/ Published January 30, 2020
On the Brink: Trump, Kim, and the Threat of Nuclear War by Van Jackson. Cambridge University Press, 2019, 236 pp.
On the Brink covers very recent current events from the author’s perspective and speaks to being on the precipice of nuclear war. In this context, it is vital to know the culture and history of the major players. An expert in this field and a known Korean security expert, Van Jackson served in the Obama administration. He describes his research as broadly concerning the intersection of Asian security and US strategic thought. His blend of academics and practical experience infuses his US foreign policy analysis.
The book documents the politics between North Korea and the United States. They are illustrative of a potential path toward nuclear war, but there are many assumptions about how both countries will react. Nuclear war would be horrific, and rational people may threaten it with no intention of following through on that threat in order to meet some of their policy objectives. The bluff factor has always been part of North Korea’s politics, with relatively minor skirmishes executed in an effort to show its resolve.
Although the Korean peninsula is the book’s focus, its lessons apply universally. The author provides an outstanding narrative of recent events surrounding the North Korean crisis. Countries have distinctive cultures and thus react differently to threats, whether real or bluster. Jackson reemphasizes the need to always consider the consequences of actions and words. In this case, if the Trump administration did not push back against North Korea, would the regime have continued its behavior and pursuit of nuclear weapons? Which scenario is more susceptible to a nuclear war: US capitulation to any threat levied or tough diplomacy? The current approach is not traditional, but past approaches have repeatedly proved ineffective.
The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in the early 1990s started us on this journey when President Clinton’s administration pressured North Korea. In 1994 Jimmy Carter intervened to de-escalate tensions between the two countries. The author works through the historical aspects since that time and details how the North Koreans reacted to various administrations.
One item to consider for North Korea is that it never truly deviated from the goal of obtaining nuclear weapons and simply used any available means to get them. It seems to have a fascination with becoming a nuclear-armed state and a power to be reckoned with. Negotiations have always tried to stop proliferation but have failed in this regard since they rarely considered what the North truly wants. However, by always giving in to demands, the United States demonstrated that it would act tough but not follow through in an effort to eliminate the threat and maintain the peace in the long term.
The implication of books like this is that we can pick and choose how alternative events could have unfolded if elections went differently—if only a tweet wasn’t sent or a different dialogue was pursued. In diplomacy, the actions tend to be slower and more measured. The difference now is that a nonpolitician businessman is in charge—one used to making rapid decisions. So it seems natural that the normal political apparatus would be alarmed. The question is whether normal politics were working and should have continued to set the foreign policy goals and actions. The nuclear testing program by North Korea proved the fallibility of previous sanctions and policies from prior administrations. If we believe that coarse language could start a nuclear war, then we must think that the recipient is potentially unstable and given to hasty decisions. If the adversarial political leadership is unstable, is it likely that it would start a war with no rational basis anyway? With North Korea labeled as paranoid in some circles, do we need to tread lightly to prevent incidents? Or is a firm hand needed in both dialogue and a willingness to back up rhetoric?
Throughout the Obama administration, the stage was set to continue working toward nonproliferation or to take a different approach. Obama chose the former. It is not clear what policy President Trump should have followed, but it seems clear that previous administrations were unsuccessful in their approaches. Although many scholars may not agree with Jackson’s conclusions, there is no doubt he is well versed in the activities on the Korean peninsula. He has written a thought-provoking book for anyone concerned about global politics.
CMSgt Frank Murphy, USAF, Retired
600 Chennault Circle
Maxwell AFB, AL 36112-6010