The consensus right and left seems to be that President Donald Trump’s apocalyptic threat of “fire and fury” should North Korea continue its provocations has actually brought the possibility of nuclear annihilation closer. But hardheaded analysis suggests that, however unpresidential his rhetoric, Trump’s words have not appreciably increased the risk of war between the U.S. and North Korea.
True, the New York Stock Exchange closed slightly down after his remarks, and the Nikkei was down 1.3 percent. But those relatively mild reactions probably reflect a reminder that such a war is, in fact, conceivable — not a change in its probability.
Three prominent arguments have been made in criticism of Trump’s statement. All are valid, but none truly shows that he upped the likelihood of war.
The first and most plausible criticism is that Trump set a red line for North Korea — no threats against the U.S. — that he isn’t actually prepared to enforce. This criticism is reminiscent of what President Barack Obama faced for giving Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a red line — no chemical weapons — and then failing to enforce it.
The trouble with this argument is that it was obvious from the first and to everyone that Trump’s statement on Tuesday didn’t mean that any verbal threat by North Korea would be met by nuclear bombs.
And we know for a fact that North Korea didn’t take Trump’s threat literally, because within a few hours of his making it, the North Koreans threatened Guam. They wouldn’t have done that if they expected imminent fire and fury in response. They were just trying to signal that Trump was full of bluster.
Trump being Trump
Trump’s statement shouldn’t therefore be taken as an empty threat that would affect his ability to make a serious threat later. Trump was just being Trump.
The second line of attack on the Trump statement is that his words made tensions worse rather than damping them down. That’s certainly true in the sense that he managed to elicit the Guam threat.
Yet it’s far from clear that elevated rhetoric on both sides actually increases the probability of anyone using force. The North Koreans like to talk big, but that doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, affect our assessment of their likelihood of first use.
The fact that Trump was using a technique — rhetorical excess — that we associate more with North Korea than with the U.S. brings us to the third criticism of Trump, namely that he sounded bombastic and, in that sense, kind of bush league.
The world may think this makes Trump look foolish. And arguably a bit of that foolishness could rub off on the U.S.
The cumulative effect on American power, however, is likely to be negligible.
The point is that, from an international perspective, the U.S. position in global security is more than just Donald Trump. He isn’t going to nuke North Korea for its rhetoric.
Ask yourself: Do you really, truly feel that nuclear holocaust is closer today than last week? I don’t. I just think that Trump is being Trump.
Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter.