Will Trump's Bold Threats Help Deter North Korea?

Photo by Thierry Ehrmann. CC (2013) license. Trimmed by author.
Deterrence famously requires threats of punitive action if an adversary carries out an unwanted action—like using a nuclear weapon. That is only half the story, however.

US President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un have been trading a rising number of insults and threats lately. Just about everyone knows that deterrence involves issuing threats to prevent an adversary from doing something we don't want them to do, so is this just standard tough talk to bolster deterrence? Unfortunately, threats are only one half of the deterrence equation and, without the second half, the equation will not add up and deterrence will fail. The result would be hundreds of thousands of deaths—and perhaps a nuclear holocaust.

Deterrence relies on two things: credibility and stability. If my adversary does not believe my threats, he will not be deterred by them. There are several ways to bolster credibility. One key element is the perceived ability to carry out the threat. If Luxembourg threatened to invade China, the result would not be fear and respect, but laughter, no matter how sincere the threat. Assuming the ability is there, there are a few things that can make threats more credible. One way is to make them in public: Backing down from a threat after making it in public is embarrassing, so such threats are more credible. Another way is to appear obsessed or even crazy. Because carrying out threats in international relations often involves self-harm (sending troops to die, spending money, etc.), an apparent disregard for the consequences can help matters. America has the ability and one could argue that Trump has to sound extra belligerent after President Obama was seen to back down on threats he had made about Syrian chemical weapons.

If the threat of action lies on one side of the deterrence coin, a promise of inaction lies on the other. Even if we were to accept that Trump's bluster is political calculation, this would still leave the problem of stability, which such bold threats can undermine. If I threaten to harm my adversary regardless of what he does or if my adversary believes I am so crazy or unpredictable that he cannot be sure I won't attack him even if he doesn't attack me, his incentive to be deterred is reduced. You may as well land the first blow if you believe your opponent will hit you no matter what. It is also possible to ratchet up threats so much that domestic audiences come to expect, and perhaps demand, that one or both sides follow through with the actions they are proposing. This is why bellicose talk can be dangerous.

So are Trump's remarks helping or hurting deterrence? In each case, this depends on whether credibility or stability is a greater problem. As noted, there are some grounds for doubting US credibility, so it could use some shoring up. Historically, however, leaders have tended to worry too much about credibility and not enough about stability. My own research into Israel's attempts to deter Hamas has shown that stability was an issue at least as often as credibility was. Research into the Cold War has also found that the Soviets understood US thinking quite well and believed US threats regarding Berlin, for example. The Cuban Missile Crisis came about not because the US was too dovish, but because its rhetoric and actions made Castro feel unsafe to the point that Khrushchev finally agreed to send him nuclear missiles.

Kim Jong-Un believes only usable nuclear weapons can deter an American attack on his regime. Tough talk only solidifies this belief. It makes it even less likely that Kim will abandon his nuclear program—but it also raises the risk that miscalculation and hyper-charged rhetoric will ignite a crisis in which nuclear weapons are used. Even if nukes are not deployed, North Korea has enough conventional weapons aimed at its South Korean neighbor to kill hundreds of thousands. This is a situation that calls for easing, rather than ratcheting up, tensions. Would that our president understood this.


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