Faculty Interview Series: An Interview with Dr. Matthew Kroenig, SFS Associate Professor

By: Stan Sundel, Reporter

Photo Credit: Georgetown University

In just the past few weeks, North Korea has undertaken a number of provocative military measures, including firing rockets over Japan and conducting additional nuclear tests. Can Pyongyang be brought back from the brink, and to the negotiating table? Or is a war on the Korean peninsula simply inevitable?

Who better to answer these questions than one of Georgetown’s top nuclear proliferation experts, Professor Matthew Kroenig. Dr. Kroenig is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government and the Walsh School of Foreign Service, and a Senior Fellow at The Atlantic Council. He is the author or editor of six books, including “Nuclear Posture and Nonproliferation Policy: Causes and Consequences for the Spread of Nuclear Weapons.” In addition to his work as a scholar, Dr. Kroenig frequently provides commentary to many major media outlets, such as CBS, NPR, and CNN. Moreover, he has extensive experience in the policy arena, including serving as a senior national security adviser on the 2016 Marco Rubio presidential campaign. 

Steve Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist, has argued that the North Korean nuclear crisis cannot be solved through military means, saying: “Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.” Do you see any tenable military solutions to the North Korea crisis?

It depends on what you mean by military solutions. North Korea is a hard foreign policy problem. Like many hard foreign policy problems, there are no good options. But as I see it, our strategy needs to have two main elements. The first is focused on coercive diplomacy—increasing economic and military pressure on North Korea, with the hope of forcing them to the table [to] discuss denuclearization. But that’s going to be hard, if not impossible. The second part of the strategy needs to recognize that there’s a threat that exists here and now. We need to be able to defend ourselves, defend our allies, [and] deter North Korea. And, God forbid, they attack, or are on the verge of attacking, we need to have credible military options, including the possibility of going first. Going first tomorrow is not what we would want to do, but we need to have credible military options because the enemy gets a vote.

North Korea has been called “the most sanctioned country on earth.” How much more economic pressure can the international community really put on Pyongyang to give up their weapons?

This is actually something where there’s been a lot of misinformation, because there’s a lot of direct US-North Korea sanctions. But the North Korean economy is being propped up by Chinese firms and Chinese banks that are essentially not subject to these sanctions because the Chinese aren’t enforcing the multilateral sanctions. So there is a lot of room for a lot of so-called “secondary sanctions.” So what the United States can do is directly sanction the Chinese banks and the Chinese firms trading with North Korea, bypassing the Chinese government and forcing these firms to decide: “Would you rather do some cross-border trade with North Korea? Or would you rather have access to the US dollar, to international markets, to the US stock exchange, and the US economy?” And that’s really no choice at all. So, if we put those sanctions in place, we can force those firms to cut off trade to North Korea and really bring some serious economic pressure to bear.

Both President Trump and Kim Jong-un have been known to make provocative—and some would say careless—remarks via the media. Trump has said that “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States [or] they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” North Korea seems to constantly threaten to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.” Is there a chance that an offhand remark by either Trump or the North Koreans could trigger a nuclear war?

I don’t think so. I am a political science professor by training. We have a lot theories of war. I don’t think we have many theories of war that say that wars are caused by inflammatory statements. If anything, our IR theories of war tell us that deterrent threats—trying to signal your credibility and your resolve—should lead to a reduction in the chance of war. It’s when the adversary underestimates you and thinks they can get away with something that you’re most likely to get war.

So I understand why these threats concern people. And certainly the two threats you mentioned aren’t the most standard diplomatic declarations. But at the end of the day, what they’re both trying to do is deter each other, not announce an impending [nuclear] first strike around the corner. 

Many SSP students were born after the Cold War, and unlike our parents’ generation, we have little real sense of what it was like to live with the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over our heads. Do you think younger Americans underestimate the possibility of nuclear war?

I do. All Americans probably underestimate the risk of nuclear war. And I understand why. For the past 25 years since the end of the Cold War we haven’t lived with real nuclear threats. Russia had a passive policy. The North Koreans couldn’t reach the United States. And China was also fairly restrained in its foreign policy.

But unfortunately, we’ve entered a second nuclear age. There are serious nuclear threats again, especially from Russia and North Korea. I can see real pathways to nuclear war with Russia and North Korea, and even China—although they’re a bit less of a nuclear threat. I think we need to realize that these are real threats again, and we need to have serious policies to deter and deal with these threats. Unfortunately, there’s a real risk that we could see nuclear weapons used in our lifetime.

During the recent presidential campaign, you were one of the signatories of an open letter from Republican national security leaders stating your opposition to Donald Trump. About a year later, once Trump took office, you wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs entitled “The Case for Trump’s Foreign Policy.” What led you to change your mind about Trump?

[W]hen I wrote the Foreign Affairs piece, a lot of the things we criticized had changed. We wrote the letter when [Trump] didn’t have a serious foreign policy team in place. After becoming president, he put together a team that is actually quite good, with Mattis, McMaster, Tillerson, and others. A lot of things were said on the campaign trail, [but] since coming into office, his foreign policy has been much more traditional than many people feared. I don’t think it’s a perfect foreign policy by any means. That’s an impossible standard. But given the difficult security environment [the Trump administration] inherited, the team is doing a better job than they’re getting credit for.

Some have noted a relative dearth of academics serving in the Trump administration. Foreign policy is largely being directed by former generals (Mattis, McMaster, Kelly). What effect do you believe this is having on the direction of American foreign policy and/or on civil-military relations?

There aren’t that many true academics who serve in government in either party. If you look back to Obama, how many tenured professors were there in the administration? There were a handful, but not many.

What’s really different this time, and what’s missing, is the kind of think tank/foreign policy/D.C. expert types. The people Trump has in place are excellent. These are people who would work in any administration. People know about Mattis and McMaster. But even going to lower levels—Jon Huntsman as Ambassador to Russia, Brian Hook as Director of Policy Planning, Robert Karem as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs—these are all very talented people.

But there are too many positions still unfilled, and that is a problem. And filling those positions with some of the traditional Republican foreign policy think tank experts would help the administration, because there’s a lot of experience and expertise on the bench, and it would be helpful to get them in the game.

What advice do you have for students interested in entering the security field? 

I’d say the number one thing is to hone your skills as a writer, because no matter what you want to do writing is very important. That’s often underappreciated. If you’re interested in going into government, for example, certainly at the lower and middle levels you’re going to be staffing somebody. So what that person needs is somebody who can put together short memos, talking points, read information and synthesize it and put ideas clearly in writing. So it might not be what people expect, but good writing skills are incredibly important.

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