We’re not in a Cold War ICBM race.
Sixty years ago this month, the Soviet Union announced that it had successfully tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Launched from southern Kazakhstan, the missile traveled 3,700 miles before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. The test made clear that the Soviet Union was capable of threatening the U.S. and gave way to great concern in Washington. A national debate over the “missile gap” between America and Russia ensued. Thousands of missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads around the world were built and deployed. And trillions of dollars were eventually directed into weapons programs capable of designing, building, and maintaining the arsenal.
In July, North Korea tested its own version of an ICBM. And according to U.S. intelligence, Pyongyang may be able to launch a reliable nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile by early 2018. Only days after North Korea’s ICBM launch, the Pentagon launched a conventionally armed ICBM from Vandenberg Air Base in California. The ICBM was equipped with a test reentry vehicle, which officials said showed it traveled about 4,200 miles to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
In light of escalating tensions with North Korea, one can be forgiven for drawing parallels between the Cold War missile race and North Korea’s advance toward an intercontinental launch capability. But in the case of the U.S. ICBM launch, sometimes a test is just a test—it shouldn’t be read as part of a new strategy. The Pentagon conducts tests of its missiles regularly—often scheduling launches a full two years in advance. Planning for this particular test reportedly began almost a year ago when President Barack Obama was in office.
The rationale that led to escalating tensions and competitive missile development with the Soviet Union no longer holds for North Korea. During the Cold War, ICBM tests by both countries served a two-fold purpose: To move forward the state of technological advancement, and to demonstrate the capability to inflict unacceptable damage at great distances. The show of force was the brandishing of a loaded firearm in the face of an equally well-armed adversary.
The Trump administration faces a very different challenge in North Korea. The U.S. no longer needs to prove its military might—with 1,500 operational nuclear warheads, and 750 different means of delivering those weapons to targets around the world, no country doubts the overwhelming military strength of the U.S. The real question facing the Trump administration is what strategy will most effectively mitigate the North Korean threat?
To deal with the Pyongyang problem, President Donald Trump is actively weighing the use of a mix of imperfect tools: sanctions, diplomacy, and force. And while there are no silver bullets to solve the North Korea threat, the use of military force carries with it the most risk. In addition to their nuclear program, Pyongyang has powerful artillery within striking range of Seoul and is among the world leaders in its stockpile of chemical weapons. A military option, no matter how well executed, would very likely result in devastating losses in South Korea. Sanctions too hold little hope for success. Tough international sanctions levied against North Korea since their first nuclear test in 2006 have not meaningfully deterred Pyongyang’s nuclear advances.
No path forward here is easy, but with the escalatory drawbacks of the military option and limited efficacy of sanctions, the Trump administration would do well to continue efforts to give diplomacy a meaningful chance to succeed. Trump should continue to lean on China, North Korea’s largest trading partner, to open up a pathway for dialogue. Eventual negotiations will be long, hard work, but just as the U.S. and world powers dismantled the most dangerous elements of Iran’s nuclear program, so too can pragmatic efforts be made to meaningfully roll back Pyongyang’s nuclear activities.
Brian Finlay is president and CEO of the nonpartisan Stimson Center.