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Trump’s Threat to Destroy North Korea Not a Radical Break with U.S. Deterrence Policy

Sep 26 , 2017


U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S. (Reuters)

There have been an abundance of comments (mostly negative) regarding President Trump’s address to the United Nations. The portion of the speech that received the most criticism was his warning to Pyongyang that the United States would have no choice but to “totally destroy” North Korea if Kim Jong-un’s regime attacked America or any U.S. ally. Trump’s adversaries immediately pounced, not only condemning his tone for excessive belligerence, but also insisting that the president’s threat represented a dramatic break with previous U.S. policy on nuclear issues.

It was one thing to warn that removal of Kim’s regime would be the U.S. objective in the event of North Korean aggression, critics contended, and it was quite another to threaten the destruction of the entire country. Washington Post correspondent Ana Fifield asserted that there was a consensus among North Korea specialists in the U.S. foreign policy community that Trump’s approach was both shocking and immoral. “Analysts noted that he did not differentiate between the Kim regime . . . and the 25 million people of North Korea.” Council on Foreign Relations scholar Stewart Patrick even insisted that the threat was “implausible.” He added, “I think the folks at the Pentagon, when they look at the military options, are just aghast at the potential loss of life,” and would simply not embrace such a policy.

Some of Trump’s opponents seem to believe that U.S. policy concerning the use of nuclear weapons is that, if deterrence failed, Washington’s retaliation would be limited and proportional. Specifically, while the United States would undoubtedly attack military targets in response to aggression, it would not strike civilian population centers, much less “totally destroy” the offending country. However, as Alan Tonelson, former associate editor of Foreign Policy, notes, the history of U.S. nuclear deterrence policy belies that benign conclusion. 

So does U.S. conduct in World War II. U.S. officials clearly had no qualms about inflicting massive casualties on civilians in that conflict. Saturation bombing raids on urban centers in Germany and Japan were frequent and unapologetic. Allied civilian and military officials openly referred to such raids as “terror bombing,” with the goal of demoralizing civilians in the enemy nations. That doctrine culminated in the firebombing of Tokyo and the detonation of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945--actions that collectively killed more than 200,000 innocent civilians. Moreover, the latter two targets were population centers that had almost no military value. Tellingly, later generations of American officials have never repudiated those actions.

Further undermining the case that Trump’s warning was out-of-step with previous U.S. conduct is the longstanding policy that Washington has pursued to deter adversaries and reassure allies. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration explicitly embraced the doctrine of “massive retaliation.” Washington’s warning to the Soviet Union was stark and dire. If Moscow attacked either the United States or its allies in Europe and East Asia, the United States would use nuclear weapons to devastate the USSR. Moreover, that threat was not restricted to a response to a Soviet nuclear attack. The implication was that an attempt to overrun allied countries using conventional forces would trigger the same devastating reaction.

Granted, later administrations moved toward a stance of “flexible response” rather than an explicit threat of massive retaliation, but Washington has studiously refused to adopt a policy of “no first use” regarding nuclear weapons. In other words, U.S. leaders are still willing to wage nuclear war even in response to a purely conventional attack.   

Throughout the Cold War, U.S. allies would not have wanted any other policy, and various historians and realist foreign policy scholars have explained why. Professor Christopher Layne, Robert M. Gates Chair in Intelligence and National Security at Texas A&M University, documents how Washington’s allies worried constantly that the United States might react to a Soviet attack on them by remaining below the nuclear threshold, or alternatively, by trying to fight a strictly limited nuclear war. 

In his seminal work, Peace of Illusions, Layne discusses how NATO’s European members especially fretted about the possibility of a tacit agreement between Washington and Moscow to refrain from attacks on each other’s homelands.  Their worry was understandable, since the impact of such a strategy would have been to confine the devastating effects exclusively to their region. They sought to forestall that option by insisting on robust U.S. “tripwire” forces, both personnel and military hardware, being stationed on the frontlines, thus guaranteeing U.S. fatalities and an extensive retaliatory attack on targets inside the Soviet Union. Indeed, as Layne shows, at least some NATO allies hoped that, if war broke out, the two superpowers might conduct a nuclear exchange “over the heads” of the European countries, thus sparing them most of the catastrophic effects.  

In short, they wanted the United States committed irrevocably to a strategy of full-scale retaliation against an aggressor. Anything less might vitiate the credibility of extended deterrence—their protection under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. The last thing they wanted was American flirtation with a limited or “proportional” response. And U.S. leaders went out of their way to offer repeated assurances that the allies had nothing to worry about on that score.

In light of such history, it is inaccurate to accuse Trump of breaking with decades of U.S. deterrence policy. He may have been more blunt than any of his predecessors since Eisenhower left office, but his warning of total destruction was merely an updated version of Ike’s massive retaliation doctrine—this time applied to North Korea instead of the Soviet Union. It may well be an immoral and unwise approach, but those analysts who criticize that portion of the UN speech have a quarrel with Washington’s overall, longstanding deterrence policy, not just with Donald Trump.

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