Most US presidencies are defined by their foreign policies, and most foreign policies are defined by wars—those that were fought and those that weren’t.
Of course, some wars are more significant than others. The Civil War and World War II defined the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt—but then they would have defined the presidencies of anyone occupying the office at those times. Even just the possibility of war can have the same effect. Jimmy Carter learned this through the Iranian hostage crisis and Barack Obama through his evaporating red line in Syria.
The biggest decision an American president faces is whether to send the nation’s soldiers into certain danger to protect and defend the national interest. Donald Trump is fast approaching that point with North Korea, and his decision will define his presidency more than any of his infamous tweets or off-the-cuff remarks.
The US has been sending mixed messages for months now. It briefly stationed three carrier battle groups within striking distance of the Korean Peninsula, before relocating them. One minute, the president is threatening to bring fire and fury to Pyongyang. The next minute, the US secretary of defense is saying diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the situation are working.
This cannot go on indefinitely. US military forces cannot remain in a constant state of readiness. Eventually, the United States’ inaction will turn into a decision not to strike. Rarely are decisions such as this black and white, but if the administration believes its own intelligence, it has a fairly stark choice: accept a nuclear North Korea and the attendant consequences, or attack North Korea and accept the attendant consequences.
Trump has sought to differentiate himself from Obama, but ironically he finds himself in a situation similar to that of his predecessor, except with much higher stakes. In August 2012, as the civil war in Syria was escalating, Obama said the US would see any use of chemical weapons by the Bashar Assad regime as crossing a red line. There was no “fire and fury” in Obama’s comments, but his statement set up a situation in which Obama either had to act on the threat or back off.
A year later, the Assad regime used chemical weapons—and Obama backed off. It damaged US credibility in the world and made Obama look like a president who wouldn’t follow through on a threat. It was one of those moments when words made a difference. It changed the perception of the global superpower in the eyes of others who might seek to challenge it. And in the two years that followed, Russia annexed Crimea, and the Islamic State became a formidable force in the Middle East. These events may not have been a direct result of Obama’s inaction, but it is without doubt that many took notice.
It’s not an unprecedented problem, even in US relations with Korea. Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson pushed Harry Truman into the Korean War by delivering a speech in January 1950 in which he did not include South Korea as part of the US defense perimeter in Asia. It wasn’t an unreasonable omission, as South Korea is not of existential importance to US strategy. But it had the unintended consequence of signaling to Russia, China, and North Korea that the US would not intervene in the event of an invasion of the recently divided Korean Peninsula.
When North Korea did invade, with tacit support from both Russia and China, the US faced two unsavory choices: maintain the containment line but risk the lives of tens of thousands of US soldiers, or save the country from a war that was ultimately not a threat to Americans, but sacrifice US credibility. Acheson himself once said prestige “is the shadow cast by power, which is of great deterrent importance.” Truman agreed and so the US went to war to defend its image, for better or for worse.
The US is inching perilously close to such a moment again. Both sides have issued threats, and while there remains a sliver of hope for a diplomatic solution, they still have imperatives so diametrically opposed that it is hard to imagine either side will capitulate. North Korea has staked the legitimacy of its regime on resisting the US and all other enemies for over half a century. The US faces the same situation it faced in 1950: uphold its security guarantee, or risk sending the signal that it is ceding some measure of power in the Pacific.
And so the question is, now that Trump has threatened to destroy North Korea if it continues its nuclear program, will the US speak loudly and carry a big stick, or just speak loudly? A North Korea with nuclear weapons is dangerous—but so is a nuclear-armed Pakistan and India, and the US didn’t stop them (or a host of other nations) from attaining nuclear weapons. North Korea wants nukes as a deterrent to ensure its survival, but using them would ensure its annihilation. The chances, therefore, that Pyongyang will use nukes are very slim. But when losing means the devastation of Los Angeles or Seattle, even betting on long odds is dangerous.
Having staked this much on the North Korea issue, the US risks being seen as weak if its threats turn out to be empty. That may seem like a hollow concern, especially in a world where the US is without peer in terms of its power… but it does have would-be peers. China still faces many internal issues, but it also has significant long-term ambitions, and the US is standing in its way. We at GPF are generally skeptical about China becoming a global power, but it is a significant regional power right now, and it will get more powerful before its domestic constraints cut it down to size. There is already a sense in China that Trump is a “paper tiger” whose threats carry little meaning, and failing to follow through on North Korea would do much to solidify that opinion and embolden Beijing.
And should Trump’s threats turn out to have some teeth, China might even benefit if the US, which is seen as an imperial power in most of Asia, initiates another war on the Korean Peninsula. What China (and especially President Xi Jinping’s government) needs most—more than control over the South China Sea or a policy to spread wealth equally among disparate social classes in China—is a way to hold Chinese society together through the economic and demographic challenges that are coming its way. Chinese nationalism is a powerful adhesive, and a formidable and looming enemy in the form of the US would make it that much stronger. It is often assumed China wouldn’t risk conflict with the US because it can’t beat the US, but perhaps China doesn’t need to win so much as it needs unity. And perhaps a limited conflict with the US—even if China looks weak in the immediate term—is not such a bad outcome.
The Korean War ultimately wasn’t about Korea; it was about great powers needing to fight battles in faraway places to show how powerful they are. That hasn’t changed. The US has a decision to make, and then China, Japan, and Russia will also have decisions to make. Koreans on both sides of the DMZ will bear the costs of those decisions once more. The next step, however, in this unfolding drama is for the US to decide which is the lesser of two evils: a nuclear North Korea or another land war in Asia. That choice will define how this administration is remembered far more than the political melodrama polluting our airwaves daily.