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McMaster and ‘Nuclear Blackmail’

National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster (Jamestown Foundation/YouTube)

Daniel DePetris follows up on McMaster’s crazy North Korea comments:

McMaster then proceeds to mount a hypothetical—nuclear blackmail. “This regime could say [if U.S. forces] don’t go off the Korean Peninsula, we’re going to threaten the use of nuclear weapons,” the retired general explained. And yet this, too, is riddled with nonsense, the biggest objection being that making such an ultimatum would court the very military confrontation with the United States he wants to avoid.

When McMaster was in the Trump administration, he floated many of the same arguments about why attacking North Korea should be an option. Those argumentsdidn’t make any sense when he made them as National Security Advisor, and they haven’t improved now that he has migrated to the inaccurately named Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). McMaster’s latest statements confirm that his preventive war talk wasn’t just empty rhetoric on his part when he worked for Trump. He was apparently deadly serious about entertaining a U.S. attack on North Korea, and he continues to talk about it as though it were a reasonable and legitimate policy option. The reporting that he and others in the administration had a “messianic fervor” about this seems to have been right.

It can’t be stressed enough that launching an attack on North Korea would an outrageous act of aggression. It would put the U.S. in clear violation of the U.N. Charter and make our government an illegal aggressor just like North Korea was in 1950. McMaster was and still is promoting the idea that the U.S. should be willing to commit a massive crime against another country. Unfortunately, talk of preventive war against certain states is not just tolerated in Washington, but it is actively encouraged and embraced by many other hard-liners, including the current National Security Advisor, who is also in favor of launching an attack on North Korea. These hard-liners dismiss the possibility of deterring these states so that they can have an excuse to attack, but invariably the behavior they cite as evidence that a state can’t be deterred is proof that they desire self-preservation and regime security above all else.

Hard-liners also like to warn about “nuclear blackmail” from other states, but they can’t ever produce an example of a nuclear weapons state that has successfully engaged in such blackmail to extract concessions from others. It makes even less sense when we consider what would happen to the blackmailing state if it followed through on the threat. Threatening to launch a nuclear first strike to gain concessions from other governments wouldn’t get that government what it wants, and carrying out the threat would result in the state’s certain annihilation. There is no upside to engaging in “nuclear blackmail” and a huge downside. If “nuclear blackmail” worked, there would likely have been a lot more blackmail attempts by nuclear weapons state over the last seventy-four years, and more states would want to acquire nuclear weapons for this purpose. In reality, just about the only use that nuclear weapons have is to deter attacks from others, and that is pretty clearly why North Korea built their nuclear arsenal. Threatening them with attack just confirms them in their view that they have to retain them, and actually attacking them would be the only thing that is likely to prompt them to use them.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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