Entry 31: Reflecting on Grand Strategy and North Korea

January 25, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 31st installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?


I had a lot swirling today, but still carved out enough time to write just over 700 words. Lots of ankle-biter tasks, as ever, but the big time-suck was investing more fully in building the curriculum for the courses I’m teaching this term (starting in March).

I’m building one of the courses for Victoria University of Wellington, on grand strategy, from scratch. Well, not from scratch exactly. I taught a version of this course several years ago at Catholic University when I was still ABD. But I wasn’t quite happy with how I had the curriculum. It was rushed, and I always promised to do it differently if I got another shot at it.

Just before officially starting this book project, I was at an event in Tokyo hosted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The event was primarily not about North Korea, and one of the policy experts in attendance made the valid point that a war with North Korea would wreck U.S. grand strategy. Wars — even wars of choice — have a way of distorting how you spend political capital, making strategic priorities out of things that aren’t all that important.

If you look at what the Iraq and Afghanistan wars did to U.S. strategy from 2001 all the way until Obama’s rebalance to Asia, this seems very true.

And that’s the surprising compatibility between my teaching and my writing this term. I’m writing a book about the risks of war with North Korea that the Trump administration is deliberately courting at the same time I’m teaching a course on grand strategy. The former is in many ways a lesson for what not to do in the latter.

The book shows how Washington has gradually boxed itself into thinking that war may be the only answer. Parochial. Myopic. Pathological. Anything but strategic. No dispassionate viewing of the situation with North Korea could possibly lead to the conclusion that war makes any kind of sense. If Washington were thoughtful about its interests in Asia, it would neither bluff nor embrace war with Pyongyang.
Whatever its other costs, a war with North Korea is almost guaranteed to permanently cost America its position in Asia, and by extension, any pretension to international leadership.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review.