Donald Trump threw a meaty hypothetical on the table in the midst of his big set-piece speech to the US congress on the State of the Union.
“If I had not been elected president of the United States,” Trump declared, clearly relishing what he was about to say next, “we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea.”
A major war? It’s a big call, and not for the first time. He didn’t offer any explanation to back up the claim. But this particular “what if” scenario bears thinking about, because maybe in this case he is also right.
Now, yes, Trump’s jibe about Hillary Clinton, his 2016 rival who would be in the White House in his stead, stands in complete contrast to the bipartisan spirit he had supposedly sought to rally. Perhaps with his Korea comments he was reaching for an “Only Nixon could go to China” vibe. (Anyway, despite the “victory is not winning for our party, victory is winning for our country” tone that marked the early part of his speech, it is plain there is one victory Trump wants to savour most, and he’ll never, ever, miss a chance to rubbish Clinton.)
It was also Trump’s furious thumbs which sparked the alarming Twitter storm that raged across 2017, including infamous brags about the size of his nuclear button and threats to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, the man he dubbed “Little Rocket Man”. Clinton branded Trump’s threats at the time as “dangerous and short-sighted”.
Don’t forget it was Kim who actually launched the missile tests and set off nuclear explosions to showcase his new bomb.
Yet don’t forget it was Kim who actually launched the missile tests and set off nuclear explosions to showcase his new bomb. It was Kim who came to power in the years before, having torpedoed a South Korean warship in 2010, killing 46 sailors, and later raining artillery shells on a disputed island.
And the Obama administration’s response back then? Much as had been the accepted wisdom of the years before, the continuation of a policy dubbed “strategic patience”. Sanctions, isolation, and punishment. In simple terms, don’t reward bad behaviour with attention.
Deals were half-heartedly offered on occasion. Food swaps for a missile moratorium in 2012, with the prospect of more talks down the road. But always Pyongyang prevaricated, wanting more than the US would give, and always, Pyongyang would act out belligerently to demand attention. The cycle of escalation was fixed.
Patience is only viable as a strategy while ever the threat of retaliation is available. The credibility of that threat was evaporating while ever North Korea moved closer and closer to developing a nuclear weapon. However, the debate (pre-Trump) about North Korea was firmly stuck in the weeds, lacking urgency.
Yes, Kim has got a rocket, went the argument, one that could launch a “dishwasher wrapped in tinfoil”, as a US official once chided. But it’s a firecracker far more than an inter-continental missile. Besides, the miniaturisation of a warhead is technically challenging. A hydrogen bomb? Surely not.
On it went. These debates about technical difficulties confronting the North Korean nuclear program offered a comforting illusion, that the problem was contained. But Kim clearly felt otherwise, and the US risked what might be called the “reverse-Saddam”, that intelligence blindspots meant Pyongyang was far closer to a functioning atomic weapon. There was also a sense that the North Korea issue was being treated as a test tube for diplomacy, that certain ingredients had to be obtained and a formula followed before any progress could be made. Analysts had already warned that strategic patience could better be described as strategic passivity.
So, what if instead, it had been Clinton in the Oval Office in 2017 as North Korea sent a volley of missile tests crashing into the near seas and worked towards another nuclear detonation. What would have been her reaction?
It is easy to see a scenario wherein the “shock” of North Korea’s impending nuclear breakout and rattled by China’s growing regional assertiveness, a Democrat in the White House would have drawn warnings of a “red line” that must not be crossed. No more nuclear tests, for example. Clinton, conscious of Barack Obama’s loss of face over Syria and chemical weapons and having flagged a re-think of the North Korea strategy during the presidential campaign, would have been determined to see this line enforced.
And it is equally possible to imagine American allies nodding along in agreement as Clinton offered soothing explanations about the need to maintain the credibility of US power.
So, in this parallel universe, a pre-emptive strike was launched early in the first term of the Clinton administration to stop an impending September 2017 nuclear test. Japan had urged action, Australia was supportive. The use of force was justified as a proportional to the danger. Only then came an unexpectedly fierce retaliation …
Of course, nothing is so simple. Maybe Kim would have regarded Clinton’s threats credibly and backed down? Perhaps he always saw Trump’s tough talk as hollow? More to the point, Trump is definitive, as he says “would” rather than “could”, which is a piece of rhetorical trickery to imply the choice is his way or oblivion. (Interestingly, some transcripts of the speech circulated but not checked against delivery indicate he intended to add “with potentially millions of people killed” to his speculation on a North Korea war, but he didn’t.)
But one thing seems certain. Clinton would never have been so unorthodox as to short-circuit the seemingly inevitable escalation towards conflict with the carrot of a face-to-face summit between the president and supreme leader. Trump, with his ahistorical thinking and desire to be the focus of attention, was willing to experiment, to see that having a summit with Kim was no great concession and that the past efforts hadn’t worked.
Sure, the Singapore summit was a circus. So, perhaps, will be the next one later this month in Vietnam. And maybe whatever emerges doesn’t last beyond the Trump years, just as Trump junked the Iran deal of his predecessor. But the terms of engagement are different now. This real world, even if a show with little substance so far, still seems infinitely preferable to conflict, however hypothetical.
Image via Twiter user Oli Goldsmith