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Thursday, August 17, 2017, 12:36 p.m.


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No closer to war


This article was published August 11, 2017 at 1:59 a.m.

The consensus right and left seems to be that President Donald Trump's apocalyptic threat of "fire and fury" should North Korea continue its provocations has brought the possibility of nuclear annihilation closer. But hard-headed analysis suggests that, however unpresidential his rhetoric, Trump's words have not appreciably increased the risk of war between the U.S. and North Korea.

Prominent arguments have been made in criticism of Trump's statement. All are valid, but none truly shows that he upped the likelihood of war.

The first and most plausible criticism is that Trump set a red line for North Korea--no threats against the U.S.--that he isn't prepared to enforce.

The trouble with this argument is that it was obvious from the first and to everyone that Trump's statement on Tuesday didn't mean that any verbal threat by North Korea would be met by nuclear bombs. Using nuclear force in response to words would be grossly disproportionate: illegal, immoral and foolish.

And we know for a fact that North Korea didn't take Trump's threat literally, because within a few hours of his making it the North Koreans threatened Guam. They wouldn't have done that if they expected imminent fire and fury in response. They were just trying to signal that Trump was full of bluster.

Trump's statement shouldn't therefore be taken as an empty threat that would affect his ability to make a serious threat later. Trump was just being Trump. He wasn't undercutting the credibility of presidential promises.

The second line of attack on the Trump statement is that his words made tensions worse rather than damping them down. That's certainly true in the sense that he managed to elicit the Guam threat.

Yet it's far from clear that elevated rhetoric on both sides increases the probability of anyone using force. The North Koreans like to talk big, but that doesn't, or at least shouldn't, affect our assessment of their likelihood of first use. The relevant actors on the U.S. side understand that North Korean rhetoric is designed to grab attention. It doesn't shift the underlying strategic realities.

The same is true of Trump's big talk. The U.S. strategic interest in limiting North Korea's nuclear program is exactly the same now as it was before Trump spoke. The North Koreans know that. Trump's rhetoric was an exercise in attention-getting. And in that limited sense it worked.

It's true that words can sometimes be signals of underlying capacity. But in the case of nuclear firepower, there's no possibility of insufficient information that requires a subtle reading of signals. Everyone understands perfectly well that the U.S. has sufficient capacity to destroy North Korea many times over.

The upshot is that Trump's big talk seems unpresidential primarily because it deviates from how previous presidents have spoken. Trump sounds more like a TV or movie president offering a pungent rebuke to a foreign enemy than like an actual president trying to sound, well, presidential.

The world may think this makes Trump look foolish. And arguably a bit of that foolishness could rub off on the U.S.

The cumulative effect on American power, however, is likely to be negligible. The world understands at this point that U.S. democracy is perfectly capable of electing a Donald Trump--because it did. An earlier iteration of the same electorate took a chance on a former B-movie actor, who turned out to be a successful president on several dimensions.

Editorial on 08/11/2017

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Dontsufferfools says... August 11, 2017 at 6:28 a.m.

Um, that actor was twice elected guvnor of our largest and most sophisticated state. Big difference.

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