Nukes + Nuttiness = Neanderthal Deterrence

by Victor Davis Hanson// National Review

Acting crazy has worked for rogue regimes, but Western appeasement is not a long-term solution.

How can an otherwise failed dictatorship best suppress internal dissent while winning international attention, influence — and money?

Apparently, it must openly seek nuclear weapons.

Second, the nut state should sound so crazy and unpredictable that it might just use them, regardless of civilization’s deterrent forces arrayed against it.

Third, it must welcome being “reluctantly” pulled into nonproliferation talks to prolong the farce and allow its deep-pocket enemies to brag of their diplomatic “strategic patience” and sophistication.

The accepted logic of the rogue state is that the Westernized world is so affluent and leisured, and life is so good, that it will understandably grant almost any immediate geostrategic or monetary concession to avoid serious disruptions of the international order. The logic of appeasement is always more appeasement — especially in the one-bomb nuclear age.

North Korea sounds as if Pyongyang is an expendable hellhole, but not so Seoul, one of the world’s great commercial and industrial powerhouses that exports Hyundais, Kias, Samsung, and LG appliances.

The logic is that of the proverbial crazy country neighbor, whose house and yard are a junkyard mess, whose kids are criminals, and who periodically threatens to “mess you up” unless you put up with his antics, give him attention, and overlook his serial criminality.

The renegade neighbor’s logic is that you have lots to lose by descending into his world of violence and insanity, while he has nothing to forfeit by basking in it, and that such asymmetry allows him to have something on you. And it makes him something other than just the ex-con, creep, and failure that he otherwise is.

Short-term appeasement of unhinged monsters is always felt to be a safer and less dangerous choice than solving the problem once and for all, which one might do by calling the bluff of a rabid entity believed capable of inflicting grave damage on the civilized order.

And so for nearly the last half century we have found new and creative ways of feeding our pre-civilized dragons in fear that otherwise they will immediately scorch civilization. The logic, in other words, has been “let the next administration handle this temporarily placated monster when he gets hungry again.”

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, Saddam Hussein sounded and acted murderously unhinged: He preemptively attacked Iran, issued threats against most of his neighbors, gassed thousands of Kurds at Halabja, bragged about his human flesh-chipper, ran a gestapo police state that murdered hundreds of thousands of its own, invaded Kuwait, sent missiles into Israel, violated U.N. resolutions, and all the while slyly suggesting that Iraq had a huge arsenal of WMD.

A crazy, dangerous Iraq was all over the front pages — in a way that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and other oil-exporting Arab countries were not.

But eventually Saddam’s various enemies concluded that in fact he did not have nuclear capability, and then they moved to ensure that he never acquired it. After Israel’s preemptive strike in 1981 at the Iraq nuclear facility at Osirak, outside of Baghdad, and the crushing defeat in the First Gulf War, Saddam’s enemies guessed that he had no nuclear deterrent — yet. And so the Americans took him out in 2003, on the hunch that his much-bragged-about WMD arsenal did not mean he had a bomb.

Moammar Qaddafi adopted the same blueprint of acting crazy — subsidizing global terrorists, taking down airplanes, terrorizing his own people — while using his petrodollars to build centrifuges to acquire nuclear capability.

For a time, Qaddafi was on the world stage in a way that nondescript Morocco or Tunisia was not. But after the 2003 removal of Saddam, Qaddafi panicked, feared his own removal, and so gave up his nuclear program. Without nukes and a future deterrent, his craziness eventually sounded shrill and he was bombed out of power less than a decade later.

Iran follows the same tired and predictable script. It has talked grandly of Israel as a “one-bomb state.” It threatens to unleash a firestorm in the Persian Gulf. It sends out global terrorists and fights proxy wars in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. It hijacks boats and gloats about launching missiles toward American carriers.

Iran’s revolutionary theocracy has executed thousands of dissidents; it takes Western hostages and bargains for ransom. And all the while it has continued to build centrifuges — now bragging that it will soon become nuclear, now backing off under criticism and smirking that its enriched uranium is “for peaceful purposes” only.

In other words, a passive-aggressive Iran learned long ago that an otherwise nondescript rogue nation without an effective military and economy, or cultural influence of the caliber of the United States’, Europe’s, Russia’s, or China’s, usually does not warrant world attention. It does not win $400 million in bribe money in the dead of night along with fawning, serial concessions — unless it credibly acts as if it is both nuts and on the cusp of being nuclear. So Iran, in seemingly suicidal fashion, poses as if it is existentially dangerous, neither subject to natural laws of deterrence nor to international norms and laws. (Few worry about democratic and nuclear France, India, and Israel or even much about Russia and China, both of which are autocratic and nuclear but otherwise globalized, commercially engaged, and usually predictable.)

In contrast, consider Pakistan. Periodically it has talked of nuclear exchanges with India, winked and nodded at terrorist operations against Mumbai, harbored bin Laden, promoted the Taliban, and profited from terrorism and drugs — on the loud assurance that it has a sizable nuclear arsenal, is unpredictable, and at times is prone to suicidal Islamist fantasies. Without such a strategy, Pakistan would earn little fear, no world attention, and not much international aid, given that it has never developed a sophisticated globalized economy like neighboring democratic India.

But no one has played the game better than the two Kim Jongs of North Korea. The result is that Pyongyang has gained billions in bribe money, international attention and concern, and free publicity, despite starving its own people and becoming the hated pariah of Asia.

Certainly, comparably sized Asian countries such as Sri Lanka or Malaysia do not warrant the world’s focus or largesse by quietly tending to their own business. Under the rules of nuttiness and nuclearized blackmail, quiet non-nuclear states who play by the rules are ignored, and rogues who don’t are courted and bribed. Outlaw leaders see such brinkmanship as the pathway to family enrichment and prolonged tenure.

There are still a few ways to break this dangerous cycle, but they all are predicated on two assumptions: the immediate remedies are quite dangerous, and yet the status quo is not sustainable and even more existentially dangerous in the long term.

Here are some options; they are not mutually exclusive and universally applicable to rogue nuclear states besides North Korea.

Third Parties

Rogue nations exist because superpower patrons find them useful pawns.

Trump apparently is redefining Obama-era “normal” commercial relations with China as suddenly asymmetrical and detrimental to the U.S. — as a bargaining chip to negotiate downward so that the Chinese will help with North Korea. If in exchange he gets Chinese pressure on Pyongyang, then the upside of the deal is that we are no worse off trade-wise with China than we were in 2009, but much better off without a North Korea threat.

It’s usually delusional to appeal to the self-interest of a big power that is sponsoring a rogue state (a Russia or a China knows better than we do why their clients do things that bother us). Yet Trump apparently will try to convince China (no longer itself posing as a Maoist-crazy, impoverished nuclear state) that a rich South Korea that forgoes nuclear weapons, with traditional rivalries with Japan, is still a better deal than a serially unpredictable and treacherous nuclear Pyongyang, whose wayward nuclear explosions could radiate almost anywhere.


We laugh at soft-power sanctions. But in the case of North Korea and Iran, it was they, not us, who lobbied, threatened, and begged for them to end. The problem with sanctions is not that they do not eventually work but that that they take a long time to work well — and in the interim the sanctioneers lose their nerve and their solidarity and then capitulate, either to win accolades for a “legacy” deal or in guilt that they have reduced North Koreans to eating grass or Iranians to being without Advil. Once sanctions are leveled, they should never be lifted until the rogue state is certifiably incapable of deploying nuclear weapons.


Rogue nations do not care about offensive asymmetry, given their vows that they welcome Armageddon if it means the end of an American city or chaos in the supposedly hated West.

In such an unlikely but nevertheless dangerous calculus, ten nukes in the hand of Iran or North Korea are felt to be worth 1,000 in the possession of the U.S.

So the key is more defensive deterrence, or the overwhelming assurance that missile defense, cyberwarfare, etc. can nearly guarantee that North Korea’s weapons will have zero effect on its enemies. The script about desiring suicide is empty if a rogue state knows it cannot take anyone down with it (like a suicide bomber who beforehand knows that his bomb is a dud).

Clearly, the U.S. and its Asian allies must expand — and demonstrate — their anti-missile capability as fast as possible.

Degrees of Madness

Rogue madness can become banal quickly. (“My, my — North Korea threatened to blow us up again yesterday.”) North Korea can only threaten to incinerate the U.S. so many times; Iran can put out only so many videos showing America in flames.

Western madness is a different story, given its rarity and far more likely severity. It is a false reading of history to think that the U.S. has always responded predictably and proportionally. Its record in the World Wars and Korea and Vietnam is on occasion devastating and disproportionate.

We ridicule the good cop–bad cop, Nixonian-Kissingerian role-playing, but it achieved results precisely because there were unquestionably credible hawks in government who were always on the verge of breaking out of their cages. The loud presence of a supposedly Strangelovian Curtis LeMay was of value to U.S. presidents. The occasional narrative, true or fabricated, that a sober McMaster or Mattis must calm down an impulsive Trump may have some value.

Allied Cohesion

In a showdown, there can be no triangulating allies who publicly fret about America’s “show of force” but privately beg that it continues. The key is to separate rogue states from their patrons, not our clients from ourselves. Any policy must first be ironclad in its assurances that all frontline threatened states are on board with a new deterrent stature and not sending mixing signals to enemies.

The alignment of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Australia with the U.S. is a potent force that can help sway China and reassure such non-nuclear states that they are under the American defensive umbrella.


As a last resort, of course, the U.S. can always tell China that it broke the unspoken rule of not letting a client go nuclear. It will remind Beijing that if Taiwan, Japan, or South Korea chooses to go nuclear as did North Korea, its nukes would work like Hondas and Kias and not implode on the launching pad.

Public opinion in all these countries, of course, understandably opposes nuclearization, but public opinion is fickle when North Korea sends missiles into one’s air space. Nuclearized India, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea on the borders of Russia and China are unstable enough for these patrons — without adding a nearby nuclear Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea as well.

In sum, when a nutty nuclear or would-be nuclear state goes too far in its various extortions and is seen as an immediate existential threat, then long-term dangers become short-term crises and override short-term appeasement.

And that’s where we seem to be going with North Korea.

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