Thankfully, the fears of war breaking out on the Korean peninsula over the weekend proved overblown. Rather than test a nuclear weapon, which might have provoked a military strike from U.S. forces in the region, North Korea’s government instead opted to celebrate founder Kim Il Sung’s birthday with a parade and a (failed) missile test. Good news for everyone.
But Mike Pence, visiting Seoul on Monday, still wanted to ensure that the North Koreans don’t get any ideas:
“Just in the past two weeks, the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan,” the vice president said after delivering a statement to the media alongside Hwang Kyo-ahn, South Korea’s acting president. Neither took questions.
“North Korea would do well not to test his resolve or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region,” Pence said.
The idea that adversaries are impressed by shows of resolve is one of the most overhyped concepts in foreign policy. There’s little evidence to suggest that credibility created by military force is that much of a factor in how governments interact with each other. As political scientist Jonathan Mercer wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2013, summarizing his own and others’ research on the topic, credibility arguments are undermined by the existence of “recursion.” Basically, if I try to signal to you how serious I am, you will probably pick up on the fact that I’m signaling and respond to what you think my real intentions are, rather than the signal itself.
“Those who argue that reputation and credibility matter are depending on strategists to be simple-minded, illogical, and blissfully unaware of recursion,” Mercer writes.
For instance, during the Korean War, American policymakers argued that China was watching to see whether the U.S. would back up its commitments to contain the spread of communism. In reality, China was instead worried the U.S. might nuke Beijing. In another example, the Soviets didn’t see the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam as weakness—they wondered why the U.S. spent so much time and resources there in the first place. And as Slate’s cover story vividly demonstrated last week, the Reagan administration’s efforts to project clarity to the Soviet Union in the early 1980s so confused Moscow that it very nearly led to a nuclear war that neither side actually wanted.
Even if we take the notion seriously, the examples Pence used don’t add up. Afghanistan is already the longest war in U.S. history with no end in sight. The U.S. dropped 1,337 bombs there in 2016 alone. Is North Korea really going to conclude that we mean business because we dropped one really big one—one, by the way, only a bit larger than previous bombs dropped in Afghanistan?
As for Syria, that doesn’t work as an example of credibility, either. Just days before Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons attack, the Trump administration had suggested it was open to the Syrian leader remaining in power, despite widespread evidence that he has carried out massacres of civilians, engaged in widespread torture, and violated international law. Assad could reasonably have interpreted this as a green light to continue to wage war as he saw fit. After the chemical attack, which was indeed brutal but not significantly worse than previous regime atrocities, the Trump administration suddenly shifted course and launched missiles at Assad’s air force. If another leader were reading a signal from this, it would not be that the president backs up his commitments with force—it’s that he’s willing to change his commitments at the drop of a hat.
As Fred Kaplan discussed last week, this unpredictability may have a bit of a deterrent effect. U.S. adversaries may restrain their behavior simply because they have no idea what might set Trump off. But in the long run, it’s unlikely to deter Kim Jong Un from his desire to build and expand a nuclear weapons program. A government as paranoid and insular as North Korea’s is likely to conclude that an attack from the U.S. could now come at any minute, and it had better take measure to raise the cost of such an attack as much as possible.