North Korea and Nuclear Strategy: Risk , Rational Expectations and the Stability of Deterrence.

With regard to the nuclear standoff with North Korea, rightly, attention is increasingly turning from considerations of missile throw-weights, re-entry vehicle dynamics, and weapons type and yield to questions of nuclear strategy.

I have, naturally, written much regarding both here but I would like to make some further remarks regarding the latter, that is nuclear strategy. I should say that these have the status of remarks, rather than a fully considered treatment. In my own writings, I have emphasised the point that North Korea will likely present, in fact does present, what Thomas Schelling called “the threat that leaves something to chance.”

A major article in The New Yorker by Evan Osnos, a gripping and compelling account, to be published on September 18 in the print edition but now available online, makes the same point I had made previously at Pursuit, the publication of the University of Melbourne, but also here quite regularly.

The problem with The New Yorker article is that it doesn’t say more about the other big party to the standoff in Northeast Asia, namely the United States. To this I shall return.

I submit that North Korea will continue to manipulate external perceptions of risk, and that this will increasingly be a mainstay of its nuclear posture. Vipin Narang, a nuclear strategy expert at MIT, has written an interesting book on nuclear deterrence in the second nuclear age, as it were. The book is titled Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era: Regional Powers and International Conflict, and is available from Princeton University Press.

There’s been some literature on this, mostly coming from a decidedly anti realist (in the sense of realist international relations theory) perspective. The non realist perspectives attack the core rationality criterion of deterrence theory, the link between realism and classical theoretical deterrence has always been strong, and they do so in a way that lends support to a post cold war US strategic nuclear policy known as “tailored deterrence.”

The charitable interpretation is that these theoretical considerations on deterrence and the second nuclear age have led to conceptions of tailored deterrence at the official level, the decidedly sceptical is that tailored deterrence, that is the policy, came first and intellectuals are playing legitimatory catch up much as was the case during the cold war with classical deterrence theory.

I have the Narang book, but I have not read it. Alas, it is one of many that I have that share this status on my shelves. At the moment, I am reading the memoirs of Boris Chertok, a key scientific figure in the Soviet space programme, entitled Rockets and People and a history of strategic bombing in the context of notions of total war. My understanding with the Narang book is that it starts by making critical reflections on deterrence theory in the post war context of regional proliferation on empirical grounds, and offers an argument whereby what he refers to as nuclear postures, the stuff of behaviour and declaratory policy, are more crucial to understanding the nuclear weapons policies of regional proliferators than classical theory would allow.

I have not read the Narang book so I do not want to pass comment upon it, but I should say that I start by possessing a mixture of sympathy and scepticism that can only be resolved through a careful study of the analysis presented.

It being the case that nuclear posture is a key consideration of Narang’s it is interesting that he neglected the matter of North Korea and nuclear posture entirely in his recent Washington Post op-ed on North Korea and nuclear strategy. What Narang says in this article is important, and spot on in my view. But it neglects the point my own Pursuit article discussed, and the Osnos article in The New Yorker discusses, namely nuclear posture.

North Korea will, in my opinion does, posture in a way partly designed with a view to using its growing nuclear capabilities to end the outer walls of sanctions and containment, that the United States places it under, through the manipulation of external perceptions of risk. Further US pressure, through expanded military exercises, postured displays of strategic airpower, sanctions and containment will see North Korea up the ante in response, by means of graduated acts of nuclear brinkmanship developed as a means to counter its strangulation, the US policy followed pretty much since 2001, and that drive could get very much get out of control I submit.

North Korea’s strategic nuclear capabilities are not, on this view, just about nuclear deterrence, so I am surprised that Narang did not make this the central concern of his op-ed because, arguably, it is consistent with a key thrust of his book. Perhaps because there are things that one can and cannot say on the opinion pages of The Washington Post.

For the United States, a key consideration missing from the Osnos article, are concerns regarding the credibility of extended deterrence in Northeast Asia. Extended deterrence is a linchpin of the system of world order constructed after World War Two and the US will posture, indeed does posture, in such a way that it seeks to communicate to North Korea, but also South Korea and Japan, resolve regarding the credibility of extended nuclear deterrence. One might argue that various of US statements and actions in recent months with regard to North Korea are precisely reflective of a signalling of resolve regarding extended deterrence.

During the Clinton administration US Strategic Command, which of course is the combatant command overseeing the US strategic nuclear triad, in a key post cold war planning document, known as “Essentials of Post Cold War Deterrence,” argued that Washington needs to posture in such a way that leadership elements must appear “out of control” if its vital interests are attacked. It “hurts” to be “too rational and cool headed” in a crisis and “irrationality” is a key essential feature of post cold war deterrence. Nothing about Donald Trump suggests that he rejects such views, in fact they explain much regarding many of his more controversial and hot headed statements and actions.

What makes the situation in Northeast Asia especially dangerous is the quite evident inherent conflict between these two nuclear postures which grind against each other much like two large continental plates. Earthquakes are a distinct possibility, indeed arguably we are seeing some at the low end of the Richter scale with the big ones yet to come.

We have two highly dangerous nuclear postures meeting and colliding with each other, and if present trends continue more tremors are inevitable.

I should like to conclude with an abstract theoretical point, if I may. We often mistake Claude Shannon’s theory of information as precisely that, a theory of information. Shannon’s theory is more a theory of communication, where a quantitative treatment of information is critical, and we still don’t have a theory of information as such. That’s a point often emphasised by Luigi Floridi, a superb contemporary philosopher. Communication is a key aspect of nuclear posture, and that means the communication of information. That is what a nuclear posture is; it’s a form of signalling and communication with the view to conveying information.

Notice that information, on the Shannon account, has much to do with the resolution of uncertainty. Information is the distinction that makes a difference. I have always felt that the concept of rationality that underpins classical deterrence theory is too narrow. That is, rationality is often seen in highly instrumental cost-benefit terms and because the cost of nuclear war is absurdly high, much higher than any purported benefits, deterrence is seen as quite stable. At the empirical level, the cold war experience is seen as confirming this.

Yet an examination of the empirical record suggests to us that deterrence was not stable, so any theory that seeks to explain stability confronts empirical reality and is based on quite the false axiom.

But traditional theory neglects another concept of rationality, one deriving from neoclassical macroeconomic theory namely rational expectations. Simply put, this is the idea that rational agents make rational decisions under uncertainty. When applied in microeconomics, that is to the specific example of the market in financial services which are governed by expectations of risk inherently driven by uncertainty, this leads to the efficient market hypothesis and so a broader macroeconomic conclusion regarding the supposedly efficient production and allocation of capital is reached. Now we know that rational expectations and the efficient market hypothesis are quite false, we need only observe the global financial crisis and other financial crises in the neoliberal era to see that.

The problem with traditional deterrence theory is that it ignores expectations, that is expectations regarding risk. For deterrence to be stable, which is what classical deterrence is all about demonstrating, expectations must also be rational. But if expectations under uncertainty, that is under incomplete or asymmetric information, are not rational then it is possible to have nuclear postures that are inherently risky, too risky for comfort, and that risk is happily borne by otherwise instrumentally rational states. During the NATO Able Archer ’83 nuclear crisis Moscow formed the expectation that it would be subject to a US first strike, irrational one might say yet clearly that expectation was the driving force behind the crisis which came within a whisker of full scale nuclear war between the Warsaw Pact and NATO.

That makes deterrence less stable than traditional theory allows.

I seek to say more in the coming period regarding nuclear strategy and North Korea, but I should say that like Narang my scepticism with regard to traditional deterrence theory begins from a consideration of the empirical record, which is as it should be, rather than abstract theoretical considerations.