Political science theory has the U.S., North Korea, on a collision course

This week’s column strays from my discussion of Millennial Conservatism and focuses upon the North Korean Missile Crisis.

 

As I promised in the first column of my series, I will occasionally focus on policy and/or current events. Remember that you can also email, Tweet or Facebook me with any questions you have, or issues you would like me to discuss.

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Let’s get to the issue at hand.

What the United States and North Korea are facing right now is what we in Security Studies (a major focus for a Political Science degree at Augusta University) call a classic security dilemma. So let me try to parse out a serious theoretical concept to help examine the main concern: the threat of nuclear war.

In the most prominent paradigm of International Relations study, the theory of Realism states that all states seek their own self-interest, and that this is the No. 1 priority for each state in the international system.

Self-interest is key for all states because we live in an anarchical system: international relations are conducted in a non-ordered way. In other words, even though we have global governance, such as mostly non-enforceable international law and intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations and NATO, we don’t really have a structured hierarchical system with enforceable rules, norms, laws and, most importantly, consequences, if a state breaks these rules.

Therefore, we live without a clear governing structure and thus, we believe ourselves living in a Hobbesian world, where each individual looks after oneself, in a world that is “nasty, poor, brutish, solitary and short” and where each is in constant fear of war against all.

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Believe it or not, since about 1648 when the Treaty of Westphalia created the modern nation-state, foreign policy of all countries has operated according to this theoretical assumption: anarchy, self-interest and self-help.

All that states can be assured of is that in order to survive, one must concentrate on the self, because all other states are ultimately only looking out for, you guessed it, their self-interest. Across political ideologies and differing governing regimes, all countries act according to this principle in the international system.

As such, a security dilemma develops when State A, acting in self-defense, bolsters its defensive capabilities. Because states living in a system of anarchy don’t trust one another very much, in this scenario State B views State A’s defensive capabilities as an offensive threat. Thus, State B responds by enhancing its defensive capabilities. State A sees this as an offensive threat, and once again, bolsters its capabilities. And in this instance, we have what is known as a spiral effect. Each state responds and increases its capabilities, resulting from the misperception that the first move was intended as an act of aggression.

In the Spiral Model of the security dilemma, this usually ends poorly – either through what is known as the defensive act of pre-emption (where one state strikes the other when it fears the other is preparing for an immediate strike), or the more offensive act of prevention (where one state strikes the other when it fears that the other is preparing for a long-term eventual strike).

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This is what we see right now between the United States and North Korea. North Korea is flexing its muscles, demonstrating to the U.S. that it has the material and capability of defending itself. The U.S. sees this as offensive threats. It therefore reacts through military swaggering, through joint military exercises, deploying anti-missile systems, and in this case, harsh rhetoric by President Trump that is meant to deter Kim Jong-un.

The problem is that Kim sees this all as an offensive, hostile threat. Both sides here view the other side’s actions as purposely aggressive. In other words, both sides believe the other has the intent to strike.

How does this end? If the two sides continue on the same trajectory, pre-emption is a likely outcome. One side will inevitably strike first in order to achieve first-strike advantage. Or, more likely, an accident or unintended incident will trigger a strike because both sides are operating according to extreme Hobbesian paranoia about the other.

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At this point, events prescribe the next series of events without much help needed from the executives of both countries. When you add in their personalities, the situation is actually more complex, and more serious as well.

Can this be peacefully resolved? Yes. But no one likes the way. According to IR Theory, the way out of the security dilemma is to build trust through constant communication and verifiable actions of trust. But this can only be accomplished through direct negotiations between the two countries, and the U.S. does not want to elevate North Korea’s status on the world stage by engaging in direct talks.

However, without direct talks, the likely outcome will eventually be, or will soon be, the resumption of hostile military actions of the Korean War.

Which route is better? I leave you to decide.

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The writer is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Augusta University. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook: @DrCraigDAlbert

 

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