Entry 85: On Bloody Noses and Commitment Traps

Editor’s Note: This is the 85th 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?

776 words today.  That’s good, though at this point I’m so anxious to put this book to bed that no amount of words is ever enough.  What I wouldn’t give for the glorious white space of January.

In the past three days I’ve had seven media interview requests about Trump’s decision to launch strikes against Syria.  I indulged three of them.  There is an important North Korea angle.  As I told the Japan Times, Kim Jong Un sees the strikes and can only conclude that nukes are the only thing that separates him from Gadhafi, Hussein, and Assad.

But beyond North Korea, there’s a deterrence lesson in the Syria strikes that equally applies to the fraught notion of giving North Korea (or anyone with nukes) a “bloody nose.”  In April 2017, the United States launched 59 cruise missiles to punish Assad for his repeated use of chemical weapons.  Those strikes sent a message.  Then at some point in the past few months Assad started using chemical weapons again.  Trump decided to launch another salvo of strikes in response, but history and adversary perceptions were altered because of the prior attack.

The April 2017 strikes established a precedent of the United States showing resolve and defending the taboo against chem use by using 59 missiles.  Using fewer than that would surely send the signal that the United States isn’t as serious about punishment as it once was; its resolve has waned.  So this weekend we launched 105 missiles.  Because clearly Assad didn’t think 59 was enough.  And if after launching 105 missiles, Assad uses chem again 6 months from now, we’re going to…launch 200 missiles?  Invade?  You see where this is going.

The lesson, then, is that the use of force for the sake of deterrence creates “commitment traps.”  Using a particular level of force to communicate resolve locks in expectations of at least that much force in the future.  Put another way, the power of punishing actions wears off over time, so if the reason you’re issuing punishment is an enduring commitment, you’re going to have to keep upping the ante, and that’s gonna be costly to you.  It’s a rationale that quickly leads to endlessly ratcheting requirements of deterrence.  Isolated acts of force almost never end up being isolated in the end.

We saw something similar with the deployment of B-52s and other nuclear-capable assets to South Korea starting in 2013.  What started out as once or twice a year deployments became twice per month deployments by 2017.  Why?  It was the same motivation the entire time—reassuring South Korea of the U.S. extended deterrence commitment.  You have to kick your legs harder and harder over time just to continue treading water.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review. He is also a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies.