In between another failed congressional push for TrumpCare and President Trump musing inanely about why the Civil War happened, there's been lots of loose talk about North Korea. The president, who was only recently issuing menacing threats from his Twitter account, now says he is willing to be the first president to meet with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong Un, even as White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus says he can't see it happening. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley recently threatened a strike on the nuclear-armed dictatorship, while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson contradicted Vice President Pence by saying that the U.S. might sit down for multiparty negotiations.
The policy and rhetorical incoherence from the White House is sadly typical for a group of amateur leaders that can't seem to do something as simple as call a meeting and agree on a set of talking points. Far from projecting strength or throwing adversaries off balance with some kind of Nixonian "madman theory" of foreign policy, the failure to get America's key decision-makers on the same page only makes the administration look feckless and adrift — and makes it more likely that a misunderstanding could lead to an even more serious crisis.
But the more important questions are whether the president and his advisers have an end game, and how they view nuclear weapons in general. From the moment he took office, President Trump has seemed weirdly determined to get the 24 million people of metropolitan Seoul incinerated in a pointless war, and his team is reacting to every provocation from Pyongyang as if this is the first time North Korea has ever tested a missile or released an unhinged statement.
It is not clear what the Trump administration hopes to achieve with its recent escalation of tensions. There are only two things that would represent an improvement over the status quo on the Korean Peninsula (assuming that reunification is a nonstarter). One is a negotiated agreement that leads North Korea to surrender the nuclear weapons it has already built and rejoin the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) from which it withdrew in 2003, or to at least freeze its missile and weapons programs.
However, the U.S. is governed by people who don't believe other countries can be trusted to adhere to international agreements and who keep threatening obliquely or overtly to blow apart the Iran deal. If Trump and his advisers are trying to get North Korea back to the table, they are also pursuing a gravely mistaken path by threatening the agreement with Iran. Not only would undermining the Iran deal convince the North Koreans that we can't be trusted, it will also make North Korea's neighbors less likely to cooperate in any sanctions effort that could squeeze Pyongyang hard enough to get them to change their behavior.
The second potential improvement on the Korean Peninsula would be if the odious regime of Kim Jong Un were replaced. Yet self-preservation is what drove Pyongyang to acquire nuclear weapons in the first place. The regime views its small nuclear deterrent as the only thing preventing the U.S. from leading an Iraq-style adventure straight to Pyongyang, and the aggressive and inconsistent messaging from Washington will do nothing to ease those concerns.
So what is the administration up to, exactly? One possibility might be that it doesn't fear a nuclear exchange in the same way that most other U.S. presidents have since the dawn of the nuclear age.
The Cold War with the Soviet Union was governed by a nuclear strategy called MAD — Mutual Assured Destruction. Recognizing the awful nature of atomic bombs, MAD was designed to convince nuclear powers that any use of nuclear weapons would invite massive retaliation catastrophic enough to obliterate both societies. Many scholars argue credibly that the resulting "balance of terror" helped decrease the risk of warfare between the superpowers and prevented the outbreak of World War III. But even committed proponents of MAD were troubled by the prospect of killing hundreds of millions of Soviet civilians in an act of naked revenge. As Lawrence Freedman wrote in The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, the problem was that it "put the threat of unprecedented genocide at the center of American strategy." In fact, it was deep moral discomfort with a blasé posture of mutual annihilation that led some thinkers to wonder whether a nuclear war could be fought without escalating to Armageddon.
The U.S. frequently made moves and decisions during the Cold War that suggested there was more to its posture than MAD. Military planners deployed all manner of "tactical" nuclear weapons designed to be used on the battlefield. Kennedy, Nixon, and Carter all developed variations on doctrines known loosely as "flexible response," believing that policymakers should have more options in a nuclear conflict than simply murdering all of the hostages at once. To this day, the U.S. maintains in its nuclear posture the right to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in a conflict, and you can assume that the idea is not to start a large-scale nuclear war that would kill everyone on Earth.
Howard Margolis and Jack Ruina coined the term Nuclear Utilization Theory in an influential 1979 article to describe these ideas, but during the heyday of the Cold War it was also called NUTS — Nuclear Utilization and Target Selection. Proponents believed that a nuclear war could be fought and won without escalating to a full-scale, civilization-obliterating thermonuclear exchange. In particular, they believed in the tactical utility of using small numbers of nuclear weapons in the event of a conventional war to gain and press advantages on the battlefield. NUTS proponents never had much luck convincing planners or the general public that nuclear weapons are just another gizmo in the great power toolbox.
How does this all fit into the North Korea crisis? During the campaign, Trump was credibly rumored to have asked a foreign policy adviser, during a conversation about nuclear weapons, "If we have them, why can't we use them?" In January, he told Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski, "Let it be an arms race." His December tweet that "the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes" is precisely the opposite of the process called for by the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which requires states that possess nukes to work toward their elimination. And he recently approved the use of America's most destructive non-nuclear bomb, the Massive Ordnance Air Blast, in Afghanistan.
In other words, it is not that hard to imagine Trump believing some half-baked, inchoate, Fox News version of NUTS and then acting on it. North Korea has a very small number of nuclear weapons — probably about 10 — and Trump may believe either that North Korea won't use them, or that South Korean and American forces could survive an exchange and then either retaliate or launch a conventional invasion of the North. This is, of course, completely bananas and could easily lead to a wider nuclear exchange that will prevent all of us from seeing the second season of Stranger Things. NUTS was always a fringe movement because no one could really envision a plausible scenario where policymakers calmly de-escalate a situation after a nuke has gone off. Can Defense Secretary Mattis — who was firm during his confirmation hearings that nuclear weapons must never be used — convince his boss that NUTS is, well, nuts?
The question is far from academic. The threat of planetary obliteration that hung over all citizens during the Cold War has largely receded from memory. Hollywood thrillers about nuclear war, like Testament and Miracle Mile, have largely been replaced in the public imagination by films about terrorist atrocities and zombies. Yet the threat of accidental nuclear annihilation remains quite real. The Russians allegedly maintain a mysterious system called Perimeter, which many analysts believe is a "dead hand" set to launch nuclear missiles in the event of any nuclear detonation in the country. With several more powers joining the nuclear club since the end of the Cold War, including North Korea, India, and Pakistan, the aggregate risk of nuclear war — even if still quite small — is probably higher than it has been since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The fact that the United States is now led by an erratic, ill-tempered novice makes the situation even more unstable. One of the genuinely terrifying things about Donald Trump is how little he appears to know about anything, and how he frequently discovers new facts about the world that would strike most people as self-evident. He's like the imbecile son of a hereditary monarch who becomes king at age 13 when dad chokes to death on a tenderloin. He requires, at all times, a team of educated adults to tutor him on the the basics of diplomacy and history even as he makes momentous decisions about life and death. Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and Vice President Pence are basically operating a regency for a president who is incapacitated by his own ignorance and stupidity.
This may all be bluster, and at the end of the day, war with North Korea remains unlikely. But one of these regents (and God bless them) needs to get our dude caught up on nuclear strategy, unless the few survivors of a nuclear exchange would like to hear him musing, post-apocalypse, about how nuclear weapons are so much deadlier than he thought before he accidentally became leader of the most powerful country in the world.