By Robert Hackett
August 12, 2017

Just before former President Barack Obama left office, he reportedly advised the inbound commander in chief that North Korea would be his administration’s biggest problem. The warning has proven prescient.

Earlier this week the Washington Post reported that the Hermit Kingdom has achieved, in the assessment of at least one U.S. intelligence agency as well as the Japanese Ministry of Defense, the ability to install a miniaturized nuclear warhead within its intercontinental ballistic missiles. The development prompted President Donald Trump to threaten “fire and fury” if the Kim regime refused to end its aggression. Though White House aides cautioned that Trump had spoken extemporaneously, he later doubled down, saying his threat wasn’t “tough enough.”

The President is continuing to come to grips with the realization that this foreign policy quagmire is “not so easy,” as he famously described a preliminary reversal of opinion on the matter to the Wall Street Journal in April, after his first ever meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. “Ignorant of the long history of the problem, Trump at least brings fresh eyes to it,” wrote The Atlantic’s Mark Bowden, taking the optimist’s point of view, if only momentarily, in an excellent feature that surveys the host of unsavory options at Washington’s disposal in dealing with the looming crisis. As the piece pessimistically concludes, “There are no good options for dealing with North Korea.”

America has long forestalled conflict with its reckless adversary, preferring economic sanctions, spy operations, and cyber sabotage to direct military intervention. Despite Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s assertion earlier this year that the United States’ policy of “strategic patience is over,” the present administration’s course has yet to look much different. Unless entering an era of a rhetorical game of chicken counts.

Amid the fomenting tension, a particular line in a centuries’ old text has haunted me. Niccolò Machiavelli, history’s least subtle statesman, once advised in The Prince, his manual for tyrants-to-be, “war is not to be avoided, but is only put off to the advantage of others.”

This grim edict takes as its context a situation in which war is inevitable. Specifically, Machiavelli cites the Romans in their conquest of foreign lands, where bloodshed was certain. His point is that the longer one delays, the more leverage one’s enemy may gain. There is something to be said for Machiavelli’s cynical doctrine; North Korea has greatly expanded its nuclear arsenal and weapons capabilities in recent years.

War is not inevitable when it comes to North Korea, one hopes. Diplomacy, or deterrence by other means, is obviously preferable.

Still I wonder about that quote often, and it makes me squeamish.

Robert Hackett


Welcome to the Cyber Saturday edition of Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily tech newsletter. Fortune reporter Robert Hackett here. You may reach me via Twitter, Cryptocat, Jabber (see OTR fingerprint on my, PGP encrypted email (see public key on my, Wickr, Signal, or however you (securely) prefer. Feedback welcome.


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