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The Madness of Deterrence

At some point in the near or semi-distant future, one way or another, Mr. Trump will have departed public office. For many reasons, perhaps most of all because we managed (if we do manage) to avoid nuclear war during his tenure, we will feel relief. But we may also feel a kind of letdown. Instead of having our anxieties focused upon the shallowness, impulsivity, and macho vengefulness of one particular leader, we will be forced to go back to worrying about the craziness of deterrence itself, irrespective of who is leading us.

A conference at Harvard on November 4 on “Presidential First Use of Nuclear Weapons,” examined whether the law should be changed and the choice to initiate nuclear war ought to be placed in the hands of congress rather than the president’s hands alone.

It may be of academic interest where launch authority should reside, but the question fails to address that moment of maximum awfulness when someone in the military reports to civilian authorities—accurately or not—that incoming missiles have appeared on a screen, requiring that someone decide how to respond, with millions of lives in the balance, in the space of a few inadequate minutes.

To have drifted into the creation of a system that culminates in such a moment, to put any one person or team of people in that position, is to have participated in a form of collective psychosis. We are all complicit, for example in the way both citizens and the press tolerated the bizarre reality that the topic was never brought up in any of the presidential debates.

It is not surprising that people find it challenging to think clearly, or to think at all, about the issue of nuclear war. Its utter destructiveness is so impossible to wrap our heads around that we take refuge in the fantasy that it can’t happen, it won’t happen, or if it does happen it will occur somewhere else. Mr. Trump’s ascendency has sharpened our apprehension, which may be a good thing if it helps us reexamine the bigger machine in which he is only an eccentric cog.

Many argue, speciously, that the potential destructiveness is the very thing that makes the system work to prevent war, forgetting the awful paradox of deterrence: that in order to never be used, the weapons must be kept absolutely ready for use. The complexity of the electronic systems intended to control them keeps on increasing as they are deployed in ever greater variety—on missiles from ships, on tactical battlefield launchers, from bombers and submarines, from aging silos in the Midwest. Error is inevitable, and close calls are legion.

The planet as a whole has pronounced clearly its judgment on deterrence, in the form of a treaty banning all nuclear weapons signed by 122 nations. The United States, citing the erratic and aggressive nuclear behavior of North Korea, boycotted the conference that led to this majority condemnation.

Sixteen years ago, Henry Kissinger joined William Perry, George Shultz and Sam Nunn to write a series of editorials in the Wall Street Journal arguing that deterrence is obsolete and abolition must be the ultimate policy goal, even if fiendishly difficult to achieve. On October 28, 2017, Kissinger was quoted in the New York Times saying:

“If they [North Korea] continue to have nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons must spread in the rest of Asia. It cannot be that North Korea is the only Korean country in the world that has nuclear weapons, without the South Koreans trying to match it. Nor can it be that Japan will sit there,” he added. “So therefore we’re talking about nuclear proliferation.”

No sane person wants nuclear proliferation. The only other choice, then, is the new treaty banning the most heinous class of WMD altogether.

The answer to the North Korean crisis is not further nuclear proliferation, nor, God forbid, is it all-out war on the Korean peninsula that would leave millions dead and make the United States, were we to participate with or even without nuclear weapons, a pariah nation. Instead we can start by reassuring North Korea in word and deed that we are not an existential threat to them, and wait patiently for internal changes in their governance that time will make inevitable.

Former Secretary of Defense Perry has argued we can afford to entirely eliminate the land-based leg of our land-sea-air nuclear triad with no loss of security. What would happen to planetary balances of power if our country unilaterally joined those 122 nations in a treaty that categorizes nuclear weapons, like chemical weapons, as beyond the pale, and we began to stand some of our weapons down in confidence-building gestures of good will? Would the Chinese or the Russians, or for that matter the North Koreans, really risk the omnicidal blowback of nuclear winter by launching unilateral attacks upon the U.S.? Isn’t the risk of that happening a good deal less than the risk of slipping into war with North Korea merely because leaders in both countries assumed that credible deterrence required the madness of mutually deliverable threats?

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Winslow Myers is author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide.” He serves on the Advisory Board of the War Preventive Initiative.

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