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Wednesday, August 9, 2017


My remarks about North Korea prompted a number of interesting comments.  Let me address just one relatively minor but important issue.  At the height of the cold war between Russia and America, there was a very great deal of serious concern among the American military about the possibility that a Russian nuclear attack would, in several different ways, disrupt communications and the chain of command.  What would happen, American military planners asked, if Congress was “taken out” by a Soviet strike, making it impossible for even a select committee of the Senate to sign off on the use of nuclear weapons?  Mightn’t a Soviet attack disrupt communications between the President and the Joint Chiefs, or between the central military high command and the Commanders of nuclear submarines on patrol under the waters of the Atlantic or Pacific?  Would it prove impossible for the soldiers stationed in hardened ICBM silos in the Dakotas to double check a command to fire their missiles?  Would it be unfeasible to reprogram missiles to new targets after an attack?

These and many other questions were debated in think tanks, but the answers were hardly academic.  Software and hardware had to be designed to implement whatever strategic response the President and top military planners decided in advance in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States.

In the end, certainty was given priority over flexibility, and systems were designed and put in place to ensure: first, that only the President had the authority and capability to order the use of nuclear weapons; and second, that once a Presidential order was issued it would be conveyed without intermediation or delay to the military personnel charged with carrying it out.

As a consequence, if Trump were to order a nuclear strike, there would be no period of debate, delay, reconsideration, and double checking before the order was carried out.  Kelly, McMaster, and Mattis would not be able to slow walk the order while Trump was calmed down, flattered, reassured about the size of his hands, and propped up in front of an ego-confirming crowd of supporters.  We could of course hope that if Trump demanded the nuclear codes, someone would offer him a dud phone into which he could shout orders like a crazy street person yelling into an unconnected handset in a street corner booth.  We could hope, but nothing in the system in existence offers much reason for confidence.

One other matter of great importance about which I will say only a word or two.  As part of an interesting exchange in the comments section, LFC writes:  “The definition of 'existential threat,' as with the definition of any threat, should take into account what can reasonably be known with a high degree of confidence about intentions, not simply capabilities. Thus, for example, far from the UK and France posing an existential threat to every country in the world as the post says, the UK and France do not pose an existential threat to any country since there is no evidence at all that the UK and French governments, or really any conceivable UK and French govts, intend a first use of their nuclear weapons. (Indeed I'd guess that UK and French nuclear doctrines explicitly renounce or abjure first use, though I'd have to check on that.)

To say that every nuclear armed country by definition poses an existential threat to every other country is like saying that anyone who chooses to carry a gun in a place where that is legal poses an existential threat to everyone who does not carry a gun. That's not the case; it depends on the intentions, and the mental condition, of the gun carrier.”

I am afraid in my haste I did not make myself clear.  The term “existential threat” was meant to convey not the likelihood of the threat being actualized but the magnitude of the threat and the impossibility of defending against it.  Of course one must use what information one has when estimating the likelihood of a threat being actualized.  The point is that a single madman in a President’s chair can, in a world of conventional weapons, start a world war, which is terrible indeed.  But a single madman in the President’s chair of a nuclear armed nation can start a civilization ending war, which is to say that such a person poses an existential threat.  Do France and Great Britain have mad rulers?  No.  Could they?  Well, America does.


Tom Cathcart said...

Apparently, Truman threatened Japan with "a rain of ruin, such as the world has never seen." This is different. We were the only nuclear power in the world at the time.

s. wallerstein said...

This is worth listening to: Tariq Ali interviews Adam Cathcart about Korea. As usually happens when you study a situation with a bit more detail, the plots thickens and the quantity of variables multiplies. You have to look at the role of China, South Korea and Japan as well as North Korean and the U.S.: there are no good guys and too many bad guys.

Lindsay Hall said...

Is this Trump failing to act like a grown-up, or is it the US pursuing its interests (essentially those of world capital)?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Trump always fails to act like a grownup, and the US always pursues the interest of [US] capital. In this case, I do not see that America's implacable opposition to a North Korean nuclear capability serves the interests of capital, at least not directly. But I may be missing something.

Lindsay Hall said...

President Trump is, in his own inimitable way, pursuing a variant of the policy pursued by US administrations since the mid-fifties: implacable hostility towards North Korea backed with extreme military force. The policy is that of the US; its implementation that of the US government. We can debate whether or not the policy is in the interests of the US; we can debate whether its implementation is more or less grown-up. Similarly with US policies on the "Middle East", Eastern Europe and Russia, China etc. For the rest of the world, Trump is Clinton played as farce.

Lindsay Hall said...

Full disclosure: I share an email address with my wife and since she's the boss it's her name appears in the address. I've just noticed that as a result I'm now pestering you with comments under her name rather than mine. Sorry.
Ewan Maclean (hereinafter to be known as Lindsay Hall/my better half).

Anonymous said...

Hey Mr Wolff.

I'm going over your video lectures on Kant at the moment (very good, very amusing)

I was wondering if there were any videos of you playing the viola on the internet?

All the best,

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Good God, no! Are you insane? :) I may be a crazy narcissist, but I am not sadistic!