A US Strategic Command document declassified a few years ago contains the following passage:
(...) While it is crucial to explicitly define and communicate the acts or damage that we would find unacceptable, we should not be too specific about our responses. Because of the value that comes from the ambiguity of what the US might do to an adversary if the acts we seek to deter are carried out, it hurts to portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool - headed. The fact that some elements may appear to be potentially “out of control” can be beneficial to creating and reinforcing fears and doubts within the minds of an adversary‘s decision makers. This essential sense of fear is the working force of deterrence. That the US may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be a part of the national persona we project to all adversaries. (...)
Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger called this the Madman Strategy. For nuclear weapons to serve as a deterrent, it’s not enough simply to possess them. The problem is, no person of ordinary human feeling or rationality would actually use them. A first strike would be a moral abomination; a second strike would be too late. For nuclear weapons to be an effective deterrent, a government must persuade adversaries that its leaders are crazy enough to use them - as the document says, “out of control”, “irrational and vindictive”.
Thus it‘s not a question of who is the US president. Whoever is president, the Madman Strategy is US policy. And it has succeeded, in that the US’s adversaries are persuaded that there are people in the US government mentally deranged enough to use the Bomb. I am also persuaded. After all, the US is the only country to prove itself capable of doing it by actually doing it. Twice.
Whether intentional or not, the government of the Democratic People‘s Republic of Korea has also been successful in projecting this national persona to its adversaries. As I write (7 April) the US and the DPRK are engaged in the most dangerous nuclear standoff since the Cuban missile crisis. DPRK representatives are saying they are ready to launch a nuclear attack. US representatives are saying, probably they won’t do it, because they are rational enough to understand that it would mean suicide. By “suicide” they mean that the US would take revenge by launching a nuclear attack.
The DPRK has been under threat of US nuclear attack for six decades, most of that time without any nuclear deterrent capability. Does such an experience improve one‘s rationality, or does it bring on a slow version of PTSD: paranoia, attacks of rage, sudden uncontrollable violence? Let’s hope not the latter.
In September 2000, as the ROK‘s Sunshine Policy was just getting started, a neoconservative US think tank called The Project for the New American Century published a paper titled “Rebuilding America’s Defenses.” It contained the sentence,
“…in any realistic post-unification scenario, U.S. forces are likely to have some role in stability operations in North Korea.”
In this view, “reunification of Korea” meant “US military occupation of the North”. After George W. Bush was elected president two months later, many of the authors of this document joined his administration.
Two years later, on 29 January, 2002, President Bush declared that Iraq, Iran, and North Korea formed an “axis of evil”. Then the US began preparations to invade Iraq. Significantly, it invaded Iraq only after it was assured by the UN Weapons Inspection Team that Iraq had no weapons of mass
destruction: no “deterrent”.
Surely the DPRK officials watched these developments closely. Presumably the lesson they drew from them was, countries on the “axis of evil” list that have no nuclear deterrent get invaded by the US.
In January, 2003, when it had become clear that the US was going to invade Iraq, the DPRK announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
“Axis of evil” was a GW Bush slogan, but again it seems not to matter who is president. Last month the US military in the ROK staged a mock nuclear attack on the DPRK, and carried out a war game on the scenario of invading that country. Invasion is still the US model for reunification, and nuclear terror is still an option. The response of the North appears to be mad, but is it an overuse of the Madman Strategy, or have six decades of living under US nuclear threat driven them genuinely mad?