President Donald Trump’s implicit threat of igniting a nuclear war with North Korea isn’t only a misuse of bellicose hyperbole, it exposes his befuddlement about a problem that the majority of military and foreign policy experts concur has no good military option.
Both Trump and his mirror image nemesis, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, seem unaware — or worse, unconcerned — about the unintended consequences they might unleash with their mutually primitive approach to foreign policy.
While the militaries in the affected region — South Korea, China and Japan, particularly — are poised to react to a reckless move on either side, they are all hoping for concerted, diplomatic concessions that will tamp down the potential for blundering into the unthinkable: a tactical nuclear strike that could escalate into a full-blown nuclear war.
What Kim wants is admission into the “nuclear club,” his only felt guarantee that North Korea won’t become another Libya (or Iraq). If the U.S. and allies agree to such a course, it would subject North Korea to the United Nation’s intrusive inspections and strict monitoring of any attempt at cheating, the usual safeguards that constrain all signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The associated risk, however, is that in granting North Korea equality among the nuclear states, the international “message” could encourage further proliferation of nuclear weapons as more states buy into the idea that only status as a nuclear state can provide the security they all seek.
According to former Secretary of Defense William Perry, the only solution to this Damoclean sword hanging over the head of all of humanity is to begin the incremental work of eliminating nuclear arsenals worldwide. It doesn’t matter that “the genie is out of the bottle,” as Perry knows from lengthy experience in managing our nuclear program for the Department of Defense. There are already proven ways to monitor, constrain — and at the very least — decrease the incentive for building them. But the only chance for humanity to get out of the nuclear peril alive, in his view, is an evolving worldwide disarmament project.
Not going to happen? National leaders would preferentially opt to drain their own economies and place a magical-thinking gamble against the potential of nuclear annihilation — all in a Faustian bargain that promises safety and security for their nations?
In research I conducted at the Pentagon during the Cold War, I interviewed numerous senior officers who worried deeply about the inherent dangers in our nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union. But there were others who had no problem with the catastrophic implications should deterrence fail. One senior officer who has contemporary counterparts in the Pentagon spoke for the latter group: What was worse than the risk of ultimate annihilation of the human species, he told me, would be failing in the attempt to defend American values.
In the end, the issue isn’t only that many human beings have a hard time thinking through the enormity of the human and planetary devastation inherent in the explosive power of thermonuclear bombs. It is the failure to recognize that the human species at large simply isn’t up to the forbidding complexities of managing them in a world of rival states.
All of this raises the question: Which is the most unthinkable scenario — living in a nuclear weapons-saturated world in which every crisis, like the North Korean one, invites the risk, through accident or design, of a nuclear catastrophe? Or living in one that produces an extended postponement of the inevitable, longer term, extinction of humanity? The science is already in on the likely outcome if we drift along with the first scenario.