White House national security advisor H.R. McMaster recently noted that the potential for war with North Korea increases “every day.” While many commentators blame mounting tensions on Pyongyang’s increasingly sophisticated military hardware, the ultimate problem is a human one. It is people who make decisions about military and political strategy, and human psychology is the ultimate arbiter of such decisions. Only by addressing the psychology of conflict can we stop the current march to battle.
Amongst the most powerful emotional forces at play in this conflict is what I term the tribes effect, a divisive mindset that pits each side against the other (Shapiro, 2017). Within this frame of mind, disputants view each other as the “enemy,” believe that the only legitimate perspective is their own, and refuse to better understand the other’s interests. In short, this mindset is adversarial, self-righteous, and insular.
Some negotiators feign this affliction of mind for strategic advantage. They play the role of the irrational madman, attempting to frighten the other side from engaging in aggressive behavior: “I’m crazier than you and more willing to go to war – so don’t you dare provoke me!” But in the present circumstance, Trump and Kim Jun Un’s threats are each typically met with a counter-threat in words or military action, and tensions predictably heighten.
This heated rhetoric may be nothing more than words right now, but a thin line separates theatrics from war. The more heated the bombast, the more easily military action can be provoked, despite the incalculable consequences on human life. Everyone has a breaking point.
How can we escape this tribalistic mindset? First, it would be wise to shift from escalatory rhetoric to quiet diplomacy, signaling a conviction to principled dialogue while still readying the military option. This is a sign of strength, not weakness; it demonstrates that the United States is both strong and value-driven.
Second, to avert near-term military confrontation, the US should empower a small negotiation team to advance backchannel dialogue with North Korean counterparts. The US team should be comprised of skilled mid-level negotiators, who would have more freedom than top-ranking colleagues to problem solve creative approaches to the crisis and who would draw less public attention in the case that impasse results. Specific negotiation goals and timelines should be established to ensure that negotiations are not an excuse for further developing the nuclear program.
Third, senior U.S. officials should lean more heavily on Beijing to facilitate quiet conversation and economic pressure on North Korea, demanding that the state stop its war rhetoric, cease its nuclear program, and commit to diplomatic dialogue for promoting regional stability. China may best frame their message as a “request to stall the nuclear program,” providing Pyongyang with a face-saving way to comply. The U.S. State Department might also engage a younger generation of diplomats to devise diplomatic messaging that resonates with the interests of the 33-year old North Korean leader.
Finally, a diplomatic conference should be launched to create a long-term vision for the Korean Peninsula that takes into account the rise of China, the complex interests of international parties, and the tricky questions of nuclear security. An impartial facilitator—perhaps from Scandinavia—could host this meeting and invite key representatives from such countries as China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Russia, and the United States. The purpose of the conference would not be to negotiate a “final agreement” but to jointly create a shared vision of the future with specific, measurable milestones and consequences for non-commitment.
Nuclear weapons would be a crucial part of the conversation, but lodged within a broader dialogue about regional peace and prosperity. This type of dialogue would open the door to creative opportunities for resolving present-day crises while better meeting each state’s long-term economic, political, security, and social interests.
All of this points toward a singular point: The best way to win a war is to prevent it. With the shadow of war looming, we need to use every tool in the diplomatic toolbox to avert mass violence, and defeating the tribes effect is central to this cause.
Reprinted from Psychology Today (Dec 8, 2017).