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Fire and Fury, Signifying Nothing

The more rational of the current players

In researching Volume 14 and Volume 16, Game Theory and the Nuclear Age, much of my thinking could be distilled into two theses. The first of these has been confirmed by recent events. The second must make us pause and grow concerned for our future.


North Korea has, according to accounts, developed its nuclear capacity at a pace faster than what analysts predicted as recently as one year ago. According to a recent study by the Institute for Science and International Security, North Korea has between 13 and 30 warheads and is adding up to five per year. While they don’t have the capacity (or necessarily the ambition) to develop classical two-stage “H-bombs”, they are likely to have capacity for one-stage fusion bombs in the medium term. We said that prevention via technical difficulty is a losing strategy to prevent proliferation to a nation focused towards such a goal. This evidence for this first thesis thus has a very strong piece of confirmation.

Our second thesis is that, in a nuclear-armed world, we can best prevent nuclear war via encouraging rational behavior in a game theoretic system. The most stable nuclear game theory developed so far is Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD. In MAD, both “players” maintain credible second-strike capacity. This involves open and honest disclosure of destructive capacity, clear guidelines as to when nuclear weapons will be used, and certainty that players will follow through on their retaliatory attacks. In other words, MAD requires clarity and credibility; the stability of the world in this game is equal to the extent which players display these qualities.

This brings us to one Donald John Trump. In the United States, nuclear weapon policy is decided by a single person. There is no way to prevent a President from using nuclear weapons if he or she so chooses (there is also no way to force their use). Because of this, in the United States, our dual principles of clarify and credibility are enormously incumbent on one individual.

So, after a recent, provocative act by the North Korean leader, our President had a reaction of the type we have all come, unfortunately, to expect. He said that the first action he took as President was to improve our nuclear weapons capabilities. This was his first lie. The program in question was started by Barack Obama, while Trump began with an executive order destabilizing the healthcare system. He then went on to say that because of his (fictitious) action, our capacities are “far stronger and more powerful than ever before.” This is also a lie. The weapons upgrade program is still near the beginning of a 30-year cycle. We have no more destructive power than we had one year ago or ten years ago.

I know what you are thinking – most Americans know not to believe anything that comes out of the mouth of this person. It’s all for show, playing to the crowds. However, there is a big problem: we don’t care about “most Americans,” we care about one third-generation autocrat living a highly sheltered life. With the President’s media apparatus amplifying his statement and stoking the possibility of pre-emptive strikes, how certain are you that the remarks are not being taken seriously in Pyongyang? MAD relies on clarity and this is not clarity.

But then it gets worse. As you probably heard, our dear leader then threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” should they continue whatever they are doing. However, nothing in his statement made clear the conditions under which the United States would respond with our nuclear arsenal. More tests? Deployment of longer-ranged weapons? Actual attack on a populated area? There has been no detail at all given as to what was meant. This is the opposite of clarity. How can we expect to Kim Jung Un to avoid tripping over a red line he can’t see?

Then, it gets worse. Secretary of State Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Mattis both made attempts to clarify or walk back Trump’s belligerent language. Mattis said that North Korea risked “the end of its regime and destruction of its people,” while Tillerson said that Trump’s rhetoric should “cause no concerns.” How can these statements possibly be reconciled? Then, we find out that Trump’s remarks about nuclear weapons use were “off the cuff” and without benefit of any information from his national security team. Let’s think again about credibility. If nuclear weapons are under the unitary control of the President, what does it mean when his statements are made up on the spot and then contradicted by his two leading executive officials? Is anybody in charge here? Rather than have the desired effect, this “tough talk” has greatly damaged the credibility on which our entire strategy relies.

I made a grave error when discussing North Korea in Volume 16; I said that North Korean policy may be irrational and I would like to take this back. The truth is, at least within his own worldview, Kim Jung Un appears to be acting rationally. His foremost goal is preservation of his own power; the United States has in the past threatened regime change and is still threatening pre-emptive strikes. Development of retaliatory measures is an entirely rational response. This is not to equate the morality of the two nations – North Korea is a terrible, repressive society run by a cartoonish strong man. However, said leader appears at present to be far more rational than our own orange-colored cartoonish aspiring strong man. I should be more careful before calling the kettle black.

I’m not intended to be overly alarmist; in fact, my greater assessment of Kim’s rationality should put us all at a bit of ease. However, for the first time, it is the actions of the United States and specifically the President thereof who is taking destabilizing actions. The fact that the rhetoric is probably just for domestic consumption makes it less safe. Said domestic consumption is having its desired effect as Trump’s base and even some informal advisors encourage pre-emptive nuclear strikes. I would like to think that Trump will listen to experts over yes-men, but I’m less than certain of this. I doubt it was intentional, but the use of the phrase “fire and fury” made me think immediately of Shakespeare’s MacBeth. In case you don’t recall, the (modified) full version of Trump’s outburst is:

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Told by an idiot, full of [fire] and fury, signifying nothing.

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