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The US Should Give Peace a Chance When It Comes to North Korea

A. Trevor Thrall

On Wednesday, President Trump will host all 100 members of the
Senate at the White House for an extraordinary briefing on North Korea’s
nuclear program. Given all the saber rattling so far, it would not
be surprising to hear Trump issue more warnings to North Korea. In
just the past week National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Vice President Mike Pence
have both warned that “all of our options are on the
table” regarding North Korea’s burgeoning nuclear
program.

Stern sounding words, certainly, but in fact their statements
were in keeping with an American foreign policy tradition. In 2011,
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised that “all options were on the table” to keep
Gaddafi from using military force against civilians in Libya. And
in 2008 while running for office, Barack Obama said he would
take no options off the table” to keep
Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

The years of repetition by both political parties makes it
pretty clear that the United States wants its adversaries to know
that, well, all options are on the table. Unfortunately, they
aren’t.

In light of the risks and
costs of military intervention and the public’s strong preferences,
it’s time for the Trump administration to give diplomacy a
chance.

The truth is that “all options are on the table” has
simply become the most popular shorthand for threatening the use of
force if things don’t go America’s way. A search of the
Factiva U.S. newspaper database reveals that
since 2001 the phrase has appeared in almost 5,000 stories.
What’s even more telling, however, is the trend. In the
fifteen years before 9/11, the New York Times and Washington
Post
combined to use the phrase 62 times. Since then
they’ve used the phrase 427 times. And thanks to the Trump
administration’s saber rattling about North Korea, the phrase
has been used over three times as often during the Trump
administration as it was during the Obama administration.

Why are politicians so keen to threaten the military option? One
would imagine that the past 15 or 16 years of costly and
counterproductive military effort in the Middle East would have
cured most people of the habit. The unfortunate answer is that
since 9/11 Washington has become addicted to the use of military
force. At this point Republicans and Democrats alike believe that
the “big stick” is necessary to ensure productive
diplomacy.

The threat of force can, under some circumstances, induce
concessions. But threats are only credible if the United States is
willing to carry them out. American threats against North Korea,
however, have always been empty because a military strike would be
too risky. Ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons aside, hundreds
of North Korea’s long-range conventional artillery pieces
sit within easy striking distance of Seoul,
South Korea, a city of 10 million people. A U.S. strike could lead
to catastrophic retaliation by North Korea.

Some might argue that America’s leaders talk tough because
they believe the public prefers aggressive responses to
international threats. Hawks might point, for example, to polls
that show a majority of Americans support the military campaign against ISIS, or
to a September 2015 CNN/ORC poll that found 64 percent
supported the United States taking military action if Iran violated
the terms of the JCPOA nuclear deal aimed to halting Iran’s
nuclear weapons program.

When it comes to North Korea, however, the polls tell a
different story. In an April 2017 Marist poll, despite the fact that most
Americans view North Korea as a “major threat,” 69
percent think the United States should use diplomacy compared to
just 23 percent who believe the U.S. should take military
action.

More fundamentally, the hawkish “all options”
approach is out of step with how Americans think the United States
should conduct foreign policy. Americans have long believed
diplomacy is more useful than military strength. Since 1994 the Pew
Research Center has asked Americans whether “good
diplomacy” or “military strength” is the
“best way to ensure peace.” Americans have chosen good
diplomacy over military strength by an average of 58 to 32 percent.
In 2015, the margin was 62 to 30 percent. Even when the issue in
question is deadly serious, like nuclear proliferation, Americans
choose diplomacy. In a series of CBS/New
York Times
polls between 2006 and 2013, for example, when
given a choice between using military force to stop Iran from
developing nuclear weapons or continuing with diplomacy, just 17
percent chose the military option.

In light of the risks and costs of military intervention and the
public’s strong preferences, it’s time for the Trump
administration to give diplomacy a chance. When U.S. leaders say,
“all options are on the table” all options really
should be on the table. The United States may not get everything it
wants through diplomacy, but a failure of diplomacy will be less
costly than a crisis that escalates out of control thanks to
aggressive rhetoric.

A. Trevor
Thrall
is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Defense and
Foreign Policy Department and associate professor at George Mason
University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.