By Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, USA, ret
President Donald Trump has recent cast doubt on his upcoming meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on June 12. Fortunately, American national security and economic prosperity isn’t dependent on getting any specific deal, but on the maintenance of our military deterrent.
Too often Americans like to view things in binary terms—black and white; good and evil; war or peace. The picture depicted by the U.S. media is binary as well. Much of the right-leaning media poses the North Korea talks as struggle between the power and prestige of Trump versus the younger, but crafty Kim. The left-leaning media generally casts the situation in terms of Trump “naiveté” against the more skillful Kim and that the president is “being played.” The fact is, regardless of which—if either—view is accurate on the surface, the situation is far more complex.
The world of diplomacy is anything by binary and for a deal to be made, many and competing interests must be managed. Therefore, coming out of negotiations with a deal we’re happy with is a heavy lift.
Beijing has considerable security and geopolitical interests at stake in the outcome and is actively trying to secure its interests via discussions in Pyongyang, Seoul, Washington, Tokyo, and Moscow. South Korea has more at stake than almost anyone in achieving a peaceful resolution and can be expected to pursue (and in some cases demand) outcomes short of war.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would also like the situation resolved but would be less worried if military means were used to solve the matter than Moon. If the process and resolution of the situation also included a sidelining of China, that would be a bonus.
Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn’t want to see a nuclear-armed North Korea— but he does have regional interests that diverge from Washington’s and would no doubt be happy to see North Korea remain a thorn in America’s side.
To a lesser but still meaningful extent, key European powers also have an interest in seeing this resolved peacefully and are engaged in multilateral engagement with most of the key actors. American leaders must, therefore, recognize that this situation isn’t going to be solved based on the answer to any ‘either/or’ question.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is possibly the quintessential example of binary thinking in Washington related to the current engagement with North Korea—and exemplifies the danger of such thinking. In a Fox News interview he said to Kim, “If you try to play Trump, we’re going to have a war and you’ll lose,” implying that if talks don’t “succeed” —however success is defined—then the only recourse is war. That is a dangerously inaccurate view of the reality of the situation.
The conventional and nuclear power of the United States is significantly greater than that of North Korea. Whether Kim reaches an agreement, makes a deal and then backs off it later, or refuses any settlement, we can deter him from using his weapons indefinitely.
I cannot more emphatically and categorically state: the worst possible outcome for America would be a war, and any attempt to use a so-called “preventive” military strike would likely start a war—and almost certainly cause severe harm to U.S. security and economic interests.
A Department of Defense report to Congress last December stated, in its opening line, “North Korea’s primary strategic goal is perpetual Kim family rule via the simultaneous development of its economy and nuclear weapons program.” Kim’s desire to survive and economically thrive means that he—like China’s Mao Tse-Tung and the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin before him—can be deterred.
Whether Trump and Kim meet on June 12, the situation on the Korean Peninsula is not a binary “deal v. war” prospect. It is a highly complex matter, involving several other global players with differing and competing interests.
Trump should absolutely seek a comprehensive deal. Bringing peace to the peninsula is good for our allies in the region, all Koreans, and the U.S. However the overriding objective for the United States must not be obtaining some specific negotiated deal, but the prevention of war and the preservation of American security and prosperity.
Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.
This piece was originally published by CNBC.com on May 23, 2018. Read more HERE.