With all due apologies to Daniel Drezner of Tufts University, that title isn’t exactly what he’s saying in a recent op-ed, but it’s also not that far off. With so much attention being paid to the game of brinkmanship currently unfolding between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, many people are understandably worried about the prospect of a ruinous and possibly nuclear war breaking out. It’s clearly a cause for great concern, but how likely is it really?
Drezner’s take (and he studies this subject extensively) seems to be that we’ve seen this movie before and there’s really not all that much to worry about. It is, in the author’s view, a predictable and repeating pattern which will end with the status quo intact, with the exception of the fact that North Korea will be a permanent member of the nuclear weapons club.
In the interest of pre-empting further queries along these lines, and as a public service to other international relations scholars tasked with talking to family and friends about their day job, here’s my short answer: I think everything will be okay.
Here’s my longer answer: There’s a chance that things could go south very quickly, but that chance is not worth all the perseveration.
He then launches into a summary he published earlier in the year which lays out an eight stage, repeating process. You can click there and read it yourself if you wish, but it begins with North Korea making some provocative move, leading to a series of disapproving statements from other countries, China promising to do something (followed by their basically doing nothing), the United States realizing that we don’t have any good military options and then the whole cycle repeating again.
The author concludes by informing us that this is an unfortunate situation, but one which is not likely to change, and worrying about it is a waste of time.
The current status quo is not great. Changing the status quo is not likely to make the situation any better and very likely to make things worse.
I get the sense that many Americans have such little faith in the Trump administration that they are sure this situation will escalate. But it is worth remembering that Trump has deferred to the military on almost every security issue that has cropped up during his administration. And this is a security issue in which the U.S. military is not eager to escalate.
I suppose I’d like to believe this. And history tends to repeat itself so Drezner may indeed prove to be correct. (And frankly I very much hope he is, at least up until the part where we change the status quo.) There are two factors which make me wonder if this repeating cycle is about to break, however. Number one, we’ve had presidents (yes, including Bush 43) for some time now who were willing to kick this can down the road, as Nikki Haley recently said. Now we have Donald Trump. We’re in a new reality at this point and I simply don’t accept the assumption that he’s going to act the same way as all of his predecessors.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, the aforementioned can-kicking all took place at a time when running the same show over and over produced the same result. We had a North Korea with a crazy dictator who was working on the process of developing terrible weapons. All he could really do for most of that time was talk, or possibly hand out a dirty bomb to somebody. It wasn’t a desirable status quo, but there was still time for someone else to worry about it. That aspect of the game has now changed. Kim is either already done with or is on the verge of finishing the march to having functional ICBMs with hydrogen bombs fitted on the tip. We are, as our U.N. Ambassador said, out of road in the can-kicking department.
The question now, even if Kim doesn’t launch a first strike, is whether or not the United States (along with our allies) can accept a new status quo where Kim has those capabilities going forward. How do you think Donald Trump will answer that question? How should the nation answer it?
Personally, I think the game has actually changed and Drezner’s repeating pattern may no longer hold.