Non-Credible Threats Are Only Non-Credible when Actors Are Sane

Ordinarily, when I read a senior government official stating:

“We have other methods of addressing those who threaten us, and of addressing those who supply the threats. We have great capabilities in the area of trade.”

[US Ambassador to UN Nikki] Haley said she spoke at length to President Donald Trump on Wednesday morning about “countries that are allowing, even encouraging trade with North Korea, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.”

“Such countries would also like to continue their trade arrangements with the United States,” she said. “That’s not going to happen. Our attitude on trade changes when countries do not take international security threats seriously.”

I discount such talk as constituting a non-credible threat. That’s because punishing China with effective trade sanctions would likely hurt America as much as the target (including through third channels as the global economy is hurt).

But the threat is truly non-credible if the agents are rational, as in the Rational Agent model of international relations (see alternatives, here). But using that model as a baseline is probably not correct for the Trump Administration. I think a better framework for analysis (if not a model) would be stumbling into conflict with a misapprehension of costs, benefits, and the workings of the world, as in this case.

Of course, that does not mean that China would accede to US demands even if we imposed sanctions.

13 thoughts on “Non-Credible Threats Are Only Non-Credible when Actors Are Sane

  1. Nate

    I say this as a Clinton voter – at the very least its time we cut off trade with China. They are not our friends. Support for N. Korea to me is inexcusable. I get that they want a buffer state but why not a normal tin pot dictatorship buffer state? I’d rather have China occupy N. Korea than the current state of affairs.

    When we trade with China we export our values. I’d love to be friendly with them and on the same page on some of these things but to me this is the line.

    1. Bruce Hall

      Check your history books. Of the previous Clinton was the president under whom North Korea was allowed to develop its nuclear program. Bill Clinton thought he could buy them off with a few billion dollars. The North Koreans use that money to further their nuclear program.

        1. Anonymous

          Too bad the good intentions didn’t work. Also, remember the Toshiba computer screwup? Yeah, that was Bill’s watch, too. That gave NK what they needed to go forward.

          Clinton could have stopped NK in its tracks, but Bill didn’t have the will.

          1. 2slugbaits

            Right. It’s all Bill Clinton’s fault. Why not go full nutjob and blame Ike or Harry Truman? Or Adam and Eve for eating that apple and bringing evil into the world? If you want to pin some blame for botching opportunities, a good place to start is with that moron John Bolton. He was screwing things up so bad that even our allies and our own government agency heads begged Bush 43 to get him the hell out of the way because he was just making a bad situation worse.

  2. baffling

    Nate, cutting off trade will mean the average joe, including yourself, will give up a significant amount of standard of living and daily luxuries. The us will take on a pretty big economic penalty. Are you willing to do this in order to puff your chest? In general, how many Americans are willing to give up their iphones to make your stand? Cutting off trade with china has serious implications for life here, which most folks are not interested in fully contemplating.

    1. noneconomist

      Cutting off trade with China may also deal a severe blow to the evangelicals who depend on businesses like hobby to funnel Chinese goods their way. Add in Wal Mart (hello, Arkansas) and you have plenty of trouble a brewin’ in the American holy lands where Jesus meets China on a regular basis.

  3. Erik Poole

    Perhaps all the bluster is simply designed to deflect from the inefficacy of US trade sanctions?

    But all the same, if Israel with its controversial nation building project has American-approved nuclear weapons why can’t little North Korea have nuclear weapons?

    North Korea is surrounded by nuclear powers: China and Russia.

    In the case of Israel, the USA has bent over backwards at considerable expense to assure the Israeli regional monopoly on nuclear weapons.

    1. Bruce Hall

      North Korea is China’s proxy. The Chinese have to be laughing at US efforts to get them to stop North Korea. China only benefits from the problems that North Korea creates for the US and its allies.

  4. PeakTrader

    The civilized world needs to impose a cost on communist China for supporting the brutal North Korean dictatorship.

    Sanctions will hurt China much more than the U.S. and its allies.

    Also, it’s been suggested, we arm Japan and South Korea with nuclear weapons, step up military exercises, including in the South China Sea, and project more military power with our allies in East Asia.

    We need to turn the tables on this game.

    1. 2slugbaits

      The Chinese leadership is hardly in love with North Korea. China’s main concern is avoiding a complete meltdown in North Korea because the Chinese don’t want millions of NK refugees flooding across the border.

      Arming Japan and South Korea with nukes is stupid and would only be interpreted by North Korea as an admission that the US nuclear umbrella is not credible; otherwise, why arm them with nukes if the US fully intends to honor its protection agreements?

      Deepening our commitment with our East Asian allies might well be a good idea, but that goal is hard to square with killing the TPP. I understand that the Trumpster likes to fancy himself as a bigly great negotiator, but all the evidence we’ve seen so far is that he’s just not very good at negotiating deals…unless you’re sitting at the other end of the table. And if you want to strengthen our military commitments with East Asia as well as our commitments to the eastern edge of NATO, then tax cuts for the rich should be off the table.

    2. baffling

      increasing nuclear proliferation should be decided by the younger generation, who has to deal with the consequences of such action for the next 50+ years. those who will be leaving this world on a shorter time frame should not impose their long term costs onto others.

  5. Erik Poole

    I would love to see the USA impose sanctions on China. The adjustment costs of a trade war between China and the USA would be significant.

    Maybe President Trump will switch his growth target from 3% real per annum GDP growth to -3% real GDP growth?

    I doubt Trump supporters would be too happy with the increase in the cost of consumer goods.

    But then the one time increase in the price level will look like inflation to a lot of folks so the US central bank could cry “Victory!” in its attempt to push inflation back over 2%.

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