There is no more sacred cow in American foreign policy, and none more in need of examination, than the notion of credibility. It lies behind Mr. Trump’s vague rationale for continuing endless war in Afghanistan—his military advisors presumably believe that too precipitous abandonment of the failures of our campaign there would punch a hole in our international credibility, let alone rendering empty and absurd our past sacrifices. Nixon and Johnson got caught in the same credibility trap in Vietnam.
Turning to North Korea, where the credibility stakes appear to be even higher, perhaps world-endingly higher, Kim Jung Un and Mr. Trump are engaged in a risky game of nuclear brinksmanship, even though it seems unlikely that North Korea would risk attacking the U.S., either with conventional or with nuclear weapons.
But even if someone more sophisticated and seasoned occupied the White House, the provocations of North Korea cry out for redefinition. With nuclear weapons, we humans have created a monster that rhetorical escalation cannot control: a game of chicken with nukes is a game without winners.
Nuclear conflicts between rivals intent upon maintaining their credibility will not potentially, but inevitably, lead to apocalypse. Since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 the tail of credibility has wagged the dog of security policy. The weapons themselves, proxies for our anger, fear, and desire to dominate or at least survive, have themselves become the drivers of the process and we humans have become their subservient agents. Within this paradigm, the leaders of nuclear nations are helpless to choose any other alternative even if they realize the relationship between credibility and self-destruction. This explains the inconsistency between the way government officials talk about the issue while in office and the entirely different way they often talk after they retire. Only after stepping down as Secretary of State was Henry Kissinger able to advocate openly for the abolition of nuclear weapons. On his way out the door, Steve Bannon admitted there was no military option on the Korean peninsula.
Unless we completely rethink what all nine nuclear powers are asking these weapons to do, namely deter by terror and thus provide an illusion of security, the planet will be in this place over and over, perhaps with other nuclear powers in other looming situations of international tension like the Ukraine or Crimea, or the border tensions between India and Pakistan, or in situations still unforeseen—as the futile game of “we build/they build” continues with no good outcome.
The paradigm shift that is required to prevent the looming end of the world is just as large and difficult as the 16th Century realization that the sun and not the earth is the center of our solar system. But the majority of the world’s nations have already made the shift from regarding nuclear weapons as the best guarantor of security to seeing them as the biggest potential agent of their destruction—we saw this when 122 nations signed a U.N. treaty calling for the outlawing of all nuclear weapons. The United States boycotted the conference leading to this treaty even while it has a crucial interest (and for that matter an ongoing obligation as a signatory to the 1970 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty) in leading the charge away from security by nuclear credibility.
Our leaders must take the risk, a risk that will require enormous moral courage, of saying we cannot afford to continue in our present drift. Instead, we need to respond to the posturing of North Korea not only with sanctions, but also with measured gestures of good will that could include such initiatives as committing firmly and explicitly to no first use, unilaterally reducing the number of warheads in one leg of the nuclear triad (land-based missiles is what former Secretary of Defense Perry recommends as ripe for reduction or even elimination with no loss of security), elimination of provocative war game exercises around North Korea, and, best of all, calling an ongoing international conference on abolition and supporting, rather than boycotting, that recent historic agreement to prohibit and abolish nukes signed by the majority of the 193 nations in the UN.
The choice is stark. In the credibility paradigm, no word coming out of an official’s mouth can be inconsistent with one nation’s total willingness to annihilate millions of people just as human as themselves. The challenge is educational: to change from a mind-set that worries about capitulation to other countries, to a mind-set that capitulates to reality: unless we all begin to wake up and paddle together toward the shore, our small planet could go over the waterfall that awaits us somewhere downstream. The U.S. must admit that credibility is obsolete, rather than propping it up with threats that raise tensions and could lead to fatal misinterpretations.
It is not for nothing that the great religious sages often evoked a different way of thinking beyond drawing lines in the sand—a way of thinking that asserts we all are subject at times to fears that push us into hardened positions. Many of us allege, rightly or wrongly, that we live in a Christian nation. But how much service do we give to these foundational critiques of rigid side-taking: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.” “Forgive 70 times 7.” These ancient teachings contain a startling new relevance: on a spherical planet vulnerable to nuclear disaster, we are all on the same side.