9 January 2020

On Iran and North Korea, Donald Trump should heed the hedgehog


“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

–Archilochus, Greek poet, 7th century BC

Introduction: The present importance of hedgehogs

The above quotation, popularised by Isaiah Berlin in his famous essay on Tolstoy, is a great common-sense way to divide both people and ways of thinking. Most of us (including political risk analysts) are foxes, who know quite a few data points but usually prove comically incapable of putting them together into something larger.

This has emphatically been true of the looming crises between the United States and, respectively, Iran and North Korea. To make sense of it all we need not the fox-driven view of the strategic lay of the land, but a more Olympian, hedgehog-inspired big picture.

The one big thing

So let’s look at what is so alarming the rest of the world through the eyes of a hedgehog.

First, beneath all the stratagems, feints, diplomatic bluffs, summit meetings and quasi-military actions, the overriding American interest in both cases is precisely the same: to stop North Korea (which already has them) and Iran (which does not) from having nuclear weapons and the missile capability to deliver them.

This remains just theoretically possible, as Iran stopped its dash toward joining the nuclear club, signing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Barack Obama and others in exchange for the return of $150 billion of its assets frozen in the West, and the prospects of opening up its dire economy to global investment.

Likewise, despite its more advanced nuclear programme, Kim Jong-un’s regime has not yet perfected the difficult technical ability to manage long-range missile re-entry into the atmosphere. At present, it is just outside Pyongyang’s capability to reliably strike the US with long-range nuclear missiles.

The failure of the foreign policy establishment

Second, if this overriding foreign policy interest in both cases is clear to the hedgehog, President Trump is quite right to say that his immediate predecessors have not ‘solved’ either looming crisis. Indeed, in their frosty get-together in the White House, outgoing president Barack Obama sternly warned then president-elect Trump that North Korea was likely to be the major foreign policy crisis on his watch, implicitly accepting his own administration’s failure to deter Kim from furthering his nuclear programme.

And for all the bleatings of the Democratic candidates for president, the JCPOA does not deserve the quasi-sacred status it is sometimes accorded. It was a deeply flawed exercise, which only put time limits on Iran’s nuclear programme, rather than securing a definitive commitment from Tehran to renounce its nuclear ambitions once and for all.

At best, the JCPOA amounted to kicking the can down the road, hoping (against hope) that over time—despite all empirical evidence to the contrary—Iran would become a more ‘normal’ and less ‘revolutionary’ country, one with no need for nuclear weapons.

The folly of that position became clear when, following the JCPOA, Iran continued to pursue an expansionist, revolutionary agenda in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – masterminded in no small part by the now departed General Qasem Soleimani.

The failure of Trump

Third, our hedgehog would judge that while Trump was entirely correct to question the foreign policy elite’s generational abject failure in dealing with both Tehran and Pyongyang, in many respects his revisionist policies towards the two have made things worse.

Trump pulled the US out of the JCPOA in 2018, arguing that a ‘maximum pressure’ strategy of stringent sanctions (which have proven to be surprisingly effective) would force Iran to accept a better deal – this one placing curbs on Tehran’s missile development and (at worst) extending the 10 to 15 year timelines for strict limits on Iran’s nuclear programme agreed in the JCPOA.

This past week, as tensions have ratcheted ever higher, Iran has itself abrogated the JCPOA and is now once more free to pursue its nuclear programme. Clearly, this is not the strategic result Trump wanted, or promised was there for the taking.

His administration also promised to check growing Iranian influence on the region. Yet after Soleimani’s assassination, the Iraqi parliament—whose country is the recipient of millions of dollars in American military aid and a key arena wherein Washington and Tehran vie for influence—unanimously voted (albeit in a non-binding manner) to eject American troops from their country.

That suggests that though killing Soleimani may have been a feel-good manoeuvre for Trump, it does seem to have set back longer-term US goals in the region.

The US escalation also seems to have taken the mullahs off a rather large hook. For the hedgehog irony of things is that the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign was working. Not only was the Iranian economy tanking due to a combination of sanctions and home-grown mismanagement, but the restive populations of both Iraq and Lebanon were demanding their governments dial down their reliance on Tehran.

Worst of all from the mullahs’ point of view, serious, home-grown protests had broken out late last year, with Iranians questioning the regime’s focus on expansionism while the domestic economy suffered. Making a martyr of Soleimani has put paid to all this, politically uniting a country that seemed to be wobbling.

The North Korean crisis, though seemingly different in that it accepted a surface détente with the US, has actually followed a similar, depressing pattern. The hedgehog would note that for all the smiles and startling meetings between Kim and Trump in Singapore, Hanoi, and the DMZ in Korea, Kim steadfastly refuses to give Trump what he wants: the elimination of the entirety of his nuclear programme in return for sanctions relief and a security guarantee to follow.

In fact, North Korea has refused to even turn over an inventory of its nuclear programme to the Americans, which would have ensured Pyongyang doesn’t cheat and hold out on its commitments to total denuclearisation.

The reason for this is, of course, that Kim has no intention of giving up the whole of his nuclear programme. His brutal Stalinist regime has surely learned a simple lesson from the fate of the feckless Muammar Gaddafi: in the 70-plus years since they were first developed, no country with nuclear weapons has ever been successfully invaded. That alone explains why Pyongyang was never going to jettison its entire programme.

Nonetheless, diplomatic failure comes at a real cost. The bellicose cries of the US and North Korea in 2018 may have given way to the good vibrations of 2019, but there is little to show for the change in atmospherics.

For Kim, who presides over one of the world’s most grimly dysfunctional economies, has grown increasingly anxious – and even a little offended – as his hopes for a partial nuclear deal (such as the North Korean delegation put forward at the Hanoi summit) in return for a total relaxation of sanctions has failed to materialise.

This diplomatic dead-end will soon affect those improved atmospherics, with both sides increasingly embittered. The North Korean crisis is back on, which is the last thing Trump wanted.

The hedgehog’s controversial lesson

Seen from the hedgehog’s vantage point, there is an obvious lesson to be learned here, one that seems to escape almost everyone involved in the duelling crises in Iran and North Korea: does it really matter if both succeed and obtain nuclear weapons?

For all their revolutionary excesses and undeniable horrible brutality, historically, neither North Korea nor Iran is in the same league as Stalin or Mao in terms of their murderous shedding of human life. Yet, even faced with those twin tyrants, the arch realist President Eisenhower said he had little fear of either countries’ nuclear weapons as neither leader had shown any sign of personally wanting to die. Absent this suicide wish, America’s undoubted second-strike capability seemed more than sufficient to deter both.

Given that all political risk options here are obviously bad – but also that everything done so far has objectively failed – the real, undiscussed question is this: Does either the Iranian or North Korean regime have a death wish?

The answer would seem resoundingly to be ‘no’. Persia is a 3000-year-old civilisation, and the Ayatollahs have shown no willingness for it to be obliterated (along with themselves). Likewise, Kim Jong-un has ruthlessly disposed of both his brother and his uncle to safeguard his power, hardly the mark of a man intent on hara-kiri.

Our hedgehog would counsel Western statesmen to take a deep breath and continue to bet on deterrence, the ghastly balance of terror that has paradoxically maintained nuclear peace for these past 70 years. In the meantime, economic pressure on both North Korea and Iran ought to be maintained on the off chance that the regimes crumble from within.

The hedgehog’s advice is starkly clear: containment and deterrence, frustrating and imperfect as they are as answers, remain the last, best, chance to maximise Western interests in the face of these daunting, duelling, challenges.

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Dr. John C. Hulsman is Chairman of the global political risk consultancy John C. Hulsman Enterprises, and author of 'To Dare More Boldly; The Audacious Story of Political Risk'.