Could the U.S. ‘accidentally’ go to war with North Korea? It’s possible, but not likely

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In the midst of the vitriol flying between Washington and Pyongyang, a number of voices have emerged to assure the world that war is indeed unlikely. The leadership of both nations, they explain, has many rational, well-informed actors who recognize the potentially catastrophic consequences of a second Korean War, and hence will avoid crossing any of the critical lines that might take us there.

Theoretically, the voices are correct. Unfortunately, modern history shows that decisions for war are not made in theoretical circumstances, nor rooted in rational calculation. They are instead made by flawed individuals driven by emotion, miscalculation and misperception, and influenced by others with their own agendas who sit far from the chain of command.

The great danger of the current crisis is thus not that decision-makers in Washington and Pyongyang will deliberately weigh the costs and benefits of another Korean War and decide it is worth pursuing. It is instead that a sudden and unexpected moment triggers a hasty and emotional decision that leads both sides down a tragic path from which there is no return. …

The current standoff in Korea seems particularly ripe for such an unintended conflict. A long history of rivalry has predisposed each side to read the worst possible motives into the other’s actions. Official lines of communication between the two are virtually nonexistent; at the moment, the United States doesn’t even have an ambassador in South Korea. The two leaders are inexperienced and emotional, with a tendency to personalize strategic matters and unleash bellicose rhetoric that just heightens tensions throughout the region. North Korean defectors warn of Kim Jong Un’s desperate and unyielding commitment to his nuclear program, which he sees as critical to the preservation of his regime, and of the growing doubts about his government at home. And the North has launched a number of limited but deadly military operations against the United States and South Korea over the past decades, ranging from the attack on the USS Pueblo in 1968 to the attack on the Cheonan in 2010, but has never faced serious retribution for them, probably encouraging Kim to trust in the safety of a limited strike that could be a critical first step.

Recent history thus suggests that the greatest danger we now face is not that Donald Trump and Kim will decide to go to war, but that isolated individuals who most have never heard of, operating within the inevitable chain of mistakes and miscalculations that are the by-product of human weakness and exigent circumstances, will decide for them.

Source: Washington Post

Why it’s on our radar: As we have regularly noted, the Trump administration has been conducting no small amount of diplomacy that could well decide the fate of the future of North Korea, by sending high-ranking emissaries including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defense secretary, and secretary of state to China, South Korea, and Japan, the principal players. In addition, the White House and the Pentagon have dusted off and updated war planning, to include “preemptive war,” as we discussed at length in today’s Executive Intelligence Summary (which is well worth the read; to subscribe, click here).

In historical context, this assessment is largely accurate; nation-states often go to war based more on emotion than well-reasoned national interests. But not always; Japan’s decision to attack the United States fleet at Pearl Harbor in 1941 was based not on emotion but on a sober determination that it was in Tokyo’s vital interests to do so; likewise Japan’s decision to invade China four years earlier.

No one is immune to emotions, but Trump’s inner national security circle seems professional, sober in its ability to provide guidance and advice, and realistic in its assessment of the risks of going to war with a well-armed adversary that is on the cusp of fielding several nuclear weapons. And so far, anyway, Trump seems to be following their recommendations. 

We have to remember that while Trump’s personality is bombastic, he really isn’t some goofball madman just itching to push the nuclear button, so to speak. For the most part you don’t become a billionaire without possessing some combination of intelligence, reason, and analytical ability. Trump lives on the same planet the rest of us do; he doesn’t seem overly anxious to commit suicide. Having the intestinal fortitude to stand up to a regional bully that threatens the safety and security of 310 million Americans isn’t “emotional” or “irrational,” but exactly what we expect in a commander-in-chief. By all measures, Trump doesn’t seem to be approaching North Korea in an unhinged, overly-emotional manner, no matter what he tweets in the early-morning hours.

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