The Skeptics

Could North Korea be America's Next Forever War?

Such a declaration gives Pyongyang ample notice that Washington’s extended-deterrence commitments to its allies will become less credible once Kim deploys long-range missiles, and that the United States values its homeland far more than it values its international partners. It signals that we are gravely concerned for ourselves, but that allies are no more than a passing worry.

That is always the problem with extended deterrence. Countries do value their own security over that of others, if forced to choose. Knowing this, and in order to prove the credibility of extended deterrent threats to allies and adversaries alike, U.S. leaders might undertake actions that do not serve narrow U.S. national security interests. These actions might be fairly innocuous, such as sanctions or diplomatic pressure, but they might also include wars fought on behalf of allies.

There is no doubting Washington’s commitment and capacity for responding to an attack on any square inch of U.S. territory, from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine. But, as Henry Kissinger noted many years ago, “Because the consequences of our weapons technology are so fearsome, we have not found it easy to define a casus belli which would leave no doubt concerning our moral justification to use force.” Thomas Schelling, a leading strategist of the Cold War, shared Kissinger’s concerns. “To fight abroad is a military act, but to persuade enemies or allies that one would fight abroad, under circumstances of great cost and risk, requires more than a military capability,” wrote Schelling, with emphasis, in his seminal work, Arms and Influence. “Extended deterrence,” Schelling continued, “requires projecting intentions. It requires having those intentions, even deliberately acquiring them, and communicating them persuasively to make other countries behave.”

In short, we shouldn’t understate the difficulty of maintaining credible extended deterrence, or ignore the attendant costs and risks to the state issuing such deterrent threats. These risks now do (or soon will) include North Korean nuclear-tipped ICBMs targeting U.S. cities.

Christopher Preble is vice president for defense and foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute and the author of The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free.

Image: Reuters