Trump's threat of war with North Korea may sound scarier than it is

US President Donald Trump speaks to reporters about North Korea before meeting with participants in a workforce and apprenticeship discussion at his golf estate in Bedminster, New Jersey, on Aug 11, 2017.
US President Donald Trump speaks to reporters about North Korea before meeting with participants in a workforce and apprenticeship discussion at his golf estate in Bedminster, New Jersey, on Aug 11, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

American anxiety over North Korea spiked last week when US President Donald Trump warned that, if the country makes any more threats against the United States, it "will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen".

Social media filled with nervous jokes and at times outright panic over whether Trump and North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, could bluster their way into unintended nuclear war. Some posted maps showing what the blast areas of a nuclear strike in Washington or New York might look like. Others asked whether it was time to build a bomb shelter.

The Trump administration seemed to cultivate this sense of alarm. Sebastian Gorka, a White House adviser, told Fox News that the standoff is "analogous to the Cuban missile crisis," which nearly brought the United States and Soviet Union to war.

North Korea's nuclear programme is deadly serious, but research on the nature of foreign threats and nuclear weapons, as well as North Korea's own track record, suggests that Americans can hold off on building those bomb shelters.

Here are five reasons the danger may not be as scary as you've heard.

The US has been issuing vague threats against North Korea for more than 15 years.

The George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations both threatened war, setting red lines that Pyongyang almost always went on to cross.

Bush even declared North Korea to be one third of the "axis of evil," along with Iraq, which the US military invaded the next year.

North Korean leaders correctly assessed those threats as empty, never sending the countries careening into an unintended war. And the threats didn't seem to affect American credibility. It's not clear that Trump, by upgrading the language in his own threats, changes much.

Americans might have strong views about what makes Trump different from his predecessors. But in Pyongyang, where the nuances of U.S. politics and personalities are less familiar, those distinctions are likely less front-of-mind.

Words matter in international relations, but actions matter far more.

Current American action, or lack thereof, sends a message of calm and caution, rather than "fire and fury". States have a hard time reading one another's internal politics, so they tend to rely heavily on reading one another's actions for clues as to their intentions. And American action toward North Korea remains unchanged. US troops in nearby Guam and Japan are still in their barracks. Naval warships are holding a respectful distance.

These are the sorts of signals, not a leader's offhand comments, that matter most in international relations. Washington is sending a clear, consistent message to Pyongyang that the United States still wants to avoid escalation.

Though North Korea has returned Trump's threat with its own against Guam, the country's actions suggest it is only for show.

No one has an incentive to escalate, and all sides understand this.

Wars can happen when states conclude, rightly or wrongly, that the other side might see conflict is in its interests. This can lead them to prepare for war, making it likelier that an accident or miscalculation could send them stumbling into one. But that is not the case now.

North Korea's interests are to avoid a conflict it would likely lose. The United States' interests are to avoid a conflict that would risk a nuclear attack against an American city. That clarity is stabilising.

Despite long-standing speculation about Kim's mental fitness, scholars agree he has repeatedly proven himself rational and focused on his government's survival. His country's weapons programs are designed to deter a war, not start one.

And while Trump's comment hint at an appetite for war, the institutions that carry out US foreign policy - particularly the military - have behaved conservatively, giving the world ample reason to dismiss his statement.

States tend to ignore unclear, isolated signals like Trump's.

Some analysts worry that Trump could inject more uncertainty into an already tense situation.

The president's most bellicose statements appear to contradict his own administration's more measured lines on North Korea. But studies on foreign policy messaging suggest that Pyongyang will hear Trump's threats as empty.

States, according to research by Robert Jervis, a Columbia University political scientist, are biased toward assuming other states' behaviour will remain consistent. Overcoming that bias and forcing a state like North Korea to change its assessment of U.S. intentions would require more than a few words.

States also tend to disregard any signal they perceive as unclear or ambiguous. If Americans can't agree on what Trump meant, you can bet the analysts in Pyongyang are no more certain.

Any risk to American credibility or of trapping Trump in a dangerous position is easy to overstate.

Extensive research suggests that empty threats neither damage a state's global credibility nor create pressures forcing it to follow through on those threats. Though questions of credibility are still debated by political scientists, history is littered with examples of false threats conveniently ignored.

During the Cold War, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev repeatedly threatened to seize West Berlin. But Soviet actions betrayed his threats as empty, allowing Washington and Moscow to quietly sidestep the risk of war in Germany. He never felt politically forced to invade. And few doubted Soviet credibility a few months later when Moscow tried to install nuclear weapons in Cuba - an action that spoke louder and more clearly than any of Khrushchev's words.

That is the real lesson of the Cuban missile crisis.

If Trump moves thousands of troops from Guam to South Korea, you can worry. That would send a clear and destabilising signal of U.S. intentions against North Korea. But one over-the-top quote is not worth losing sleep over.

"If you want my advice, get off Twitter and go to dinner," Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on North Korea's nuclear programme, wrote on Twitter as social media panic grew.

"The nuclear war isn't tonight."


The Interpreter is a column by Max Fisher and Amanda Taub exploring the ideas and context behind major world events