How many “kinetic military actions” will it take for war skepticism to stick with the American public?
A new poll by the Chicago Council of Foreign Affairs (CCFA) finds that 75 percent of Americans believe that North Korea—a hermit kingdom thousands of miles away that is unable to keep its people from starving, a country whose military budget is a 60th the size of America’s—presents a critical threat to the United States. That’s up from 55 percent two years ago.
These feelings don’t seem to be tempered by President Donald Trump’s historically low approval ratings, which currently stand at 38 percent. In the latest CBS survey, 62 percent of respondents say Trump’s behavior as president has decreased their confidence in his ability. The numbers aren’t better specifically on foreign policy: 61 percent say they’re “uneasy” about Trump’s ability to thwart North Korea.
Meanwhile, the CCFA poll finds broad bipartisan support for more sanctions against North Korea. 76 percent of Americans favor increased sanctions, despite their limited effectiveness over the last decade-plus. 68 percent want sanctions extended to Chinese companies that work with North Korea.
Reports that North Korea has successfully “miniaturized” a nuclear warhead for missile delivery overshadow progress on the diplomatic front. North Korean missile tests, too, are inevitably followed by successful U.S. missile defense tests.
You might have expected the failures of the War on Terror to have mellowed the American public’s patience with military intervention. Instead, for the first time in 30 years, the CCFA poll found a majority of Americans supporting military action if North Korea attacked South Korea. Large majorities think North Korea shouldn’t be allowed even to keep those nuclear weapons it already has.
North Korea is unlikely to accept any arrangement where it cannot keep at the very least some of its weapons. The U.S. has taught the world some lessons about that in recent decades, and Pyongyang has been paying attention.
The U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 after George W. Bush’s administration insisted that the country possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and was determined to build more. No WMD program was found, but the Iraq war did have a knock-on effect on proliferation. By the end of 2003, Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi indicated an interest in voluntarily relinquishing his WMDs and WMD programs. There was a hope within the foreign policy establishment that countries such as Syria and Iran could be encouraged to do the same.
The message changed dramatically when the U.S. helped depose Qaddafi in 2011. Libya’s post-disarmament experience made a powerful impression on any regime that may have been entertaining the idea of avoiding American military action by disarming. Indeed, it created a strong incentive to acquire WMDs, and to maintain a formidable military force, as a deterrent against U.S. aggression.
For all the hype about the nutty young psychopath leading the North Korean regime, Pyongyang a relatively rational actor. For decades, the regime has adeptly manipulated the various regional powers and the U.S., allowing it to survive even as communism collapsed nearly everywhere else.
The U.S., by contrast, has survived despite often acting in a less than rational fashion. The ocean buffer that sandwiches America has given us space to do that, as has our massive military superiority. From Vietnam to Afghanistan, the U.S. faces few real existential consequences for its ill-conceived actions.
Trump ran on a platform of questioning America’s security commitments around the world. While he has since embraced much of America’s role as world policemen, other countries remain understandably skeptical. This has led South Korea and even Japan to consider developing their own nuclear arsenals—a development that, counterintuitively, could go a long way in improving the prospects of peace in the region.
American opinion, meanwhile, is working against peace. Coupled with Trump’s sinking approval ratings, the relatively widespread approval of a more aggressive approach in Korea could prompt Trump to drop any attempts at negotiation. Diplomacy is easy to mock, after all. War comes with a rally-’round-the-flag effect.