Entry 53: The Clinton Counterfactual

February 26, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 53rd 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 wrote about 900 words this weekend. Not fantastic, but a strong finish to a slow start.

For several hours it felt like I’d lost the narrative. I had this train of momentum that grounded to a halt. I stared at the computer, reading and re-reading the current chapter (the last of three on the Obama era), not knowing where to take it. This seems to happen at some point in every chapter. I have all these chronological building blocks, and I have to figure out which to purge, which to prioritize, and how to stitch them together into a coherent narrative.

Right now the issue is how to introduce what Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy would’ve been and how what we’re seeing from Trump is similar or different. When the book proposal went out for review, more than one reviewer suggested the importance of discussing what might’ve been. But in a narrative sense, it’s weird to transition from the increasingly dire nuke situation of Obama’s final year to what would’ve happened had Hillary won, knowing the chapters that follow will then be about the crisis under Trump.

But it’s a good idea to include Clinton in this. I hadn’t thought of it initially, but the Clinton counterfactual history is important in a number of ways. By the time Trump took office, the situation in Korea was largely predetermined; there weren’t a lot of options to play. Through a series of interviews with Clinton campaign officials, I’ve pieced together what her North Korea policy would’ve looked like—and I found that the substance of it would’ve tracked very closely with Trump’s. Strategic patience v.2.0.

The differences would’ve been in the toned down bellicose rhetoric—which is not a trivial thing—and in the willingness to pivot to a strategy of deterrence and containment much earlier vice holding to total nuclear disarmament at any cost. Team Trump still refuses to budge off of the Quixotic goal of seeking comprehensive denuclearization, and it’s acting like it’s willing to bear any burden to achieve it.

That means it will need to launch a war eventually, or the Trump administration will gradually be forced by circumstances to grudgingly accept a deterrence and containment posture toward North Korea. One of those two things will happen. There’s no third way.


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