January 2018

Before I even start into this piece, let me make one thing clear:  I do not accept the premise that Donald Trump is a “stable genius”.  I would not even accept the notion that he is an unstable genius, or any kind of genius, let alone the Machiavellian mastermind that one might infer from what I am about to argue here.  That being said, my appreciation for the niceties of deterrence theory provided by my outstanding undergraduate education at the University of Toronto compels me to take note of some very interesting dynamics that are developing in the world of global politics and to concede that they are without a doubt attributable to the irrationality of President Trump.

We all know the basics of nuclear deterrence theory.  Mutual assured destruction (“MAD”) as recognized between two states with overwhelming first strike capability assures us all that no rational actor would ever initiate nuclear war for fear that retaliatory annihilation would be launched before the initial strike could destroy that capability.  That, many would argue, is what saved the world in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963 and perhaps in many other scenarios of which the broader public has no knowledge.

The application of MAD to the current stand off with North Korea is, however, less clear cut than in the classic Cold War scenario.  Even accepting the most outrageous of Kim Jong-un’s claims with respect to the near term capability of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, it would not be credible to believe that North Korea could muster an overwhelming strike upon the North American territory of the United States.  Nor is it plausible to believe that the intention of the North Koreans in developing this capability is to dissuade the U.S. from a first strike against the North Korean regime.  South Korea is an ally that the U.S. has sworn to protect militarily.   A nuclear strike to wipe out Kim Jong-un’s regime would necessarily result in a devastating death toll in South Korea.  Mutual assured destruction of North Korea and South Korea in the context of a U.S. nuclear strike provide sufficient deterrent without the expense and complication of North Korea acquiring nuclear capability itself.

What nuclear weapons do deter, however, is a conventional targeted strike upon the regime that could conceivably degrade the conventional forces of North Korea to a level that could reduce the potential for retaliatory losses in South Korea to a level that U.S. strategists might find acceptable as a means of otherwise eliminating ongoing risk to their South Korean ally.  Of course, the acceptability of this strategy would be much different if there was any risk of a retaliatory nuclear strike to the continental U.S.  This is undoubtedly the calculus that underlies North Korea’s dogged, open and provocative attempts to develop intercontinental nuclear first strike capability.

As these attempts have accelerated in the last 20 years, successive U.S. administrations have attempted to use the carrot of increased trade and stick of trade sanctions to at best short term success.  Enter The Donald, and his school-yard style threats of “fire and fury like the world has never seen”.  His consistent refrain of “America First” has put both allies and enemies on notice that no interest has any priority approaching that of U.S. national security.  Targeting of U.S. cities will not be tolerated, even if the price of risk mitigation is the destruction of the entire Korean peninsula.

In the last few weeks, the dynamics on the peninsula have shifted dramatically.  The risk of mutual destruction of the two Koreas has become the impetus of new dialogue.  North Korean skaters will join in the PyeongChang Winter Olympcis.  They are even talking about entering a hockey team made up of players from both Koreas.  Both Seoul and Pyongchang, it seems, have realized that their mutual security might better assured by reduced peninsular tensions than from their respective reliance upon and provocation of an inwardly focussed and increasingly unpredictable America.

The Trump Administration has tweeted its way from crisis to crisis, inflicting a seemingly endless amount of collateral damage.  It would be refreshingly ironic and instructive if it manages to fumble its way to at least one collateral repair.