There is no more sacred cow in American foreign policy, and none more in need of examination, than the notion of credibility. It lies behind Mr. Trump’s vague rationale for continuing endless war in Afghanistan—his military advisors presumably believe that too precipitous abandonment of the failures of our campaign there would punch a hole in our international credibility, let alone rendering empty and absurd our past sacrifices. Nixon and Johnson got caught in the same credibility trap in Vietnam.
Turning to North Korea, where the credibility stakes appear to be even higher, perhaps world-ending higher, Kim Jung Un and Mr. Trump are engaged in a risky game of nuclear brinkmanship, even though it seems unlikely that North Korea would risk attacking the U.S., either with conventional or with nuclear weapons.
But even if someone more sophisticated and seasoned occupied the White House, the provocations of North Korea cry out for redefinition. With nuclear weapons, we humans have created a monster that rhetorical escalation cannot control: a game of chicken with nukes is a game without winners.
Nuclear conflicts between rivals intent upon maintaining their credibility will not potentially, but inevitably, lead to apocalypse. Since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 the tail of credibility has wagged the dog of security policy. The weapons themselves, proxies for our anger, fear, and desire to dominate or at least survive, have themselves become the drivers of the process and we humans have become their subservient agents. Within this paradigm, the leaders of nuclear nations are helpless to choose any other alternative even if they realize the relationship between credibility and self-destruction. This explains the inconsistency between the way government officials talk about the issue while in office and the entirely different way they often talk after they retire. Only after stepping down as Secretary of State was Henry Kissinger able to advocate openly for the abolition of nuclear weapons. On his way out the door, Steve Bannon admitted there was no military option on the Korean peninsula.
Unless we completely rethink what all nine nuclear powers are asking these weapons to do, namely deter by terror and thus provide an illusion of security, the planet will be in this place over and over, perhaps with other nuclear powers in other looming situations of international tension like the Ukraine or Crimea, or the border tensions between India and Pakistan, or in situations still unforeseen—as the futile game of “we build/they build” continues with no good outcome.
The paradigm shift that is required to prevent the looming end of the world is just as large and difficult as the 16th Century realization that the sun and not the earth is the center of our solar system. But the majority of the world’s nations have already made the shift from regarding nuclear weapons as the best guarantor of security to seeing them as the biggest potential agent of their destruction—we saw this when 122 nations signed a U.N. treaty calling for the outlawing of all nuclear weapons. The United States boycotted the conference leading to this treaty even while it has a crucial interest (and for that matter an ongoing obligation as a signatory to the 1970 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty) in leading the charge away from security by nuclear credibility.
Our leaders must take the risk, a risk that will require enormous moral courage, of saying we cannot afford to continue in our present drift. Instead, we need to respond to the posturing of North Korea not only with sanctions, but also with measured gestures of good will that could include such initiatives as committing firmly and explicitly to no first use, unilaterally reducing the number of warheads in one leg of the nuclear triad (land-based missiles is what former Secretary of Defense Perry recommends as ripe for reduction or even elimination with no loss of security), elimination of provocative war game exercises around North Korea, and, best of all, calling an ongoing international conference on abolition and supporting, rather than boycotting, that recent historic agreement to prohibit and abolish nukes signed by the majority of the 193 nations in the UN.
The choice is stark. In the credibility paradigm, no word coming out of an official’s mouth can be inconsistent with one nation’s total willingness to annihilate millions of people just as human as themselves. The challenge is educational: to change from a mind-set that worries about capitulation to other countries, to a mind-set that capitulates to reality: unless we all begin to wake up and paddle together toward the shore, our small planet could go over the waterfall that awaits us somewhere downstream. The U.S. must admit that credibility is obsolete, rather than propping it up with threats that raise tensions and could lead to fatal misinterpretations.
It is not for nothing that the great religious sages often evoked a different way of thinking beyond drawing lines in the sand—a way of thinking that asserts we all are subject at times to fears that push us into hardened positions. Many of us allege, rightly or wrongly, that we live in a Christian nation. But how much service do we give to these foundational critiques of rigid side-taking: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.” “Forgive 70 times 7.” These ancient teachings contain a startling new relevance: on a spherical planet vulnerable to nuclear disaster, we are all on the same side.
Common Sense and North Korea
The phrase “common sense” implies practical and prudent good judgment, with a further implication that the obviousness of common sense is “common” because it is shared by many or even all. For example, 122 nations just signed a Treaty on Nuclear Prohibition, confirming a majority planetary common sense that these weapons have become dangerously obsolete as a foundation for international security.
North Korea and the United States do not appear to share much of a common sense about anything with each other. Evan Osnos of the New Yorker has written a concise and intelligent summation of our mutual bewilderment and paranoia that should be required reading for the U.S. military-diplomatic-political leadership.
Given that the Korean War was never genuinely resolved so long ago, substantive reasons for conflict remain. But the destruction of both Koreas by further war would be all the more tragic and absurd if it happened less from misguided attempts at resolution by military means than from the present complete lack of communication, a lack that includes ignorance and puzzlement in North Korea about U.S. politics, historical amnesia in the U.S. (“the forgotten war”), and destabilizing brinksmanship bluster on both sides.
It is no harder to grasp the historical causes of North Korea’s paranoia than it is to understand our own fears: Korea was invaded and brutally colonized by the Japanese from 1910 to 1945.
At the end of World War II, the victorious Americans and Soviets divided the country into two separate zones of occupation. No agreement ever ensued as to where the capital of a unified Korea should be. When the North attacked the South in 1950 in a forced attempt at reunification, the Americans came in one side and the Chinese on the other.
Military stalemate followed three years of a war that included the deaths of a million Chinese soldiers, more than 400,000 North Korean soldiers and 600,000 civilians, and almost 100,000 Americans. Our air force bombed and napalmed the North until there was no intact target left, a shattering level of devastation not forgotten by North Koreans to this day. The aim of the North ever since has been to avoid a repeat of such helplessness, and the major means of avoidance became the acquisition of a credible nuclear deterrent—ironically ensuring that war in Korea today would be far worse than in 1950.
Meanwhile, in order to protect its ally below the 38th parallel from invasion, the United States surrounds North Korea with ships, flies along its airspace with bombers, and conducts military exercises that are seen by the North as highly provocative—just as the U.S. would see red if similar massive shows of force were conducted so close to our own coasts and up and down the edges of our own airspace.
The philosophy of nuclear deterrence pursued by both sides is all about credible threats, which drown common sense in an ocean of anxiety. The philosophers call this a performative contradiction: the weapons are there to prevent their use by anybody, but the threat of their being used must be seen by all as real, which means they must be instantly at the ready, which cuts the margin for error in crisis, which can lead to mistakes etc. etc. When will the experts see how there is no good way out of this death spiral waiting to happen?
Additionally, credibility requires not only that threats be credible to one adversary, but intended as a warning to all. This was the catastrophe of Vietnam in a nutshell, where the U.S. could not afford to be perceived by the Soviets as weak, so it fought, and lost, a futile proxy war.
Therefore the ultimate resolution of the North Korean challenge must include a total shift in paradigm on the part of the U.S. away from the credibility of deterrence to the credibility of gestures of good will, such as a solemn pledge of no first use, in all potentially nuclear conflicts around the globe. The United States must cease to obstruct, and instead encourage, a grand plan of verifiable, reciprocal global denuclearization.
In the long term it is a virtuous circle of nuclear disarmament that will most effectively undercut North Korean motives for its own destabilizing nuclear gestures. Kim Jung Un’s regime will not last forever in its present form. If the U.S. could contain the Soviet Union through a half-century of Cold War, we can cooperate with the world community to contain a small, impoverished nation and await its inevitable transformation.
Meanwhile, we need to talk with them! The first “common” sense North Korea and the United States presumably share is a desire to survive. To strengthen the shared common sense that possession of nuclear weapons is a probable cause of the eventual use of nuclear weapons requires slowly nurtured relationships and a ratcheting down of the rhetoric of threat.
While there is international agreement that Kim Jung Un is worthy of collective sanction, it doesn’t hurt to remember how many countries feel that the United States itself is dangerously militaristic, and further that we have not lived up to our obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970 to make good-faith efforts to cut and finally eliminate our arsenal. Part of getting North Korea to change includes realizing that we have to change. Without weakening ourselves, we can initiate diplomatic feelers that could lead to threat reduction on both sides. We can build trust on the basis of a shared interest in survival—not capitulating to each other but capitulating, like those other 122 nations, to the common sense that nuclear weapons have no constructive use.
Winslow Myers, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide,” serves on the Boards of Beyond War and the War Prevention Initiative.