war on the rocks

Entry 7: Post-Beach Breakthrough in a Time of Nuclear Danger

December 22, 2017

Beach vacation over. At least it’s only ever a short drive away. I went back to my office early this morning and discovered that the entire university was shut down for the Christmas season. I couldn’t even get coffee! So I walked down the world’s steepest hill to write at a coffee shop in downtown Wellington (which, thankfully, is close enough to Victoria University).

As I expected last night, I kicked ass today, writing just over 1,600 words — good words. The best words, lol. But seriously, when I get fire in the belly, I’m capable of treating writing like fighting. Anger brings focus.

It feels bizarrely fateful to be reading news headlines about the Trump administration, and many of its think tank surrogates, literally saying and doing everything you should not do if your goal is to avoid a nuclear war. Of course, avoiding nuclear war isn’t really the administration’s top priority, is it? As National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster just said when asked if he was committed to a peaceful solution to the nuclear crisis, he refused to say yes, saying instead, “We’re not committed to a…we’re committed to a solution.” The policy community has not woken up to the reality that we have a new set of strategic priorities in Korea, and that chief among them is avoiding inadvertent nuclear war. This was already a problem in the latter part of the Obama era, but Trump’s team has made an art form of bad decisions in Korea.

The belief that you can proactively give North Korea a “bloody nose” and expect not to start a war to end all wars is wrong. The dominant pattern of North Korea’s own history has been to respond to pressure with pressure. It believes it needs to go on the offensive in order to deter a U.S. invasion (it believed that long before the Trump administration decided to confirm that bias), and it also believes the inverse — that sitting with arms crossed while an adversary pushes you around will bring on war if you don’t push back. This is the same logic that gangs use, or drug cartels, imputing big future consequences to small present-day actions.

The practical importance of this is that receiving an unprovoked “bloody nose” equals war to the North Koreans. That’s crazy to us, but it bears out repeatedly in their word and deed; I’ve written about this extensively elsewhere and am simply repackaging it in Chapter 3. And if war is inevitable, it might as well be on their terms, which means going first. That’s how war begins, and it’s all because Washington is not sizing up its enemy accurately.

Writing about all this at such a precarious time is catharsis. At least today.

 

Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks.

Image: Air Force