America’s miscalculations

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Source: The Washington Post.

When assessing security threats – like the escalating threats the United States and North-Korea are now exchanging – military and political analysts typically focus on two factors: the capabilities and intentions of the state that poses the threat. Does North-Korea have the capabilities to live up to its threats, and have the threats – explicit and implicit in the threats – any (political) credibility?

But a third factor – the stage of development of the international order – cannot be ignored, as I explain in this article.

A strong focus is on North Korea’s capabilities and intentions.

There still are some – but increasingly less – doubts about North-Korea’s (nuclear) capabilities. About North-Korea’s intentions, there are more doubts; they do not make sense, is often argued; a war would mean self-destruction for North-Korea.

A recent statement of the secretary of Defence of the United States – James Mattis – also makes this point. Mattis states that North-Korea’s actions would end in the “destruction of its people”, a macabre statement of the US Defence secretary, when you take also South-Korea’s and Japan’s vulnerability into consideration, and that the destruction of North-Korea’s people would be accomplished through America’s (pre-emptive) attack.

North-Korea of course makes its own assessments and calculations, and is – it seems – very much aware of the United States’ vulnerabilities. The United States can win the battle (against North-Korea), but  loose the war; this simple fact gives North-Korea its leverage. A military victory, does not automatically mean a political victory: you can win a war, but loose the peace. For North-Korea, the survival of its leadership is at stake, for the United States its dominant position in the international order.

Point is that in order to make realistic threat assessments, not only capabilities and intentions must be taken into consideration, but also – my research shows – the current condition of the international order; its stage of development.

At this stage of development of the international order, the current condition of the order to a very high degree determines how the systems dynamics – threats of war, and wars – will unfold.

The international order is now – since 2011 data-analysis shows – in its high connectivity regime, when due to the high and increasing connectedness of issues and tensions in the System, tension cannot be adequately released and issues not be resolved.

Instead of tensions being released and issues (consequently) being resolved, they accumulate in the System, ‘pushing’ the whole system into a critical condition. When the system becomes critical, relatively small incidents (perturbations) – like relatively ‘insignificant’ threats – trigger non-linear (disproportional) responses that will reverberate through the whole System. When the System is in a critical condition, local issues no longer exist.

Calculations suggest that the System reaches a next critical point around 2020, when the tensions and issues that (now) accumulate in the System become fully connected.

When the System becomes critical – and fully connected (the System’s correlation length is one) – it produces a systemic war; a war in which all Great Powers will be involved, and that will be used to design and implement an ‘upgraded’ international order, that allows for a lower energy-state – tension level – of the System.

An upgraded order enables a new period of relative stability that allows for further population growth and development

Over time, especially since 2011, ‘North-Korea’ – and other issues – have become an integral (increasingly connected) component in a global issue network. ‘North-Korea’ is not any longer just about North-Korea, but about the relationship between the United States, China and Russia; about the international order itself.

A war ‘about’ North-Korea can and will trigger other issues between the Great Powers. It seems that North-Korea is better aware of the United States’ global vulnerabilities than the US itself. The current order – the Pax Americana, embedded in the United Nations – is overdue, and needs an urgent upgrade – a UN 2.0 – that reflects the actual positions of power and influence of states in the System. That is what is at stake for the United States. And the United States does not seem to have a lack of (new) enemies.