Anyone following developments in East Asia during the previous U.S. administration risked whiplash from Donald Trump’s chaotic foreign policy approach toward North Korea. The first part of his presidency included splashy pronouncements that threats from Kim Jong-un’s regime would be met with “fire and fury.” In Act Two, Kim and Trump “fell in love,” by Trump’s telling.
It is easy to dismiss this change as superficial, and in some ways it was. North Korean missile and nuclear development continued apace, albeit without constant testing. The much-ballyhooed summits resulted more in confusion over what denuclearization means than concrete plans. Nuclear nonproliferation advocates were left mostly disappointed, especially given fears that a nuclearized North Korea could eventually prompt its neighbors to follow suit and build atomic weapons of their own.
Still, the change showed an interesting contrast in approaches within the same administration, with implications for Joe Biden’s team and U.S. administrations beyond. For instance, there are strong reasons for preferring the Trump administration’s second-half approach to North Korea. High-level engagement, built on a baseline of deterrence, lessens the chances of war and opens the way for future cooperation. Though they may be loath to admit it, the United States and its allies can live with a nuclear North Korea, and Washington should figure out ways to minimize the danger.
We may never learn whether the “maximum pressure” campaign in 2017 made the easing of tensions in 2018 possible. An equally plausible story is that Kim grew more comfortable with North Korea’s deterrent and was therefore more willing to reach out. Clearer answers emerge in response to the question of what to do now about a nuclear North Korea. The way forward is to reestablish high-level engagement with denuclearization as a long-term goal.
Reasons for Cooler Heads
Trump’s decision to reverse course in relations with North Korea felt like it came out of nowhere. Indeed, it may have. Yet the result—reduced tensions and initial pledges—just happens to be in line with what international relations schools, both old and new, would recommend. International relations theories have fallen somewhat out of fashion, and this piece will not pound the table for the dominance of one approach. Rather, it makes sense to put multiple schools in conversation with one another, especially when they align on policy prescriptions—and they are doing just that on the Korean peninsula.
When the Cold War ended, members of international relations’ oldest tradition, realism, fretted that a newly unipolar United States would be likely to make trouble. Realists insist that power is the final arbiter in international politics, and states are unlikely to feel restrained unless they are confronted by a balancing force. In the early 1990s, the United States faced no such impediments. Realists worried that American leaders would soon be “tempted to arbitrary and arrogant behavior.”
Preventive attacks against a much weaker North Korea would represent only the latest in a long string of foreign policy mistakes by the United States, according to members of this school. Unencumbered by the disciplining effects of survival concerns that most countries face, the United States has squandered resources on unnecessary wars of choice over the past thirty years. The concern with conservation of energy has inspired some experts to counsel foreign policies of restraint (also called offshore balancing) for the world’s sole superpower.
Trump’s shift to a diplomatic way forward with North Korea in 2018 was a welcome change for realists, especially since a foolish preventive war seemed like a serious possibility through much of 2017. Though realist scholars are split on whether the spread of nuclear weapons is a development we should welcome—some emphasize the pacifying effects that nuclear deterrence can have in dangerous neighborhoods—virtually none advocate panicking in the face of a single addition to the nuclear club. Not fighting a preventive war may be something of a low bar to clear, and Trump’s incompetence in the summits following the pivot has few cheerleaders. Still, avoiding needless wars would stand as an improvement over the previous blunders.
A younger tradition of international relations, social constructivism, emphasizes the role of international norms and culture in defining what states want and how they go about getting it. Constructivists also leave open the possibility that states, organizations, and leaders can sometimes change those norms and transform that culture to create more (or fewer) opportunities for cooperation. For example, Gorbachev’s “New Thinking” helped the Soviet Union realize its own role in fueling security competition with the West and reform its relationship to the United States by ending the practice of defining itself in opposition to the enemy beyond. To cap the transformation, Gorbachev began acting as if the change had already occurred, which made favorable reciprocal treatment from the United States more likely.
Did Trump reflect deeply on America’s role in sustaining enmity between itself and North Korea? Almost certainly not. Instead, what appears to have happened is that Trump decided to try for a big diplomatic win where others had previously failed. Upon agreeing to meet with Kim, he made the political calculation that it was better to sell the policy of engagement as a smashing success—even though Kim had not really agreed to denuclearize and has continued to process fissile material and develop missiles since.
Yet one of the strange things about nuclear politics is that relations among nuclear-armed countries are particularly susceptible to being what the participants make of them, and not much more or less. Nuclear weapons pack a lot of destruction in small packages, enough so that the ‘victor’ in any nuclear war is still likely to regret having fought. With winning mostly off the table, nuclear states are free to “create their own reality,” as one classic treatment of this topic puts it. If the United States decides that relations with North Korea are now in a better place, or even if a U.S. president simply pretends that they are, then in important ways they really are.
It was not always so. In the pre-nuclear era, if a state treated others nicely, it might get burned as a result—see France circa 1940. While they do not determine everything, technological differences can bias interstate relations towards different levels of cooperation. Today, nuclear states can dare to cooperate because they can punish full-scale exploitation. By making war much less likely, nuclear weapons open up spaces for more cooperation that may not have otherwise been possible.
Again, Trump’s follow-on diplomacy efforts left much to be desired. Unfortunately, being completely unencumbered by one’s own previous statements—the ability to switch from “fire and fury” to “falling in love” in this case—is probably correlated with less desirable characteristics, like incompetence and something approaching nihilism. Yet we can still pluck from the ravages of Trump’s foreign policy those parts in which the United States moved away from, rather than toward, unnecessary war. North Korean policy eventually became one such area.
Connecting Theory and Policy
What does this mean specifically for the Biden administration’s foreign policy toward North Korea? Three things, mainly: First, the administration should be open to more high-level engagement. It is not clear that Kim trusts his own lower-level diplomats enough to allow for breakthroughs. Kim may have trust issues with China as well, and more high-level talks could keep the United States from pushing North Korea ever closer to its northern neighbor.
It was not the choice to meet with Kim that limited the summits’ successes. Shortly after the first summit in Singapore, some experts expressed guarded optimism that Trump-Kim talks could be productive, and even Trump’s clumsiness did not prevent a North Korean weapons testing hiatus. Moreover, a less-for-less option to trade some sanctions relief for some slowing of fissile material production was apparently on the table in Hanoi. But Trump wanted something shinier to sell back home, and he walked away. Renewed engagement might bring these medium-step options back.
We should not dismiss the symbolic importance of meetings, either. Nuclear arms control efforts during the Cold War were at least as much about the process as the result. As Robert Jervis observes, “The danger of [nuclear] war is strongly affected by the political climate in general and by beliefs about the inevitability of war in particular. The main purpose of arms control in the nuclear era is to control our expectations and beliefs, not our arms.” Regular meetings can cool tensions between the United States and North Korea and may serve to help both sides interpret scary signals—a volley of missiles on the radar that turns out to be a flock of birds or whatever false alarms the future might bring—in a generous light that proves crucial to keeping the peace.
Second, and speaking of missiles, U.S. administrations should avoid overreacting to future weapons testing by the North Koreans. As candidate, Joe Biden said that he would consider military force to preempt North Korean testing. Some scholars have recently argued along similar lines: that the United States should prevent North Korea from testing its new “monster” missile with limited strikes. Such a move would be highly escalatory and unnecessary. New tests would not be ideal, but they do not (typically) kill anyone by themselves. And if the past seventy-five years of nuclear nonuse is any indicator, the distance between possession and use of deliverable nuclear weapons is vast.