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Notebook Politics

Atomic bluff?

U.S. President Donald Trump (Associated Press/Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Foreign Policy

Atomic bluff?

President Trump’s exchange of nuclear war rhetoric with North Korea is a high-risk game

President Donald Trump’s campaign opponents frequently attacked his character. They said he was unstable and prone to anger. They tried to highlight the purportedly dangerous nature of these traits by pointing to the president’s control of our nuclear arsenal. They asked, “Do you trust Trump with the nuclear codes?” Despite misgivings, Americans ultimately shrugged off those concerns and trusted him with the bomb.

The current North Korea crisis makes these once-hypothetical concerns real. When the U.S. president responds to North Korean provocation with the warning that North Koreans face “fire and fury” if they attack us, the world wonders if that “fury” will fuel nuclear fire. When he follows that statement up with tweets about America’s nuclear arsenal, world leaders begin to think that perhaps the president means what he says.

North Korea’s regular nuclear tests and missile launches have, according to our intelligence agencies, indicated a growing capacity to hit the continental United States with a nuclear bomb. Other presidents have responded to similar but less threatening actions with sanctions and diplomacy. Those efforts have clearly not worked. It’s not unreasonable for the president to think that the establishment’s way hasn’t worked, so something different—and more bellicose—is a better way to deal with the erratic regime in Pyongyang.

He might be right. During the Cold War, elite opinion regularly castigated President Ronald Reagan’s more diplomatic, but no less blunt, talk about the Soviet Union. They said he was increasing the threat of nuclear war by rhetorically confronting the Communists, backing that talk up with a military buildup, and showing the willingness to use that might in strikes against Libya and the invasion of Grenada. Time proved the critics wrong and Reagan right.

Indeed, days after Trump’s “fire and fury” comments, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at least temporarily backed off his threat to bomb the U.S. military base in Guam. The problem comes less with Trump’s talk and more with the implication that he has laid down a red line. Words matter when you are president. Bluffing might work when you are negotiating a real estate deal: Giving an adversary a point you said you would never give matters little in the end when all that’s at stake is money. Bluffing with nuclear weapons is another matter.

Suppose North Korea did respond to Trump’s statement by launching nuclear weapons at Guam. Trump has verbally committed America to a response with the potential to kill millions, and perhaps cause millions of deaths among our allies if North Korea held back enough nuclear weapons to use to retaliate against South Korea and Japan. If backing America costs a country millions of lives, many countries will undoubtedly think it safer outside our nuclear umbrella than under it.

Bluffing would lead to another poor result. President Barack Obama’s failure to carry through on his promise to bomb Syria if it used chemical weapons against its rebellious citizens has encouraged our adversaries to test our resolve around the globe. Failure to enforce one red line inevitably encourages nations to find what the real line is. That always leads to war or endless retreat.

I doubt either North Korea or President Trump will launch the bomb this time. I do think, though, that the result of this conflict will shape the tenor of world affairs for the next few years. And that result will be shaped chiefly by the president’s character.


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  • RC
    Posted: Wed, 08/16/2017 10:45 am

    Henry - It is clear you were not around during the cold war. Peace was kept due to the "balance of terror" as the Soviet Union understood perfectly an attack on a NATO member or ally would be considered an attack on the United States and we would respond accordingly and with nuclear weapons - both battlefield tactical and strategic. What President Trump SHOULD  have said is an attack by North Korea on the US, it's territories or Allies would result in the total destruction of North Korea and it's regime by whatever means the United States deems appropiate. Both North Korea and China would understand perfectly the consequences...North Korea is not rational - however China is - and there is where the leverage lies - which obviously has been exerted. The United States and the free world CANNOT allow a renegade nation to threaten and intimidate the World with nuclear weapons. - Think about it......

    Randy Crews - Spokane, Washington

  •  Paul B. Taylor's picture
    Paul B. Taylor
    Posted: Wed, 08/16/2017 05:53 pm

    When I listen to President Trump speak, I hear the voice of a wise and strict father.  He is exactly what America needs when considering the current state of our great nation.  Hopefully, he might inspire all the fathers to make America great again.

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Wed, 08/16/2017 08:10 pm

    Paul, please help me to understand how Trump is "wise," according to how Solomon defines it in Proverbs.

  • Nat Manzanita
    Posted: Wed, 08/16/2017 08:02 pm

    If Kim Jong-un launches a nuclear attack on Guam or any other American target, he will almost certainly launch only one weapon, a relatively low-yield atom bomb. It will likely function imperfectly (weak explosion, inaccurate aim, or even total failure). Even if tens of thousands of Americans die in the attack, the wisest response is not nuclear retaliation. Kim Jong-un will have handed Trump the ultimate diplomatic weapon, the one thing that is certain to shame China into removing the North Korean dictator and allowing Korean reunification. China likely has the power to do this almost bloodlessly, while America can do it only at the cost of millions of lives. But if China did refuse to remove Kim Jong-un in this scenario, America could go to war in Korea with the support of all the rest of the world.

  • Steve SoCal
    Posted: Thu, 08/17/2017 01:34 am

    I'm not sure I've ever heard the terminology of launching a bomb.  I thought bombs were dropped or planted and warheads were launched.

    Also, if North Korea were ever to launch a nuclear bomb (or missile or warhead) at Guam, I can't imagine actually saying it was to "respond to Trump's statement".  They have been working feverishly to have this capacity, and threatening to use it against the United States for years.  The difference now is that they are actually approaching capacity to do so, and they (as well as their neighbors and supporters in China and Russia) must be assured that any such act would sadly mean North Korea's assured destruction... whether or not the President might consider other options.