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Wednesday, March 22, 2017


I first became deeply and earnestly involved in large questions of public policy in the Spring of 1958.  The issue that engaged my energies was the threat of nuclear war.  There was a movement then to ban nuclear weapons worldwide, led by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, an organization formed in Great Britain the year before and headed up by my old teatime companion [hem hem], Bertrand Russell. 

The invention of nuclear weapons had fundamentally altered military strategy and international affairs because there was no effective defense against them.  [I explored all of this at great length in a book I wrote four years later and failed to get published, The Rhetoric of Deterrence.]  Overnight, the age old concept of defense had been replaced by the new, untested, and fundamentally different concept of deterrence.  Since it was in practice impossible for a nation to defend itself against the devastation of a nuclear attack, there were only two alternatives:  either all the nations that possessed nuclear weapons or were capable of producing them had to agree – unanimously – to destroy the weapons they had and to not produce any more, which is to say nuclear disarmament; or else a nation, to defend itself, had to produce and maintain an arsenal of nuclear weapons capable of being deployed even after a nuclear attack with sufficient effect to make it not in the rational self-interest of any other nation to initiate a nuclear war, which is to say deterrence.  It took no brains at all to see that deterrence was a very risky option, because either accident, or miscalculation, or – worst of all – a failure of rational self-interest on the part of a nuclear armed nation could very well result in the deaths of scores or hundreds of millions of the residents of one’s homeland.

Which brings me to North Korea, which apparently now possesses nuclear weapons and is actively engaged in trying to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile [ICBM] capable of reaching the West Coast of the United States, a distance of maybe 5000 miles.  Should the North Korean development efforts prove successful [and it is difficult to see how they could not be], it would then be possible for Chairman Kim Jong-un to launch an attack on, let us say, San Francisco that the United States would have no ability to stop.  Such an attack would be suicidal, it goes without saying.  I think it is pretty certain that in response the American military would obliterate North Korea with a flood of megaton weapons, killing the Chairman, his government, and most of the North Koreans.  But that would not save San Francisco.

For sixty years, we and the rest of the nuclear armed nations have been relying for our lives on the rational self-interest of all.  It is not for nothing that this state of affairs, usually referred to as mutually assured destruction, goes by the acronym MAD.

Let us assume that Kim-Jong-un is not suicidal, that all he wants, like Henny Youngman, is a little respect.  [If this is not true, then San Francisco, or Los Angeles, or Beijing is doomed.]  The problem is that he is engaged in a very dangerous game, making threats he does not actually intend to carry out in an attempt to bluff the United States and other nations into lifting sanctions, increasing aid [in the case of China], and ceding him a seat at the councils of the nuclear nations.

Since every knowledgeable civilian and military figure in the American government [with the possible exception of the President] understands all of this quite well, there will be enormous pressure on them to launch a first strike to destroy North Korea’s military establishment before Kin Jon-un is in a position to carry out his threats -- threats which, I repeat, cannot be defended against.

We are in dangerous waters.


howard b said...

Professor Wolff:

A few things: first, they'd have to fire an ICBM with accuracy, probably no mean feat.
Second, Trump is an irrational actor. Which changes all our calculations. Maybe two irrational actors toying with nuclear missiles.
Finally, a wish that it was the mongols who possessed nuclear missiles and not the North Koreans- that would be a game changer

s. wallerstein said...

If I were North Korea and observed that Donald Trump was elected president of the only superpower, I'd develop missiles with a capacity to reach California myself.

Chris said...

Bill Maher joked that North Korea is the chihuahua in a car in the grocery store parking lot. When it first pounces at the window barking, you jump startled, only to realize that it's harmless.

I'm no fighter, but I'm pretty sure just the readers of this blog could physically overpower the emaciated, malnourished, and anemic, North Koreans. If I was NK dictator, I would stfu and be quite, because it's not even clear they could win a war against us readers, or a petting zoo, let alone the entire US of A.

s. wallerstein said...

If I'm North Korea and on the U.S.'s enemy list, I see that the U.S. only attacks weak and easy targets: Grenada, Nicaragua (with the contras), Panama, Iraq (twice), Afghanistan and Libya. If I have nuclear capacity while I cannot win a war against the U.S. or even against the readers of this blog, I can hurt the U.S. by launching nuclear missiles against Japan, South Korea, Hawaii and maybe now California. I assume that the Japanese and South Korean economy matter to the U.S. as do civilian casualties in Hawaii and California. An underlying premise is that the U.S. seeks world control and wants to control me (North Korea).

Enam el Brux said...

The question of escalation though is open ended. Beijing might decide to retaliate against the United States if the US attacks North Korea, or if the US responds. It wasn't too long ago that the US attempted to stare down Beijing in support of Taiwan. The United States blinked. It's likely that North Korea would also attack South Korea if it were launching a strike against the US. If a regional exchange occurs anywhere, the doomsday clock advances from 2 and a half minutes to within seconds of midnight. A regional nuclear conflict could easily escalate to all-out global thermonuclear war.

Jerry Brown said...

I'm not any kind of expert, but I would imagine that an advanced missile would not be necessary for North Korea to attack any port city in the US with a nuclear bomb stuck in some container in a cargo ship. As a first strike. It wouldn't have to be shipped directly from North Korea either. If a nuke can fit on a missile, it could fit in one of those containers easily. I hope the North Korean government would have to be suicidal to do this though. It would be the end of them and probably of a large percentage of their population. It would be a bargaining chip for them anyways. I hate thinking like this. Can't you go back to talking about how we oppose Trump?

Carl said...

Have you confused Henny Youngman with Rodney Dangerfield?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

probably! :)