Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Dangerous Appeal of Appeasement

Lights out in North Korea.
Image credit:  NASA
     Thursday’s post on North Korea requires a sequel. The news yesterday confirmed threats of further attacks by the North and the opposition of China to American naval exercises off the Korean coast. It is as if the principals were reading from an old script: Act I, Scene 1: North Korea tests the resolve of the U.S. and South Korea; Act I, Scene 2: The U.S. and the South condemn the North’s actions; Act I, Scene 3: China backs the North and condemns the condemnations; Act I, Scene 4: the North issues new threats. So far, there has been no Act II, in which either the Americans and South Koreans answer force with force or the North finally attacks the South in earnest. However, our ability to postpone a second act until the North implodes from its internal economic contradictions is increasingly in question. Moreover, every time the U.S. accepts violence from the North without reprisal, another blemish appears in American credibility as a deterrent power. While every day that war is avoided counts as a victory, the sum of such victories may very well be disaster. Making this case to a skeptical public is a particular difficulty for American leadership.

     The diplomatic approach by which the civilized world has attempted to contain North Korea without employing military force has, by some measures, gone fairly well. In the 57 years since the Korean War cease-fire, the peninsula has been largely stable. Certainly South Korea has been able to pursue political and economic liberty. In so doing, South Korea has written its own entry in the journal of prosperity. In the North, of course, there have been tyranny, famine, and death. Nonetheless, international pressure has contained these apocalyptic horsemen to one benighted region and one unfortunate people. Of course, to say this containment has come about without military force is incomplete, because only the presence of the United States Army in South Korea has kept the Communists from turning out the lights there as well. Nonetheless, the American military has not taken significant direct action against the North during the whole period of the cease-fire. How can any civilized person not endorse this diplomatic approach, which has avoided war?

     On the other hand, the diplomatic approach has not dislodged the North Korean regime. Nor has it prevented the North from obtaining nuclear weapons technology. In the hands of a rogue state like North Korea, nuclear weapons are a genuine nightmare. The calculus for the North Koreans was that once they obtained nuclear weapons they would be immune to American deterrence. Pyongyang would no longer need China to balance American military might. With their own nuclear weapons, they would be able to neutralize that might on their own. Now, with the attack this week and the sinking of a South Korean vessel last March, it is beginning to look as though that calculus was correct.

     International relations theory and world history both illuminate what happens in the absence of a hegemonic military power. Whether the focus is regional or global, the absence of a stable, militarily dominant nation invites violent competition among those states that would contend for the top spot. Because of their peculiar incentive structures, which are unusual in history, democracies tend not to enter such competitions. However, states like Kim Jong-il’s North Korea or Saddam’s Iraq, which are essentially the personal property of the ruler, are eager to try filling a power vacuum.

     In such states, the leadership is more or less insulated from the costs of going to war. Saddam himself, for instance, never paid a personal price for his invasion of Iran, unlike thousands of his soldiers—who did not get to vote on the matter. States of this type are quite likely to seek expansion of their own power through military action. Given the personal insulation of the decision-makers from the consequences of such action, such states are difficult to deter. Just as the leadership is protected from the worst consequences of war, so too are they protected from the worst consequences of diplomacy. International economic sanctions against North Korea have helped beggar the country, but, as the country’s dear leader, Kim Jong-il himself feels none of that pain.

     There have been only a few methods that have reliably worked in deterring rogue states. One involves engineering a way to make the rogue state leader personally experience the consequences of his extra-territorial aggression. This method is hard to bring off. In 1986, after Libya’s terrorist bombing of a Berlin discotheque, the U.S. launched Operation El Dorado Canyon. Libyan autocrat Muammar Gaddafi was nearly killed in the air strike. Even so, his prosecution of a terrorist war against the U.S. continued until the U.S. ousted Saddam from Iraq. Having felt American power himself was insufficient deterrence. Seeing his analog dictator actually overthrown induced Gaddafi to terminate Libya’s nuclear weapons program and contribute $1.5 billion to a settlement fund for victims of his erstwhile terror program. Libya today, though still full of bluster, is effectively deterred.

     Bluster and blather have always been the first resort of those without power. No matter how loudly shouted, words are worthless in deterring rogue nations. However, demonstrations of effective military power combined with the will to use it have time and again proven effective deterrents. The point is to make the dictator understand that there is no chance of victory—or even survival—if he does not comply with international norms. Refusing to employ military force from the start, as some Western nations have advocated, simply gives the dictator complete freedom from any concern that he will have to pay a personal price for his misconduct. Half-measures are almost as bad, because they provide a pretext for the dictator’s next act of aggression. Only overwhelming force, delivered without equivocation or apology, can persuade your average rogue state leader to toe the line of civilized conduct.

     Such efforts provide enormous benefits beyond curtailing the dictator in question. As noted already, the U.S. action against Saddam helped curtail Gaddafi. When a dominant state uses its power effectively against one rogue state, other dictators suddenly cease their war-mongering. They understand there is no power vacuum to fill. But as clear as the case for deterrence is, democratic nations often resist using it in any serious way. The very factors that make democracies comparatively pacific in international relations also make them unreliable policemen.

     Unlike a rogue state leader, the leader of every democracy must answer to his public for the success or failure of his policies. A nation in which the public is sovereign is a nation in which the ultimate decision-makers bear the costs of war directly. While this structure of incentives would make for a perpetual peace, if every nation in the world were democratic, in a world still full of aggressive dictators it can complicate deterrence. Insufficient force, or inconsistent will, sends mixed signals to rogue states. The best guarantee of peace (in the real world) is military strength coupled with the demonstrated resolve to use it. Ironically, this path is the least attractive for a typical democratic state, which is more likely to try appeasement.

     The record of irresolute democracies is nearly as long as the list of democracies. Switzerland and Israel excepted, most democracies have failed to confront dictatorial regimes until absolutely necessary. Had France and England intervened in Germany when Hitler first exceeded the Versailles limits on German military strength, there would have been no Wehrmacht to take the Sudetenland. Had they intervened when Germany took the Sudetenland, when Germany was still comparatively weak, there would have been no invasion of Poland. At the time, it seemed less costly to chastise Germany with words and tolerate each escalating outrage. Hating and fearing war as much as they did, they could not imagine how badly Hitler thirsted for it and the power it would bring him.

     This week, North Korea has presented the U.S. and South Korea with an escalation in outrage. The attack on Yeonpyeong Island is another test to see how far we will appease Kim Jong-il. Having refused to take military action before now, the U.S. and South Korea confront a nuclear-armed foe. As dangerous as military confrontation now would be, it is hardly credible that continuing irresolution—continuing appeasement—will lessen the danger. Even if North Korean ambitions subside under a new leader, presumably upon the imminent death of the ailing Kim, the cost of appeasing North Korea would go far beyond East Asia. Kim obtained nuclear weapons; Gaddafi abandoned them; every dictator in the world is watching to see whether Gaddafi was wiser than Kim. If we succumb to North Korean nuclear blackmail, we will start a nuclear arms race among ambitious rogue states. Iran would be just the first in a world of nuclear-armed terrorists and aggressive nuclear regimes.

     If we do not confront this challenge today, it will confront us tomorrow.


  1. A very interesting analysis. Though I am a bit out of my depth here, I just make the point that the US is constrained by the fact that East Asia is increasingly perceived as more China's sphere of interest than America's. It's not as if there is a potential power vacuum in the region. China will be crucial to any solution. And of course any military conflict between the US and China would be far worse and the implications far more serious than any conflict with North Korea. I suggest that North Korea is as great a problem for the Chinese as for the US.

  2. I don't suppose anyone has a crystal ball where China is concerned, so really we're all out of our depth. But the regime's record (Tianamen, Tibet) doesn't suggest that the PRC would exercise responsible regional hegemony.

  3. Appeasement is the correct strategy - if your goal is to start a war. That *is* the goal, right?

    NK has the least to lose. They can be baited.

    China has the most to lose, but they want the wrong thing... they want power and respect, and are too stoopid to want peace instead.

    We will start it, and leave the mess - on purpose. Just as we've done in Iraq and Afgahnistan. Also, this will be a great distraction to what's *really* going on domestically... (you know, the neo-marxist power grab)

    UNLESS... China starts playing ball... letting their currency float, etc. Then the neo-marxists will look like hero's.