Checkpoint: Floundering in the Rubicon

In 49BCE, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River in a move that sparked a civil war and brought an end to the Roman Republic. In 1951, General Douglas MacArthur, commander-in-chief of the UN forces in Korea, played the role of Caesar, and the American Republic very nearly met the same fate. MacArthur’s eventual failure left US policy on the Korean Peninsula floundering between the river’s banks ever since. However, the US policy in Korea hasn’t been in abeyance out of apathy or passivity, but rather because the stakes have been so high, and the competing interests so many. Now, with tensions continuing to rise toward a nuclear deadline, it’s time for the US’s tepid policy of wading in the Rubicon to end.

MacArthur believed President Truman’s “limited war” strategy was undermining American forces in Korea. He thought the US needed to activate Chinese nationalist forces against the Maoists, attack Chinese airfields, and according to numerous sources, even sought the employment of between twenty to fifty atomic bombs on Chinese (particularly Manchurian) targets. MacArthur crossed the Rubicon by publicly repudiating his commander-in-chief, before being subsequently sacked for his public “insubordination.” MacArthur returned to a hero’s welcome in the US; he addressed Congress and amassed a horde of support from the Republican leadership, the conservative press, and a very large portion of the population. According to a Gallup Poll, support for MacArthur was at 69 percent, while Truman had slumped to 29 percent.

The only reason MacArthur failed to abrogate the Constitution was because Truman politically outmaneuvered him. Truman convinced MacArthur’s superiors in the Joint Chiefs of Staff that Korea was “a Russian maneuver” attempting to distract the US and that an all out attack on China would prompt the Russians to invade Western Europe. Truman’s success effectively crippled the validity of MacArthur’s strategy. This parlous squabble essentially disabled the Truman Administration from making any active moves against Maoist China, an enemy it could have easily dealt with. The US was thusly caught floundering halfway across the Rubicon in a state of impotence, where it has remained to this day.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, North Korea became more isolated. As a result they decided to take advantage of the stranded US policy by intensifying its adherence to the ‘madman theory’ of foreign relations. The theory, famously favored by Nixon, seeks to promote in the mind of an enemy, the idea that you’re an irrational madman, unpredictable, and with a finger on the trigger at all times.

North Korea’s strategy using the madman theory has been to spread fear in the international community with nuclear research and testing. This brings the big players to the table where North Korea can half-heartedly capitulate - for by agreeing to stall their nuclear production, they procure in return significant aid packages, technology, and fuel. After several years, when famine once again claims the despotic state, they rescind on their agreement and resume nuclear testing, bringing the players back to the table to be stripped once more.

This tactic was evident in 1994 when North Korea refused to allow inspectors to review their nuclear waste sights. Clinton and North Korea both made their traditional threats, but ended up finding a diplomatic solution in the 1994 Agreed Framework. During the Bush Administration, this framework was ignored by North Korea as they restarted plutonium production. They tested their first nuclear weapon in 2006, and it took the international community, including Russia and China, to bring North Korea into line.  

In 2009 North Korea forced its way back into the headlines only weeks after Obama’s inauguration with new intercontinental missile testing. They then announced the intention to terminate the 1953 armistice, putting South Korea and US forces on high alert. They upped the ante again by sinking a South Korean Navy Ship, killing 46 seamen, and bombarding the island of Yeonpyeong. The US responded by bringing the aircraft carrier USS George Washington into the Yellow Sea.

Obama’s unwillingness to cross to the other side of the river served to build pressure throughout his administration. So much so that Obama warned his successor that North Korea would be the most serious foreign policy problem of the coming years. The recent revving up of their nuclear testing is undoubtedly another occurrence of their rather tiresome strategy.

The floundering position of the US can only go one of two ways. Either the Trump Administration can proceed across the river and pursue a highly dangerous military option. Or the US can enroll the Chinese to put economic pressure on the North Koreans.

The military option is highly risky. If it had been pursued by Clinton when there was only a single target, it might have worked. However, the North Koreans have now spread their arsenal and nuclear capabilities across numerous hidden facilities. A military option is therefore highly perilous as North Korea would be able to retaliate. Such retaliation could very likely mean nuclear or chemical weapons strikes against South Korea or Japan. The death toll would be catastrophic.

The non-military option requires China, North Korea’s traditional ally, to put economic pressure on the totalitarian regime. Approximately 85 percent of North Korea’s external trade, including alleged slave labor, goes through China. Moreover, members of North Korean leadership use Chinese banks, and import their leisure products through China. However, North Korean trade is minuscule for China in real terms. Chinese apprehension rests on fears that if the North Korean system collapses as a result of economic sanctions, a refugee crisis would ensue, the possibility of loose nukes heightens, and an opening for the US military to increase its presence on the Korean peninsula becomes apparent.

However, these very real possibilities may be outweighed in Chinese minds by the real prospect of tensions between North Korea and the US escalating, and in turn destabilizing the entire region regardless. This risk to Chinese regional hegemony could bring them to the table.

The Chinese won’t come on their own of course, but in Trump, the US has a tactic, albeit a grotesque one, to free itself from its floundering predicament. The US can turn North Korea’s favorite tactic against it by employing the madman card - and with Trump, it’s very convincing. It’s not a coincidence that Trump’s missile launches against Syria and Afghanistan took place at the same time as Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping were eating chocolate cake together. The act was clearly designed to persuade the Chinese that Trump is certainly capable of pursuing a military option. Additionally, the combination of Trump’s absurd rhetoric, and the inevitable incapability of the administration to keep to the Joint Chief’s script, coalesce to form a quite convincing, if not wholly real, madman.

The tactic seems to be working, in fact Trump has already started to grease the hands of the Chinese in this regard, having already rescinded his promise to review the government’s policy toward Taiwan, and offering China concessions on trade.

In crossing the Rubicon River, Caesar defied the Senate and began an arduous civil war. "Aleq iacta est" wrote Seutonius of the crossing: ‘the die is cast’. MacArthur’s cast of the die proved moot, leaving US policy precariously positioned with nothing palpable to move on. Now however, the geopolitical climate has changed, China is becoming more diplomatically reasonable and US foreign policy has, in Donald Trump, a radical but perhaps effective bargaining chip - a madman.

Of course such a tactic is dangerous and ethically repugnant, but no pettiness is too small if North Korea's pursuit of nuclear armaments is to be thwarted. After all, the Cold War theory of nuclear deterrence is bunk. The circumstances of the Kashmir dispute, and the diplomatic efforts of the Iranian Nuclear Deal attest to the perilous reality of any nuclear option. Even the apparently more stable hands of 'developed' powers have proven to be clumsy; the Cold War only managed to stay cold, at least in the West, due largely to luck, rather than any false security in mutually assured destruction.   

It may then be these rather odd and inelegant circumstances that finally allow the US to retreat from its floundering limbo position in the Rubicon, and engage China to deal with its former ideological partner.