From Fire and Fury to Flattery: An Unintended Consequence of Preventive War
When President Trump shook hands with Kim Jong Un in Singapore earlier this week, many were stunned to see a hermit kingdom elevated and a superpower stooped. They were disturbed by the spectacle and symbolism of American and North Korean flags tightly interspersed even if they agree with what President Obama said during the Iran talks: “You don’t negotiate deals with your friends. You negotiate them with your enemies.”
To be sure, Americans strongly prefer diplomacy with North Korea to eventual military action. But without the threat of nuclear weapons, North Korea is nothing more than a regional nuisance, hardly a formidable foe or global menace—so how did we arrive at a moment when the American president must meet the North Korean dictator as a peer?
One largely unacknowledged reason is our legacy of aggressive interventions in Iraq and Libya. To understand this, one must understand the interests—and hopes and fears—of the North Korean leader. Kim Jong Un inherited the country from his father and grandfather, consequently causing his entire personal and family identity to be wrapped up in this vocation. In this context, he has a big ego—but in another, he’s deeply insecure. His country is broke, and his people are starving. Kim can check the military might of neither his main adversary (the United States) nor his only ally (China).
His main goal is to preserve his monopoly on political power, what he views as his birthright and heirloom. Ultimately, he does not want his motorcade to be stopped for his execution in an irrigation ditch like Libya’s Qaddafi or to be hunted out of a hole and hanged in a viral video like Iraq’s Hussein.
In Kim’s eyes, those interventions in Libya and Iraq sent a clear message to totalitarian regimes opposed to the United States: without the ultimate deterrent, they can expect to be toppled. This is why Iran—long a target of American calls for regime change—has been seeking to develop a nuclear program. North Korea is following the same logic, believing that nuclear weapons are the great equalizer of international politics. He’s not wrong, and they allowed the likes of Kim to stand toe to toe with the President of the United States.
Preventive wars—and the interventionist foreign policy of which they’re a component—have created more problems than they’ve solved. North Korea’s relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons is the most recent example of such a problem. It’s true that Kim would have tried to develop nuclear weapons without seeing non-nuclear rogue regimes like Libya and Iraq so unceremoniously deposed; however, this pursuit would not have been a matter of life and death for the regime.
After all, the costs of a nuclear program are prohibitively high for leaders of rogue states who simply want to shore up their regional power and security. Investing in a nuclear arsenal would be like employing a squadron of sharpshooters to sit on your roof to defend against would-be eggers.
North Korea has thousands of artillery pieces pointed at Seoul, providing an effective conventional deterrent against South Korea. Japan is constitutionally prohibited from launching an offensive military invasion. China wants to keep North Korea as a buffer between its territory and U.S. allies, so this provides an implicit security guarantee. The only serious threat to the Kim regime is an American invasion, and nuclear missiles counter this threat by allowing North Korea to threaten U.S. military bases in the Pacific and potentially even North American cities.
It’s natural that freedom loving people should want to stand up to tyrannical regimes who oppress their citizens. Liberating people from dictatorships has become regarded as a legitimate goal of foreign policy, one which propelled military action in Iraq and Libya. I even wrote supportively of the intervention in Libya in the past.
Yet, as we’ve learned from both those experiences, the human suffering which occurs under totalitarian regimes ought to be weighed against the human suffering which results from power vacuums and political instability – and the accelerated nuclear proliferation -- which result from regime change strategies.
In short, the consequences of well-intended action are often worse than consequences of well-considered inaction.
Diplomacy is, therefore, the more effective, reasonable, resource-conserving, and—importantly for a democracy—popular option for confronting America’s adversaries. We shouldn’t wait until country presents a nuclear threat before exercising it.
If the sight of the leader of the free world flattering the leader of a slave state makes your stomach churn, remember: we wouldn’t be in this position if North Korea hadn’t sprinted for a nuke. And North Korea wouldn’t have sprinted so fast if it didn’t see us toppling other tyrannies with reckless abandon.
This is an unforeseen lesson of the Singapore summit: America’s past policy of premature war has contributed to our present position of overdue diplomacy.
Mark Hannah is a fellow at the Eurasia Group Foundation and teaches at New York University. He is a Political Partner at Truman National Security Project and term member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed are his own.