Will the Trump-Kim war of words go nuclear or lead to talks?
Andrew Sheng hopes common sense will prevail in an era of asymmetric warfare, which highlights the limits of a unipolar order. But meanwhile, market speculators may be responding in the correct way to long-term uncertainty
In the past fortnight, the world has been treated to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump calling each other names, from rocket man to dotard. Are we on the edge of a nuclear war? How can that be when the stock markets are still rising, gold prices have hardly moved and Trump is debating with the National Football League about whether players who only kneel for the national anthem should be fired?
The reason there is hardly any mass reaction to the fear of nuclear war is that most people cannot remember the horrors of Hiroshima (where the first atomic bomb was dropped), or the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when the US and Soviet Union were on the brink of nuclear war. Both antagonists in 1962, US president John F. Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, remembered well the second world war and wisely turned away from using nuclear arms.
During my recent trip to the Middle East, where I visited a refugee camp – the fallout of conventional warfare – I brought along More on War by Martin van Creveld, an Israeli military historian best known for his 1991 book, The Transformation of War – from conventional warfare to terrorism. More on War is an update on the theories of war by two classical thinkers, fifth-century-BC Chinese strategist Sun Tzu and the 19th-century Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz.
Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un: a war of words
Sun Tzu’s Art of War is a classic, because he was the first to think through the psychological part of strategy, that is, in order to win, a person must not only understand the enemy, but most of all, understand and master themselves. Clausewitz’s works on war and strategy became the standard text on Western military thinking, placing war within its political context, with tenets such as: “War is nothing but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means” or “war, therefore, is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will”.
Van Creveld’s signal contribution is to explain how war has evolved since Sun Tzu or Clausewitz in the areas of economics, law, technology (nuclear war and cyberwarfare) and asymmetric warfare. The simplest way to grasp what we are facing in today’s complex world is to use Sun Tzu’s Taoist (ying-yang) approach, or what van Creveld calls “paired opposites”. There are crucial differences between conventional and non-conventional warfare.
War is expensive, the US has spent more than US$4.5 trillion fighting in the Middle East, with no end in sight. The Taliban or Islamic State conduct their attacks at comparatively little monetary cost, but with huge psychological impact. As the world becomes more civilised, the laws governing warfare become more complicated and binding. But how do you fight a war when you are bound by rules and your opponent is bound by none?
The cold war was defused because, between two large opponents, the nuclear option was so devastating that both sides realised it was a weapon they could not use. But with the proliferation of nuclear weapons, including their delivery systems, to other players (there are nine known nuclear powers today), the game has changed to asymmetric warfare: between large conventional players and small, non-conventional ones.
The reach of Kim Jong-un’s missiles
In a conventional war, the small cannot defeat the strong. But in a non-conventional war, the small – with nuclear or unconventional weapons of mass destruction – can inflict huge losses on the strong, including innocent bystanders. If North Korea has both a hydrogen bomb and intercontinental missiles to make it deliverable, then even the largest aircraft carriers are useless as deterrents.
Paraphrasing Sun Tzu, van Creveld argues that “war is the most important thing in the world”. Because war is “rooted in a whole host of political, social and cultural factors and affects those factors in return ... predicting it is enormously complex, often all but impossible.”
What Sun Tzu said about the art of war
What the North Korean crisis has shown is that, for all the bluster and military power, there are limits to the unipolar order. History, from the Egyptian to the Roman and even British empire, has shown that asymmetric wars are fundamentally wars of attrition, in which the weak but numerous simply outlast the patience of the strong. For every advance in technology by the strong, the small finds ways to counter with different means. It is all about the paired opposite of survival or mutual destruction.
This is why negotiations may be the only way out of a nuclear impasse. A peaceful resolution at least buys time to revive economic activity and bring the standards of living of all to more sustainable levels.
The fate of humanity rests today on a 33-year-old and a 71-year-old antagonist, both of whose strategic patience is limited. The rest of us hope that common sense will prevail. As Churchill would say, “better jaw-jaw, than war-war”.
At this time of bewildering complexity, investors focusing on speculation rather than on the unknowable long term makes perfect sense.
Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective