Ten years later, Foal Eagle continues. A couple months ago, the 2017 iteration took place alongside "Key Resolve," another bilateral, joint military exercise. This is the context around and after which North Korea has increased its bellicosity. The United States, in turn, has ratcheted up its posture. As President Trump declared, "We are sending an armada--very powerful." (Except that we were not sending an armada.)
North Korea's increased aggression, particularly its missile tests, has rightfully alarmed U.S. media outlets, policy-makers, and citizens alike, in addition to alarming international observers and citizens of other nations, most especially South Korea. The "mutually assured destruction" (MAD) strain of nuclear deterrence theory proposes that no side would (post-August 1945) strike first with a nuclear weapon because it would ensure a retaliatory strike and further retaliatory strikes and thus the potential destruction of the species and the planet. It does assume "rational actors" are in charge, who won't willingly usher in the end of humanity. Much of the world questions how rational Kim Jong-Un is and, before him, how rational his father Kim Jung-Il was. Hence, there is always particular concern about North Korea. (When the rest of the world now sees this campaign speech or watches this presidential Black History Month speech, it has even more reason to question how much the MAD/rational actor theses hold up.)
North Korea may likely be the most brutally repressive regime in the world. Kim Jong-Un may likely be the least rational leader in the world. However, solely focusing on North Korea's unpredictability misses much of the story.
If war between the United States and North Korea were to occur, it would at least partially be our fault, too. These regular war games that occur off the Korean peninsula provoke the (ir)rational actor. Furthermore, when U.S. media outlets discuss North Korea's nuclear capabilities, they rarely share the whole story of attempted and failed negotiations. In 1993, 2005, and as recently as 2015, the United States helped thwart successful negotiations. Noam Chomsky describes:
"China and North Korea proposed to freeze the North Korean missile and nuclear weapons systems. And the U.S. instantly rejected it. And you can’t blame that on Trump. Obama did the same thing a couple of years ago. Same offer was presented. I think it was 2015. The Obama administration instantly rejected it.
And the reason is that it calls for a . It says, in return, the United States should put an end to threatening military maneuvers on North Korea’s borders, which happen to include, under Trump, sending of nuclear-capable B-52s flying right near the border."
It begs the question of how serious the U.S. is about deescalating and demilitarizing the region. Very little, I would argue.
Congressional Democrats and the media have rightfully been criticizing every wrongheaded move by Trump, and there have been many. Yet, sadly, they have been less critical when it comes to war. War and militarization is one of the last bipartisan issues. This can be seen in regards to the reaction--or lack of reaction--to the Syria bombings, the "mother of all bombs" in Afghanistan, the Saudi arms deal, NATO-Russian tensions rising, and the North Korean escalation.
In 1983, escalation and missed signals during a different war game, "Able Archer 83," almost led to catastrophic nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Nate Jones and Peter Scoblic describe the exercise in detail for Slate and compare it our current folly:
"Nuclear miscalculation and escalation are also possible with adversaries besides Russia—most notably North Korea, which has worked for decades to build an arsenal of nuclear missiles. Currently, the United States and South Korea are conducting a massive war game involving tens of thousands of troops. Much like the Soviets in the 1980s, the North Koreans worry such games are just a rehearsal for an attack. In response, they have threatened pre-emptive nuclear strikes and, as nonproliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis has written, are practicing for war by conducting missile-launch exercises. Making matters significantly worse, both U.S. and North Korean doctrine call for the first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict, meaning that the chance of a spark turning into a nuclear conflagration is extremely high. Able Archer 83 is a reminder not only that nuclear weapons are one of the few existential threats the United States and its allies face, but also that humility is key to the conduct of national security policy. The United States assumes that it is clear in communicating its intentions and understanding those of its enemies. It also tends to assume that it controls the consequences of its actions. Neither of these things is necessarily true. Misperception, chance, and accident are facts of history. In 1983, war was averted because of restraint. Unfortunately, President Trump is not known for self-control."
(In full disclosure, the Air Force intelligence officer whose inaction helped deescalate the situation is my wife's late grandfather, Leonard Perroots.) And thus, considering the risks of militarization in East Asia and across the globe, what are we to do? We have slightly more influence over our (ir)rational actor-in-chief than the North Koreans do over theirs. Much responsibility lies with us.
We should stand against war and against war games. In that spirit and in the spirit of Julia Ward Howe's original Mother's Day Proclamation, here are photos from the Mothers Day Peace Rally Newark NJ MLK Monument, hosted by NJ Against US War on Syria and in the Middle East #NJSaysNoToWar. (Photo credits to Bob Witanek).