This is how Trump should use brinksmanship with North Korea
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In "The Strategy of Conflict," Thomas Schelling wrote, “I should have a little black box that contains a roulette wheel and a device that will detonate in a way that unquestionably provokes total war. I then set this little box down, tell the Russians that I have set it going so that once a day the roulette wheel will spin with a given probability ... that, on any day, the little box will provoke total war. I tell them ... that the little box will keep running until my demands have been complied with and that there is nothing I can do to stop it.”

Brinksmanship involves manipulating risk so that the other side backs down in a crisis. When dealing with a nuclear-armed state such as North Korea, the U.S. has few good military options available. In order to make threats — such as saying if China does not do something, “we will,” and suggesting a “major, major conflict” with Pyongyang was in the offing — credible, challengers need to manipulate the risk of war. For example, a state may delegate authority to the military over various operations as a means of spinning the roulette wheel imagined by Schelling: it is dangerous, which is what makes it effective.


Some argue that a state’s bargaining advantage grows with its power to inflict pain. Because war is costly, states are better off reaching a bargain that allows them to avoid the costs of war. A popular explanation for the outbreak of conflicts is two or more sides disagree over the relative balance of power. In conflicts with the U.S., however, the balance of power is relatively clear. Since the weaker side has more to lose than the stronger side, it would be better off capitulating and cutting a deal rather than risking war. According to this logic, in the face of superior American capabilities and willingness to risk inadvertent escalation, North Korea should cut a deal with the Trump administration.


However, it is precisely because North Korea has more to lose that makes it highly unlikely to back down. As Schelling wrote in "Arms and Influence," a state’s reputation is “one of the few things worth fighting over.” Weak states worry about the reputational consequences of backing down in the face of threats from strong states. By backing down, weak states fear that they may be inviting additional challenges in the future. While North Korea is a black box whose intentions are nearly impossible to discern, it is likely that they fear the reputational consequences of giving up their nuclear arsenal because of the U.S.’s relative military supremacy and ability to project force over long distances.

Furthermore, some speculate for the North Korean leadership, the fates of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi are sufficient reasons for them to refuse to give up their nuclear arsenals. In the cases of Saddam and Gaddafi, both were overthrown after they gave up their nuclear weapons programs. Had they never done so, it is unlikely that the U.S. would have attempted to overthrow them in the first place.

Despite the limitations of brinksmanship, Trump may be forced to remain on this course of action. The U.S. president’s public statements have tied his hands. By threatening the use of force if North Korea maintains its nuclear program and continues to develop the range and sophistication of its ballistic missiles, Trump may suffer domestic political punishments known as audience costs for failing to carry out a threat. This provides him with a potent incentive to stick with the current policy as it incurs diminishing returns.

The Trump administration may untie its hands internationally by stepping gingerly domestically. Experimental evidence shows that American presidents can avoid domestic political punishments for backing out of threats to use force if they can put forward a plausible explanation. John F. Kennedy was able to avoid domestic political sanctions for the Bay of Pigs debacle by accepting personal responsibility.

While campaigning for the presidency, Trump appealed to the general public’s post-Iraq aversion to adventurism in order to capture the Republican presidential nomination and win the general election. Trump may be able to return to this appeal in order to take a more balanced approach with North Korea while reducing the likelihood of conflict.

Asking who won a war, someone has said, is like asking who won the San Francisco earthquake.” Brinksmanship is unlikely to compel North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal, but may raise the likelihood of a costly conflict on the Korean peninsula. Given domestic political imperatives, the Trump administration may be compelled to continue on its current course. In order to have a more balanced approach, the president may have to make use of a little truthful hyperbole in order to untie his hands.

Albert B. Wolf, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of political science at the American University of Afghanistan. He previously served as a Republican legislative assistant in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.