Toward A More Thoughtful Nuclear Diplomacy: An American Strategic Imperative

“Hope is by nature an expensive commodity, and those who are risking their all on one cast find out what it means only when they are already ruined.” -Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War (416 BCE)

Hope is never a viable foreign policy. For the United States and its pertinent allies – when all falsely-comforting optics have been seriously set aside – it will become plain that Kim Jung Un never have had any genuine intentions to “denuclearize.” Accordingly, those earlier expectations spawned by the White House that Pyongyang might somehow destroy its nuclear weapons and infrastructures (aka “complete denuclearization”) will  be finally discarded.

Nonetheless, for US President Donald Trump, this immutable obligation will come as an unpleasant surprise. He had expressly assumed, after all, that the two adversarial leaders “fell in love” upon joining hands in Singapore, and that his relevant international statecraft could be extrapolated directly from the narrowly commercial worlds of real estate bargaining and casino gambling. At that foreseeable stage of diplomatic negotiations, Mr. Trump will have no choice but to “live with” a nuclear North Korea, and the United States will have no choice but to focus on more tangibly meaningful goals.

Most important of all such goals will be the creation of a durable and mutually gainful deterrence regime with Pyongyang.[1]

Because these two already-nuclear adversaries will be starkly asymmetrical in nuclear military terms (that is, in regard to their respective nuclear assets and capabilities), Washington will require a different strategic posture from what successfully obtained during the Cold War era.[2] Back then, seeking a secure war-avoidance regime between roughly symmetrical superpowers – the US and USSR – the accepted security stance was termed “mutual assured destruction” or “MAD.” That once stable stance, however, could never be appropriate today between the US and North Korea.

For just one notable difference, it would not be safe for an American president to assume the long-term decision-making rationality of his counterpart in Pyongyang. Reciprocally, and perhaps even reasonably, Kim Jung Un might not feel much better about assuming Donald Trump’s verifiable and durable reliability. The ensuing uncertainties in Washington and Pyongyang could at some point give rise to more-or-less irresistible incentives to preempt, either by one side or the other.

As so little can ever be predicted about literally unprecedented interactions, these incentives could become authentically “synergistic.” Here, the “whole” of any particular crisis outcome would be cumulatively more damaging than the “mere” additive sum of its recognizable “parts.” In all such sui generis kinds of crisis interaction, the only truly predictable element would be the outcome’s total unpredictability. It follows, inter alia, that both Donald Trump and Kim Jung Un ought to be modest about their prospective control over nuclear events, that is, extremely modest. To be sure, this would not be a convenient time or occasion for any exaggerated national expressions of  pride, arrogance or immodesty.[3]

Not at all.

Knowing all this, how should the American president best proceed? To begin, meeting new and necessary strategic objectives by the United States should no longer center on fine-tuning “marketing” decisions made at Trump White House. Going forward, the critical US security task will necessarily go considerably beyond narrowly childish presidential assessments. Now, it should involve variously multi-layered, and many-sided intellectual challenges.[4]

 Not by any means will this daunting task be manageable by those who would substitute “hope” for analysis.

In essence, success will never lend itself to proper resolution by an American president who remains mired in superficial elements of bargaining, one irremediably intoxicated with showcasing his confused diplomatic priorities of “attitude” over “preparation.”

Going forward, among other things, the United States will need to present itself credibly to North Korea as willing and able to inflict unacceptably damaging retaliations in response to absolutely any conceivable levels of nuclear aggression. Although, earlier, President Trump’s visceral position vis-à-vis Pyongyang had been to threaten Kim Jung Un with “fire and fury” or “total destruction,” this was plainly not a sensible approach to achieving and sustaining long-term nuclear deterrence. However counterintuitive, Mr. Trump ought quickly understand, the credibility of US nuclear deterrent threats could vary inversely with the extent of enemy-threatened destruction.

If the perceived costs or “disutility” of American retaliatory destruction were blatantly disproportionate to the initial aggression, US deterrence could become correspondingly less persuasive.

This unfavorable outcome would obtain whether the American threats were issued sotto voce, or loudly, brashly and unambiguously.

 In any strict scientific assessments of pertinent probabilities, such vital security requirements would represent uncharted waters; there could exist no fully reliable ways of determining what specific US deterrent threats were suitable or optimal. Still, it stands to reason that calibrating American retaliatory threats to the particular level of expected North Korean harms would generally offer a more prudent and promising strategy than simply posturing with various spasmodic, intermittent and across-the-board “MAD-style” threats of “total destruction.”

In this connection, it could sometimes be wiser to signal Pyongyang of Washington’s readiness to wage a “limited nuclear war,” at least in certain specific conflict scenarios.[5]

Largely, this is because of the obviously asymmetrical nuclear capacities between these two prospective enemy states and because Washington must always seek to minimize the chances of any consequential misperceptions or strategic misunderstandings by Pyongyang.

 Trump will also need to avoid exaggerating the strategic benefits of “personal attitude” in crisis-related diplomacy, and to proceed with a conscientiously fashioned analytic template. This would be a posture that could account for both the rationality and intentionality of enemy decision-makers in Pyongyang. In essence, Washington should soon approach the growing North Korean nuclear threat from a more disciplined conceptual perspective. This means factoring into any coherent US nuclear threat assessment (a) the expected rationality or irrationality of all principal decision-makers in Pyongyang; and (b) the foreseeable intentional or unintentional intra-crisis behaviors of these same adversarial decision-makers.

“Theory is a net,” quotes (from the German poet, Novalis) the philosopher of science, Karl Popper,[6] and “only those who cast, can catch.” In all such bewilderingly complex strategic matters, nothing can prove to be more practical than good theory. Always, in science, explanatory generality is the key to specific meanings and predictions. Having readily at hand such comprehensive policy clarifications could help guide US President Donald Trump usefully beyond otherwise vague or simply impromptu appraisals. 

Under no circumstances, this president must be reminded, should such multi-sided crisis possibilities be assessed (implicitly or explicitly) as singular or ad hoc phenomena.

There is more. Going forward, capable American strategic analysts guiding the president should enhance their newly-planned nuclear investigations by first identifying the basic distinctions between (a) intentional or deliberate nuclear war, and (b) unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war. The derivative risks resulting from these (at least) four different types of possible nuclear conflict are apt to vary considerably. Those American analysts who might remain too completely focused exclusively upon a deliberate nuclear war scenario could too-casually underestimate an even more salient nuclear threat to the United States.

This is the increasingly plausible threat of unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war.

One additional conceptual distinction must now be mentioned and inserted into any US analytic scenario “mix.” This is the subtle but still serious difference between an inadvertent nuclear war and an accidental nuclear war. To wit, any accidental nuclear war would have to be inadvertent; conversely, however, there could be certain determinable forms of inadvertent nuclear war that would not necessarily be accidental.

Most critical in this connection are various significant errors in calculation committed by one or both sides – that is, more-or-less reciprocal mistakes that could lead directly and inexorably to a genuine nuclear conflict. Here, the most blatant example would concern assorted misjudgments of enemy intent or capacity that might somehow emerge during the course of any one crisis escalation. Such misjudgments would likely stem from an expectedly mutual search for strategic advantage occurring sometime during a competition in nuclear risk-taking.

 In more expressly strategic parlance, this would suggest a more-or-less  traditional search for “escalation dominance” in extremis atomicum.

 There would then also need to be various related judgments concerning expectations of rationality and irrationality within each affected country’s core decision-making structure. One potential source of unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war could be a failed strategy of “pretended irrationality.” A posturing American president who had too “successfully” convinced enemy counterparts of his own irrationality could thereby spark an otherwise-avoidable enemy preemption.

“Played” in the other direction, an American president who had begun to take very seriously Kim Jung Un’s presumed unpredictability could sometime be frightened into striking first himself. In this alternate case, Washington would become the preempting party that might then claim legality for its allegedly defensive first-strike. In any such “dicey” circumstances, those US strategists charged with fashioning an optimal strategic posture would do well to recall Carl von Clausewitz’s oft-quoted warning (in On War) concerning “friction.”

This “Clausewitzian” property represents the unerringly vital difference between “war on paper” and “war as it actually is.” It’s not a distinction readily determinable by any presidential “attitude.”

It is also possible, amid such chess-like strategic dialectics, that the first “game” might end not with an enemy preemption, but instead with Washington deciding to “preempt the preemption.” Here, US president Trump, sensing the too-great “success” of his own pretended irrationality, might quickly foresee Kim’s consequent insecurity, and then (maybe even quite rationally) decide to “strike first before the enemy strikes first.”

If this game were played in the other direction, it might sometime end not with a US preemption generated by compelling fears of enemy irrationality, but rather with an enemy first-strike intended to preempt a then-anticipated American preemption. In any event, implementing long-term successful nuclear deterrence between Washington and Pyongyang would be in the best interests of both parties. US President Donald Trump now has a distinct opportunity to make calculable progress on the North Korean nuclear problem, but only if he can finally get beyond the patently futile hope of eliciting enemy “denuclearization.”

It follows, plainly and incontestably, that the best use for American nuclear weapons in any ongoing US-North Korea negotiation will be as elements of dissuasion or persuasion, and not as actual weapons of war. In this regard, the key underlying principle goes back even before the advent of any nuclear weapons. Remembering the ancient Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu in his On War (Chapter 3, “Planning Offensives”): “Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.”

For Donald Trump, there can be no more timely or primary principle of diplomacy with Kim Jung Un. Recalling also ancient Greek historian Thucydides, a US presidential knowledge of history ought soon obtain more conspicuous pride of place. Apropos of such an always vital knowledge, basing US national security policies upon vague “hopes” would quickly become a too-grievously “expensive commodity.”

[1] It goes without saying that the benefits of such creation would likely “spill over” into the wider world of strategic planning and and diplomacy, thereby reducing the risks of certain types of war in other parts of the globe. For example, one plausible effect would be a corollary reduction of nuclear risk between Israel and its various enemies in the Middle East. See, by this author, Louis René Beres,

[2] Nonetheless, we are  presently living in a diplomatic world that could accurately be termed “Cold War II.” This second Cold War will inevitably provide the broad structural context for whatever actually transpires between the United States and North Korea. On this particular context, by this author, see:  Louis René Beres,

[3] This calls to mind, of course, what the ancient Greek philosophers and playwrights called “hubris.”

[4] One of these increasingly serious challenges will be the prospect of certain third-party hacking interventions, that is, intrusions by another state or sub-state actor (terrorist organization) intended to “catalyze” a nuclear war between the United States and North Korea. Indeed, in some conceivable scenarios, the pertinent hacking aggressor could even be a pure “mercenary” hired by a state and/or terrorist group.

[5] Several of the author’s early books deal very specifically with aspects of a limited nuclear war scenario. See, for example, Louis René Beres, The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis (1973); Louis René Beres, Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (1979); Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (1983); and Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (1986).

[6] See Popper’s classic, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959).

Prof. Louis René Beres
Prof. Louis René Beres
LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.