea with biscuits (or crumpets or shortbread or whatever). I advise tea and biscuits for all very serious conversations. So please get some on hand before proceeding:

As of yesterday (August 9th, 2017), it’s been seventy-two years since a nuclear incident. , and we all really want to keep it that way. In this case all includes brinksmen like Kim Jong-un. Right now we have a standing precedent acknowledged by the international community that the use of a nuke in hostility is unconscionable, potentially even being beyond militant extremist organizations. Certainly, use of a nuke by a given organization would delegitimize the organization, and any cause they held dear by proxy. If North Korea launched a nuke, it’s regime would be forfeit.

And Kim Jong-un knows this.

This precedent weakens once the clock resets. If North Korea were to launch a nuke, then the threat of nuclear war would still be regarded as extreme, a resort of madmen. Some extremists in some radical organizations would still consider it, though and more so than if it hadn’t already been done. No one wants to be the first to drop a nuke, but plenty would be okay with being the second.

If the United States used nuclear weapons, the US would be regarded as a rogue state by the international community. A nuke from the US would also raise the specter of nukes as a legitimate means of warfare. The US would be regarded as a monster, or as led by monsters. But anyone after that would be justified in part by following the US’ lead. It’s ice that no-one wants broken, but once cracked, others will be more willing to tap away at it.

For the moment, it’s conspicuously robust ice. Nuclear weapons have been in the hands of India and Pakistan, who issue control of the weapons to mid-ranking officers (captains) who can often be fanatic in their hatred of the enemy. Still for all the belligerence between India and Pakistan over half a century, not one launch. Not even a rogue attack. The human species as shown considerable restraint with nukes.

North Korea poses itself as a threat to the peace for a living. It’s true. Stuck as a last bastion of the cold war, and trapped in the role as China’s ill-behaved toady, the DPRK is a failed state, but for the periodic aid it gets from China and the United States. Without this stipend, the people would starve. After that, its dissolution is less predictable: The North Korean military might either take control as a unified front. Or it may or faction and feud. The people might riot and revolt. The Kim Jong family would be in great peril, and while despairing, Kim Jong or a high-ranking official might try to launch its nuclear arsenal just to spite the world.

At some point the US and China will have to figure out a way to stabilize the regime for a longer term, either by military action, or guaranteeing aid to the Kim Jong dynasty for the foreseeable future. China’s and the US’ respective administrations have been kicking the can down the line for quite some time, and it’s very tempting to do so again, since alternatives would be long and tedious. But this also reinforces to the DPRK that it must pose itself as a threat in order to be taken seriously and for infusions of aid to continue. This is a pit all three countries have been digging together. And it’s a pit the UN and the larger international community have watched being dug, without a clever idea or a unified commitment to stop it.

This is to say Trump is right that North Korea is extorting the US for aid, and that this is a situation that should be tolerated only for so long. But few believe Trump is the guy to fix it.

Generally, I don’t give Trump the benefit of the doubt: His behavior so far has shown an interest only in short-term personal gain at expense of others and of commons. But if we supposed for a second he could act in enlightened long-term self-interest (and in interest the international community), then yes, restabilizing North Korea would be a rather noble endeavor, and one worthy of a US president. But he’d need a few things in his favor

Cooperation from China. Any military operation by the US in North Korea would incite a response by China to attack. This has been their stance since the Korean war, and hasn’t changed since. And they’d likely interpret any large-scale humanitarian operation as a military one, especially as we’d want to send a considerable force in to protect personnel and resources.

Cooperation from the Kim Jong administration. Typically, we’d offer them a cushy retirement where they live in luxury on the United States’ dime until their natural death. But that is likely to not fly. Part of the problem is our constant changes in administration, and our tendency to elect guys like Trump who don’t want to honor the agreements of prior administrations. We’ve broken such promises before, and US reputation has suffered for it. Even if the US word was good, there’s the matter that some people like kinging it. Political types often prefer to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven. The Kim Jong dynasty might prefer keeping their little fief, even if retirement would provide them a higher standard of living than they already have.

A plan. Essentially, this would be a graduated process to transition North Korea from what it is into something else (e.g. an industrialized democracy). Part of the problem is that China doesn’t want North Korea to be reintegrated with South Korea, and South Korea doesn’t want North Korea to become a province of China. And it would be tricky making a state that would stay independent of the other two. Then there’s the problem that our own peerless President tends to underestimate the magnitude, complexity and tedium of huge projects like this. As things are, Jared Kushner would probably be tasked with creating such a plan, and his to-do list is currently impacted.

The first job of the leader of a nuclear power is to not make threats. Nuclear war is a Mexican standoff, and everyone’s job in such a situation is to not provoke anyone else. If I were to give President Trump the benefit of the doubt — If he’s not trying to start a war to improve ratings, and if he’s not trying to launch nukes for the childlike joy of instigating large ka-booms — I could argue he may have been tapping from his wrestling experience, engaging in trash talk (or smack talk), which is part of the posturing ritual in sports.

War is not a sport.

War is about killing the enemy, which includes any soldiers that the enemy positions before him. The ideal step is to avoid military action entirely. To quote Sun Tzu The best warfare strategy is to attack the enemy’s plans, next is to attack alliances, next is to attack the army, and the worst is to attack a walled city. Laying siege to a city is only done when other options are not available. Nuclear war is grand-scale siege. Nuclear weapons are regarded as strategic weapons or weapons of mass destruction. Even when used on military targets, nukes make a terrible mess, and make for massive casualties.

This is why responsible statesmen do not provoke war, but only resort to military action when all other alternatives are exhausted. Armies are not toys. Armies are not sports teams. Armies do not score goals or earn points or battle over trophies or pennants.

And the world needs to know that the most massive nuclear arsenals are in the hands of cautious, deliberate persons who wouldn’t under any circumstances resort to violence based on whimsy or outrage. The first duty of the President of the United States (when war breaks out or when the US is threatened) is to assure the world this is the case.

The President’s first obligation is to reassure the international community that the US only takes military action, after circumstances have been weighed, after all options have been considered, after diplomacy fails. The President has to assure the world the force necessary to restore order from chaos will be carefully measured out and implemented with precision and restraint. And not one bullet more will be expended.

I won’t give Trump the benefit of doubt regarding his television viewing habits. Still, Trump’s threats to North Korea remind me more of an early episode of The West Wing (S01E02, Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc). The president’s own doctor is shot down in a helicopter while flying over Jordan, and intelligence traces the order to attack the chopper to the Syrian Defense Ministry. The president responds (privately, to his Chief of Staff) I’m going to blow them off the face of the earth with the fury of God’s own thunder. The very next episode (S01E03) is A Proportional Response. President Bartlett has to confront the difference between the military action that, in his outrage, he wants to take against Syria, versus the military response that is appropriate under the circumstances. It’s process that sadly seems absent regarding George W. Bush’s military decisions during his administration in the aughts. The post 9/11 era was a very angry time, and there still seems to be a prevailing belief that personal anger is an acceptable guide to determine the behaviors of a global superpower.


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