CANBERRA, Australia — Rivalry between great powers is plainly escalating in many parts of the world. When that happens, specific local issues often take on a much broader significance. And so it is with the present tension over North Korea’s nuclear program.
The issues are very serious in their own right, but they become even more important because they play into the wider contest between China and the United States over their future roles in Asia. Will the U.S. remain Asia’s leading power and the arbiter of regional order? Or will China take its place?
Clearly, America’s standing as regional leader would be dramatically reaffirmed if U.S. President Donald Trump could convince or compel North Korea to abandon its nuclear program and stop threatening America and its allies. But just as clearly, U.S. standing would be weakened if Trump fails. In the zero-sum logic of major power rivalry, that would be a win for China. Moreover, the more stridently Trump says he is going to stop North Korea, the worse it looks when he fails, and the more Beijing stands to gain.
That is especially true when he threatens to use armed force. Although wars between great powers have been mercifully rare in recent decades, their perceived ability and willingness to use force remains central to their power and influence.
A country’s broader standing is seriously undermined when it threatens to use force and then backs down.
Such is the strange and seemingly immutable pattern of power politics. It explains why great powers, including America, spend so much money on armed forces even when they face few, if any, direct threats to their own security. It explains why a country’s broader standing is so seriously undermined when it threatens to use force and then backs down.
And it explains why Trump’s recent wild talk about war has been so damaging to America’s international leadership. His threats to use force to stop North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile program will prove empty because his only military options could escalate into the biggest conflict since 1945.
So America will not just end up living with an ICBM-armed North Korea. It will find its leadership in Asia sharply diminished in the eyes of both its allies and its rivals.
Look at the allies first. Countries like Japan and South Korea depend on America for their security because they are confident that America will fulfill its promises to go to war to protect them if necessary. In return, their support is essential to America’s international leadership. But their support falters when their confidence is undermined by America failing to use force when it says it will.
America’s rivals will now be emboldened to challenge U.S. leadership more blatantly.
This is a particular problem for America’s Asian allies today because their confidence in U.S. resolve is already weakened. The closer North Korea gets to having the capacity to attack U.S. cities using nuclear weapons, the less confident those Asian allies can be that the U.S. will be willing to shield them from North Korean threats. And the richer and more powerful China becomes, the more it will cost America to stand up to China on its allies’ behalf and the less confident they can be that America will be willing to accept that cost.
To some extent, such uncertainties are part of the normal stuff of alliance management, but they have become much more acute in recent years. Back in the Cold War, few doubted America’s resolve because the Soviets so obviously posed a true existential threat to U.S. security, and U.S. leaders were very careful to uphold the credibility of their undertakings.
After the Cold War, the U.S. seemed to face no serious rivals, so the question did not arise. Only recently have serious doubts about U.S. resolve really appeared. Now, under Trump, they are growing fast.
America’s rivals will also draw important conclusions from what Trump has said. They will be reassured that, whatever its leaders might say, America lacks the resolve to use armed force to protect its position as a global and regional leader. They will therefore be emboldened to challenge U.S. leadership more blatantly.
If, one day, the U.S. threatens to use force and really means it, China could underestimate its resolve and push ahead, sparking a war that both would rather avoid – 1914 redux.
In Asia, America will find it harder to deter China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, which is deliberately intended to display China’s growing ability to defy U.S. power in the maritime domain, where it was once strongest. And it increases the risk that if, one day, Trump or his successor threatens to use force and really means it, Beijing will underestimate U.S. resolve and push ahead, sparking a war that both would rather avoid — 1914 redux.
It is easy to see then why national leaders — especially leaders of great powers — have always been so exceptionally careful about threatening the use of force. Of course, everyone can make an occasional slip. Even former U.S. President Barack Obama, normally a model of caution, went too far in setting a red line around Syria’s use of chemical weapons; America’s credibility took a serious hit when that red line was crossed, and the U.S. did nothing.
But Trump is different. Never before have we seen the leader of a great power speak so loosely about this most important subject. He seems quite unaware of the consequences for America’s credibility and international standing. Indeed, he hardly seems to understand that he speaks for America at all. With Trump, everything is personal.
America’s role as the upholder of order will now further dwindle, and the world will become a more dangerous place.
So where will this lead? Alas, the answers are all too clear. Most likely, prudent allies will rely less and less on the U.S. Ambitious rivals will push harder and harder to erode U.S. leadership and assert their own. America’s role as the upholder of order in key regions of the world will dwindle, and the world will become a more dangerous place.
Alternatively, miscalculations on all sides may create a situation where Trump’s irresponsibility slides from talk to action, and America finds itself in a major war it need not fight and cannot win.