The Cuban Missile Crisis is a Blueprint for How Trump Can Deal With North Korea

A U.S. Air Force B-1B bomber flies over Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea

Despite the general desire to stop the march toward war, events may take control, or those whose decisions count may conclude that they have lost the freedom of choice.

As North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un and American president Donald Trump—all but indistinguishable in their bellicose rhetoric—continue to lob apocalyptic threats at one another, there has been no shortage of experts assaying the probability of a military showdown, which remains possible despite the respite provided by Kim’s recent announcement that he won’t, for now anyway, follow through with his plan to launch ballistic missiles toward Guam.

The reality, though, is that no one knows how this crisis will end. You’d best change the channel when you hear a talking head making confident prognostications.

What can be foreseen with much greater certainty is how the clash between North Korea and the United States—were it to happen—will unfold.

There are two distinctive paths to war, as exemplified by World War II and World War I.

In the first, the guns start firing because a leader, such Hitler, makes a premeditated decision to use war to achieve goals. Other states may attempt to avoid a conflagration through diplomacy designed to placate the adversary—Neville Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier at Munich in September 1938 for example—but conciliation increases the aggressor’s confidence and thus its demands. Eventually, the states that sought to avoid war realize that they have to fight in order to preserve their security or even their territorial integrity.

In the World War I variant, by contrast, no state wants war; but all make incendiary threats or even incremental moves that slowly—or maybe not so slowly—raise the political temperature and cause the war machine to start cranking up. That creates an atmosphere in which trust is eviscerated, worst-case thinking prevails, and the small steps one side takes (often out of fear) are seen by its antagonists as schemes to seize the so-called first mover’s advantage. (Never mind that, if analogies can be drawn between wars and business, moving first may not prove to be as expedient as leaders caught in crises may assume.)

Amidst the deepening crisis, the reassurances offered by states—of the we-mean-you-no-harm variety—are dismissed as ruses aimed at getting opponents to let down their guard. The possibility of averting war is further reduced by misperception, misinformation, the psychological stress on decision-makers, and leaders’ fear of appearing weak in the eyes of the enemy or of powerful constituencies at home. And in such circumstances, stupidity, unforeseen events, accidents, and hubris inevitably worsen the crisis. Despite the general desire to stop the march toward war, events take control, or those whose decisions count conclude that they have lost the freedom of choice. The momentum proves unstoppable, and the war that no one really wanted, or even imagined, becomes reality.

This second path is the one North Korea and the United States will take if they do go to war. Which brings us back to Messrs. Kim and Trump. The two leaders don’t have a lot in common—except for some traits that are crucial given the situation at hand. Both are solipsistic, narcissistic, impulsive (though Kim doesn’t appear to be a Twitter addict), and no one seems able to rein them in. One fires off a red-hot verbal volley, the other responds with something more sizzling.

Such are their personalities that Kim and Trump may be unable to resist the urge to go beyond words and to demonstrate their toughness with actions aimed at intimidating the adversary. The danger is that each will seek to outdo the other and neither senior officials nor other states—China, Russia, and the major European powers—will be able to restrain them.

We are approaching this dicey stage. To end the sequence of threats and counter threats, one of the two principals, Kim or Trump, must make a conciliatory statement or, better yet, a conciliatory gesture—and the other must reciprocate forthwith. And their top advisers must convince them to negotiate, even if not directly. Given North Korea’s opaque polity we simply don’t know whether there are individuals in Kim’s inner circle with the clout and courage to pull that off, or even to attempt it. What little evidence we have doesn’t give grounds for hope. (Kim, as his top officials will doubtless remember, is a man who had an uncle put to death on suspicion of disloyalty.)