I’m pretty sure they don’t teach this in diplomacy school:
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018
Naturally, this has made the usual suspects terrified that he is about to start a nuclear war with North Korea. For once they might have a point, more so than when they squeal that he’s about to shut down the independent media or let Putin tell him what to do.
But for my part, I’m not worried. A central feature of a nuclear deterrent is a willingness of the owners to use them; if this is in doubt, or it is obvious they won’t, then it is useless. During the Cold War the willingness of the nuclear powers to resort to the use of nuclear weapons in the event of a first strike or a faced with an existential threat was never in doubt. In fact, the lines were so clear that the US and USSR could fight proxy wars with one another, safe in the knowledge a nuclear confrontation would be avoided. This meant both sides having to pretend there were no Russian pilots flying MiGs in the Korean and Vietnam wars, but it was a workable deception. The credible threat of massive retaliation was the basis of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).
Since the Cold War, things have got a bit murkier. MAD only works if both sides have an interest in self-preservation; if one party is a suicidal lunatic, it doesn’t work. But whereas foreign policy experts point to countries like North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran as being the suicidal maniacs rendering MAD-doctrines unworkable, what nobody wants to talk about is the other side of the coin: piss-weak leadership in the West.
If London was on the receiving end of a nuclear attack during Obama’s presidency, does anyone believe he would have unequivocally supported Britain’s right to retaliate in kind and honoured his country’s Nato commitments to joining in? I have no confidence he would whatsoever, and I’d not be surprised if his first reaction was to tell Britain to suck it up and not do anything other than reflect on why it was targeted in the first place. This is idle speculation of course, but we can also look at Obama’s foreign policy record in office. Most damning of all was his infamous “red lines” remark about Syria’s use of chemical weapons. The worst part about it wasn’t that he failed to act when Syria did use them, it was that the threat was so damned vague. A whole bunch of chemical weapons? As Streetwise Professor said:
“A whole bunch of chemical weapons”? ”A whole bunch”? Really? WTF constitutes “a whole bunch”? Is he saying to Assad that he can move around and use a few chemical weapons, as long as he doesn’t cross the “whole bunch” line? Wherever that is.
If you’re going to make threats, you need to be sure your enemy knows exactly what actions will cause you to trigger your retaliation. Speaking in such vague terms as Obama did only served to muddy the waters between what is acceptable and what is not.
The other thing Obama and Kerry used to do, which I found infuriating, was to react to major foreign policy events by telling their enemies what they weren’t going to do. Shortly after Russia annexed Crimea and attacked eastern Ukraine, Obama fell over himself to rule out military force in response. Now this was in itself very sensible – America doesn’t want to go to war over Ukraine – but why tell Russia that? The US is not obliged to share its military strategies with Russia, so why tell Putin he has a free hand? What made this so dangerous was it severely increased the risk of a miscalculation, whereby Putin – unsure of where the line was – might have accidentally stepped over it forcing the US to respond in a way neither side wanted. For example, by attacking Estonia. Or, now you come to mention it, shooting down a passenger jet operated by Malaysia Airlines. Obama also ruled out military intervention in Syria as well, giving Assad the confidence to go for broke. In my opinion, this behaviour from Obama was one of his major failings, and made the world very much less safe for everybody.
I suspect the Kims looked at Obama and saw a man whose response to their waving a nuclear bomb about was weak, and understandably supposed he might be equally spineless if the bomb actually got used. This embolden Kim Jong Un, who until recently had been unsure of what he can get away with so kept pushing the boundaries. Trump is now telling him, albeit using a very inappropriate medium, that he and his nation will be annihilated if he launches a nuclear attack – confirming something which has probably been US doctrine since rumours first surfaced that North Korea had nuclear technology. Unless Trump is bluffing and is ignoring the imploring advice of his military planners (which I doubt) his words will have the effect of making a miscalculation on the part of Kim Jong Un less likely. His detractors won’t see it this way, but after Obama’s flip-flopping and prevaricating, Trump is injecting some much-needed clarity into the situation. Everyone knows the Russians and the Chinese would not tolerate a nuclear attack on their interests and allies; Trump is merely restating that the same is true for the US. Personally, I think this makes the world a touch safer than it was.