President Donald Trump gave his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday, which was notable for the amount of bluster it contained. Now, blustering is a time-honored tradition at the U.N., but it is usually reserved for heads of state from countries that are insecure in their standing in the world and led by charismatic totalitarians. Think Hugo Chavez or Fidel Castro in his prime.
So it was pretty unusual to hear such a speech from an American president, who at one point threatened to obliterate another country from the map. Bluster has long been a cornerstone of Trump’s foreign policy (such as it is) ― a deep-seated belief that talking tough with lots of swagger will cause all foreign countries to see the error of their ways and thus do exactly what the United States (or Trump) wishes them to do. It hasn’t been working in any noticeable way yet, but that didn’t stop Trump from giving it another try yesterday on the world stage.
At the core of Trump’s speech was the concept of sovereignty. “America First” for America, in other words, and all other countries first for their people, too. But sovereignty has always meant something different when applied by American politicians to America than when it is applied to the rest of the world (from America’s point of view). Sovereignty for us means we get to do anything we want, and ― of course ― the rest of the civilized world should support us in these efforts. Sovereignty for other countries is always conditioned on whether they do things we approve of, or not.
Since this sounds a bit cynical, let’s try a quick thought experiment. Did America ask anyone’s permission to develop nuclear weapons? Do we now think we have some sort of veto power over other nations developing their own nuclear weapons? Why should our sovereign right to do so be any different from any other country’s sovereign right to do so? That is real sovereignty, of the type that America does not want to see in places like Iran or North Korea. To put it another way, if Trump really believes in nationalism worldwide, then why shouldn’t Kim Jong Un be strongly for the concept of “North Korea First”?
Trump is left with nothing but bluster on North Korea, because we really have no viable military options short of nuclear annihilation. The tradeoff of such annihilation would be staggering, because it would likely mean turning North Korea into a radioactive wasteland ― but only at the price of accepting the same fate for Seoul, as well as for probably at least one Japanese city (or perhaps Guam). That is an unbelievably high price for both sides to pay ― ours included. But at least it would be a clear-cut outcome. With a massive nuclear exchange at one end of the scale, and doing nothing at the other, there really isn’t a whole lot in between that is even imaginable.
North Korea will likely go right ahead with its missile tests and nuclear tests, because there simply isn’t a whole lot we can do about it without the risk of triggering a nuclear showdown. Militarily, we could try to bomb the North Korean nuclear facilities, but they’re all far underground, so this may work but it also may fail. How sure are we that we know precisely where all the North Korean facilities are, after all? We may bomb their labs and testing facilities out of commission, but what about the bombs they’ve already produced? Are we sure we know where all of them are being stored? Because if Kim Jong Un has moved them elsewhere, he will be more than tempted to use them after such a massive bombing raid. Such a raid, whether successful or not, would be an act of pre-emptive war on our part. North Korea would claim it is only defending itself from American aggression, which would be true.
As for North Korea’s missile tests, there is one military option the United States has, but it isn’t a particularly good one. We could try to shoot one of the missiles down. But we’d be using a system that has never faced a real-world test, and one that has a rather sketchy record even in the controlled tests it has undergone during development. What this means is that it might not work. Which should give the generals pause before trying it out. What would it mean, diplomatically, if we attempted to shoot down a North Korean missile test and failed? It would show all our saber-rattling about our anti-missile system was nothing short of bluster, which would be a huge international embarrassment.
Even if it succeeded, shooting down another country’s military test missile is an act of war, plain and simple. We would argue that North Korea was actually the aggressor, but they’d be arguing the exact opposite. No matter who wins this battle of words, it might be immaterial because real battles might have already erupted.
Even if you take nukes completely off the table, for whatever reason (our bombing raid succeeds in wiping out North Korea’s stockpile, or Kim Jong Un refuses to use them, or whatever), the so-called “limited war” option would be almost as horrific. Anyone who doubts this has obviously not been watching the new Ken Burns PBS series on Vietnam. Limited war is all that was fought for almost the entirety of World War II, and it was no picnic. Vietnam was an absolute meat grinder as well.
The Korean War has never technically ended, so there would be no long period of ramping-up, as there was in Vietnam. It would begin anew with an absolute fury, and both sides would immediately throw all their military might into the battle. Hundreds of thousands would die, most likely within the opening phase of such a resumption of the war. Seoul would get shelled, not by nuclear weapons but with thousands of conventional artillery pieces that are not only already aimed at them but dug in and fortified against counterstrikes. This could happen within mere hours of a provocative act (like America shooting down a North Korean missile test, for instance). And all the bluster in the world wouldn’t make one bit of difference, at that point.
There is probably nothing we can do diplomatically to stop North Korea from reaching the end of the nuclear road, where it has both the weapons design and the delivery means to strike American cities. The only option we’ll have left is containment, which worked pretty well against countries like the Soviet Union and China. Short of us pre-emptively nuking North Korea, we should start getting used to the idea of Kim Jong Un being a full member of the nuclear club.
Looking at it from his point of view, Kim Jong Un has taken the lesson of the old “Axis Of Evil” American policy. Of the three countries included, one did not have nuclear weapons and was invaded and its leader deposed. One was working towards acquiring nuclear weapons and struck a deal with the world not to do so ― a deal that Trump is now threatening to pull out of, even though Iran has not broken it. A further country outside the Axis Of Evil ― Libya ― actually gave up its nuclear weapons program years ago, and its leader was also deposed and brutally killed, with our help. Given those examples, why would Kim Jong Un even consider bartering away his biggest military accomplishment? Any agreement reached with America obviously wouldn’t be worth the paper it was printed on, if we’re going to pull out of the Iranian deal. And countries with no nukes are always at danger of being invaded or their leaders overthrown with American help. Once North Korea perfects its I.C.B.M.s, it can bargain as an equal with America ― something those other countries couldn’t do. That’s the way Kim Jong Un sees things, and that’s why nothing we can offer at the diplomatic table is going to change his mind.
All we’ve really got left is bluster, to put this in plain terms. No diplomatic solution is going to be possible before North Korea reaches the end of their nuclear development program. The military solutions open to us would all ― whether they were successful or not ― likely trigger a resumption of hostilities on the Korean peninsula. Even if this remained a conventional (non-nuclear) war, the price would be unbelievably high for the people of South Korea. So it’s not realistic for the rest of the world to believe that America is willing to provoke such a conflict. Donald Trump is correct that if a nuclear war happened in Korea (one, assumably, that began with North Korea dropping the first nuke), America would turn it into a radioactive wasteland. We certainly have that ability, and if Seoul disappeared under a mushroom cloud one day, we would almost certainly use that ability to the fullest.
But threatening to do so absent a first-strike by Kim Jong Un is also pretty unbelievable. We’re not going to rain down nuclear fire upon North Korea just because they aren’t doing what we want them to do (or, more accurately, are doing things we disapprove of). I doubt that even if Trump gave the order to do so that it would be carried out, because the generals know full well that a pre-emptive nuclear attack by America would be condemned by foe and ally alike for the rest of time.
So Trump can bluster all he likes, but it is ultimately as meaningless as a Fidel Castro speech in the end. Our options are severely limited, none of them are particularly good, and no amount of bluster is going to change those basic facts.
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com.
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant.