“Nuclear war is unavoidable”—that’s the headline in one British newspaper, reporting on North Korea and its nukes; other reports are hardly more optimistic.
And so we are back to the “Doomsday Clock,” the famous Cold War creation of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Back in 1949, as the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb, the hand of the clock was set at seven minutes before midnight. By 1953, it was moved as close as two minutes before midnight. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, it moved all the way back to 17 minutes before midnight. In 2012, it was five minutes till—and it’s hard to believe now that it won’t be moved closer.
Thomas Hobbes was on to something when he argued that leviathan states, emerging in the post-Westphalian era, would effectively monopolize the use of force within their own territories. While violent turmoil within a nation might spike for a while—here in the U.S., anarchist assassinations of a century ago, the student protests of a half-century ago, and, more recently, the terrorism of 9-11 and a few homegrown crazies—such violence will eventually be quelled by Hobbesian internal security forces. In any case, terrorism does not pose a threat to the continued existence of a modern state.
Even the bombings in Boston, horrific as they were, do not change this calculus. The inevitable and necessary response to such explosions will be more watchfulness, but there will indeed be a Boston Marathon running next year.
Yet at the same time, the capacity of other states, mobilizing their own Hobbesian capacities to manufacture their own means of violence—including nuclear violence that can actually destroy a nation—continues to grow.
A recent engagement of a play from 1986, Lee Blessing’s “A Walk in the Woods,” gives the theatergoer a sense of foreboding as well as nostalgia. Nominated for several Broadway awards, the drama takes us back to the era of dire nuclear weapons, as well as efforts aimed at negotiating their reduction. Those arms-control efforts gave rise, in turn, to a seemingly permanent subculture of nuclear negotiators, conversant in their own grim—and at times, grimly funny—vernacular of euphemisms and acronyms.
“A Walk in the Woods” is a fictionalized version of a famous incident in the history of U.S.-Soviet arms-control parleys. In June 1982, the American lead negotiator, Paul Nitze, and his Soviet counterpart, Yuli Kvitsinsky, went for a stroll through the forest of Saint-Cergue, a few miles from Geneva. That walk produced a private agreement between the two men, an agreement to lessen the deployment of new Intermediate Nuclear Forces in Europe. However, their informal understanding was immediately repudiated by their respective national leaders.
Yet that moment of wistful amicability—between two Cold Warriors who wanted to avoid a hot war—captured the imagination of the world. And while “Walk” begins with a familiar trope favored by the left—nuanced and sophisticated Russian, naive and brittle American—it contains enough twists and turns to keep everyone amused; the wily one, for instance, is shown to be merely world-weary, if not psychologically dead. The play ends on an ambiguous note, fully in keeping with the forever-war nature of the Cold War, which John F. Kennedy once declared “a long twilight struggle.”
The Cold War eventually ended, of course, but the play includes foreshadowing of things to come. Describing the need for prudence in the era of The Button, one of the characters says, “It used to be that you had to be rational in English and Russian.” But now, one must be rational in “Hebrew, Chinese, Urdu, and Hindi.” That was a quarter-century ago; since then, the need to be rational, for survival’s sake, has extended to even more tongues.
Thus we come back to North Korea. Who is Kim Jong Un? Yes, he seems like the type who, in a slightly different world, would be a playboy son-of-a-dictator student at UCLA, cruising along Sunset Boulevard in a Maserati trying to pick up girls. Is this punk really in charge of his nation’s fate, or are others, in the shadows, pulling the strings? We might recall that in an earlier era these same sorts of questions were asked about Stalin and Khrushchev and Brezhnev—the whole huge discipline of “Kremlinology” arose to glean whatever we could about Soviet intentions and capabilities.
Meanwhile, in the wake of the obvious inability of the U.S. and its allies to foresee what will happen in North Korea, it’s time for a little introspection on our side. Indeed, we could really use some finger-pointing, to be followed by some constructive lesson-learning. We might consider three opportunities for learning:
First, whose bright idea was it to send Jimmy Carter to North Korea as an American negotiator? The former president has made multiple trips to Pyongyang on behalf of the last three presidents: how’s that working out for us? Most recently, in 2011, he accused the U.S. and South Korea of committing “a human rights violation” by withholding food aid.
In fact, according to a 2012 Congressional Research Service report, between 1995 and 2008 the U.S. gave North Korea $1.3 billion in assistance. Today, we can only wonder if that U.S. aid kept the Pyongyang regime from collapsing a decade ago.
Second, we might ask: who told the U.S. military that its future was to be found in counterinsurgency? COIN for the Muslim world sounds great in theory—just as it sounded great in Vietnam in the ’50s and ’60s—but it never seems to work out so well, does it? Here’s hoping that the Pentagon has figured out by now that teaching its troops a few supposedly friend-making phrases of Pashto or Arabic is less valuable than actually stopping an enemy from blowing us up.
And that brings us to the third question: who has been dithering on missile defense for the last three decades?
On March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), holding out the promise of making America—and the world—safe from missile threats. In that speech, Reagan closed with this pledge: “My fellow Americans, tonight we’re launching an effort which holds the promise of changing the course of human history.” He added, “There will be risks, and results take time.” Yes, the results took time—but not that much time. Less than eight years later, not only had the Berlin Wall fallen, but the Soviet Union itself had imploded.
As a CIA history, based on internal Soviet documents, explains, SDI shook the Kremlin to the core. The Russians weren’t sure that the Americans could build SDI, but they knew that they themselves couldn’t:
The Soviets treated [SDI] as an extremely serious development for two reasons. First, despite their boasting in the 1970s, Soviet leaders—and perhaps Andropov most of all—had great respect for US technological capabilities. Second, SDI had a profound psychological impact that reinforced the trend already anticipated in the new Soviet assessment of the “correlation of forces.”
The CIA study then quoted Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, First Deputy Defense Minister and Chief of the General Staff, assessing the USSR’s inability to compete with the U.S. in this new arms arena:
We cannot equal the quality of U.S. arms for a generation or two. Modern military power is based on technology, and technology is based on computers. In the US, small children play with computers. … Here, we don’t even have computers in every office of the Defense Ministry. And for reasons you know well, we cannot make computers widely available in our society. We will never be able to catch up with you in modern arms until we have an economic revolution. And the question is whether we can have an economic revolution without a political revolution.
We might pause on those last points: the USSR would need an “economic revolution” to keep up with the Americans, and that could lead to a “political revolution.” And that was the context in which Mikhail Gorbachev, coming to power two years later, in 1985, launched his fateful reforms.
In other words, Reagan’s SDI was a decisive masterstroke that panicked the Soviets into upending their slow-moving system. In 1992, this author heard Vladimir Lukin, the Russian ambassador to the U.S., tell a DC audience that “Reagan’s SDI accelerated the decline of the Soviet Union by five or ten years.”
By now, perhaps even Secretary of State John Kerry has had a chance to reconsider his many past denunciations SDI. For example, in 1985—the same year that Gorbachev took power with a mandate to overhaul the Soviet system in response to SDI—then-Senator Kerry lambasted “Star Wars,” dismissing Reagan’s idea as “a dream based on illusion.” As Kerry now seeks a solution to the Korea crisis, surely he sees the value of defending Seoul, Tokyo, and the U.S. itself.
Perhaps Kerry might even quietly agree with Michaela Dodge, whose recent monograph for the Heritage Foundation, “North Korea Proves Benefits of Missile Defense,” provides a useful overview. And another Heritage paper, Aaron Richards’s “Israel’s Iron Dome Proves a Missile Defense System Can Work” is worth reading, too. When arms-control diplomacy isn’t working—it’s hard to make a deal with a warmonger—robust defensive weapons must be put in place. And the U.S. should be leading, not lagging.
To be sure, many in the diplomatic world will instinctively bristle at the supposed “unilateralism” of such an approach. Yet in the Hobbesian struggle between nation-states, alliances have a way of proving less important than each state’s ability to defend itself.
However, there’s still hope for—and, in fact, a need for—multilateralists. If all the nation-states of the world were to think seriously about defending themselves, they would discover the value of a new kind of diplomacy. That is, a diplomacy based on verifiable defense technology, such as missile defense.
Indeed, some of us have been arguing this point for a long time. Back in May 2001, months before 9-11, I suggested that the U.S. create a World Anti-Rogue Nations Organization (WARNO). Describing the choices then available to the newbie Bush 41 administration, I outlined, in neo-Reaganite terms, a new kind of mutual-security alliance, bigger and broader than NATO:
Bush could go further, beyond alleged unilateralism, beyond reported bilateralism, all the way to enunciated multilateralism. The most obvious and also most lustrous multilateral precedent, in which America sought to create a new peacekeeping structure around the world, is the Truman Administration. In the wake of World War II, Truman put forth the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, the Point Four Program to distribute foreign aid to the Third World, the Mutual Security Administration to send out military aid, and, of course, the capstone of post-war peacekeeping, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
In other words, WARNO would be a perfectly valid new form of multilateral diplomacy, aimed at solving an urgent new problem that needs to be solved.
A half-century later, the Cold War is over, but new forms of missile war—and maybe attack by weapons of mass destruction—loom on the horizon. So perhaps the time has come for Bush to propose some equally ambitious security structure, such as, say, a World Anti-Rogue Nations Organization.
As far as the Bush 43 administration is concerned, we’ll never know the answer to those questions, because George W. Bush put his priorities elsewhere. Yet even now, a dozen years later, President Obama has a chance to build a peaceful, peace-keeping structure of mutual security.
The people of America—and all the peoples of the civilized world, who want the skylines of their big cities to remain intact—must mobilize to defend themselves fully. Before it’s too late.
James P. Pinkerton is a contributor to the Fox News Channel and a TAC contributing editor. Follow him on Twitter.