Graham Allison writes: The United States intelligence community believes that American military strikes against North Korea would almost certainly trigger retaliation that would kill up to a million citizens in Seoul. The South Korean government would respond with a full-scale attack on the North. The United States is committed to support South Korea. But would Mr. Xi ever allow the Korean Peninsula to be reunified by a government allied with the United States?
And history is working against us. A Harvard study I led found 16 cases over the past 500 years when a rising power threatened to displace a ruling power. In 12 of them, the outcome was war. Today, as an unstoppable rising China rivals an immovable reigning United States, this dynamic — which I call Thucydides’s Trap — amplifies risks.
What we see unfolding now is a Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion. In the most dangerous moment in recorded history, to prevent the Soviet Union from placing nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba, John F. Kennedy was prepared to take what he confessed was a one-in-three chance of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. What risk will Mr. Trump run to prevent North Korea acquiring the ability to strike the United States?
As Kennedy approached the final hour in which he would have to attack, risking nuclear war, or acquiesce to a Soviet nuclear presence in America’s backyard, both he and Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, began to examine previously unthinkable options. In the popular American narrative, Khrushchev capitulated. But we now know that both sides blinked. Kennedy agreed secretly to remove American missiles from Turkey, an option he and his advisers had earlier rejected because of its impact on NATO — and because he would look weak.
Kennedy’s central lesson from the crisis still offers wise counsel for Mr. Trump. “Above all,” Kennedy said, “while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war.” [Continue reading…]