President Trump has just taken a break from his 17-day vacation to threaten North Korea. His words:
North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening beyond a normal state. And as I said, they will be met with fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.
This threat is a response to a continuing series of provocations by North Korea. The problem is that threats have consequences for credibility. U.S. leaders have traditionally been careful with their language, especially when dealing with nuclear powers, and for good reason. Trump’s threat is more likely to lead to dangerous escalation than to make North Korea back down.
Escalation can be a very bad thing
Nuclear weapons are the most devastating kinetic weapons known to man. While fears of a mutual conflagration that would destroy human life on this planet have diminished, even a limited nuclear war could cause millions of human deaths.
Fears of all-out nuclear war dominated the historical relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both sides faced the temptation of brinkmanship — pushing to the very edge of open hostility to extract concessions from the other.
But brinkmanship is a dangerous game. If you miscalculate your threats or misunderstand the other side’s motivations, you might leave the other side with no choice but to respond aggressively. This might lead to a war of mutually assured destruction that neither side wants but neither side can avoid.
The Cuban missile crisis was a classic example of brinkmanship, in which mutually escalating threats between the United States and the Soviet Union nearly led to war. Had things gone a little differently, the world might have seen a devastating nuclear conflict. The near miss helped provoke serious rethinking on both sides about how they could manage their many conflicts of interest without outright war.
Nuclear weapons led to concerns about credibility and deterrence
After the crisis, U.S. (and eventually U.S.S.R.) strategic thinkers, such as Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling, started to radically rethink the politics of conflict. The U.S. and Soviet…