Trump’s Statement About North Korea is How Countries Stumble Into War, Alone

The Trump administration scored a legitimate diplomatic victory last weekend when the Security Council unanimously passed a tough new sanctions package against North Korea. It took him less than a week to undermine that victory by making a pugilistic statement that could alienate the very allies he needs to make these new sanctions a success.

The sanctions resolution that passed the Security Council last week was negotiated directly between China and the United States. Russia was even on board, despite signaling that they might throw a wrench in this process in retaliation to new sanctions package passed against Moscow by the United States Congress.

Still, the UN North Korea sanctions resolution — which the US Ambassador to the United Nations hailed as the strongest sanctions ever — was able to overcome other key geopolitical rifts between the world’s major powers. The threat of North Korean nuclear proliferation offered a rare moment of international unity, despite everything else happening in the world.

In a statement after the sanctions passed, China even said that the non-proliferation goals superseded any economic lose they would suffer from these new sanctions, which for China amounts to a ringing endorsement.

“Owing to China’s traditional economic ties with North Korea, it will mainly be China paying the price for implementing the resolution,” the statement cited Wang as saying.

“But in order to protect the international non-proliferation system and regional peace and stability, China will as before fully and strictly properly implement the entire contents of the relevant resolution.”

Needless to say, just days after issuing this statement, Beijing felt the need to rebuke its negotiating partner in this resolution, saying all parties should “avoid remarks and actions that could aggravate conflicts and escalate tensions.”  The unanimity of the international community that enabled this new sanctions package to be passed could be eroded by warmongering statements coming from the United States president.

Trump’s statement is a diplomatic unforced error that puts the United States in a weaker negotiating position vis-a-vis North Korea. It also undermines the one thing that is preventing war from breaking out on the North Korean peninsula and beyond.

Since the advent of nuclear weapons, no two nuclear armed states have used these weapons on each other during war. That’s because nuclear weapons are powerful deterrents — no country wants to risk national suicide.  Implicit in theories of deterrence, however, is the notion that threats need to be credible in order to be taken seriously.

What makes Trump’s statement about “fire and fury” so dangerous is that he both undermines a recent diplomatic victory while simultaneously eroding the key assumption that makes deterrence work.

This is how one stumbles and errs into war.