Analysis by Jotam Confino
Today, it is widely believed that the introduction of nuclear weapons in the aftermath of World War II paradoxically made the world a safer place. The late scholar, Kenenth Waltz, argued that the spread of nuclear weapons would only increase stability, due to its deterrent effect, and therefore coined the term “nuclear peace”. So far, Kenneth Waltz and the nuclear deterrent supporters have been right in their assessments. Conventional warfare between states has been replaced with proxy warfare, largely due to the consequences it will have if nuclear powers engage in wars with each other. The nuclear deterrent theory argument rests on the notion that world leaders are rational, and will therefore not launch a nuclear weapon against another nuclear power, because it almost certainly would mean a mutual annihilation. Again, this has been true so far. However, the argument neglects to consider two vital possibilities, namely miscalculation and irrational leaders.
Cuba and North Korea
The Cuban crisis showed us how close rational leaders were to launch a nuclear war, due to miscalculations. In the documentary, The Fog of War, former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara admits how close the Kennedy administration were to launch a nuclear weapon on the Soviet Union, because they wildly miscalculated the intentions of the Soviet Union. “It was luck that prevented a nuclear war. Rational individuals like Kennedy, Castro and Krushchev came close to a total destruction of their societies. And that danger exists today”.
McNamara points out an essential flaw in the nuclear deterrent theory, namely the lethal combination of human nature and nuclear weapons. “The major lesson from the Cuban missile crisis is this; The indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations. Is it right and proper that today there are 7500 strategic offensive nuclear warheads, of which 2500 are in 15 minute alert to be launched by the decision of one human being?”.
Many would argue that the quality of intelligence in the 1960’s can’t even be compared to today’s advantages of technological intelligence gathering, and we should therefore not fear a situation like the Cuban missile crisis. But is that really true? Have world leaders not miscalculated situations and adversaries grossly since the technological revolution in the 1990’s? The Iranian nuclear program is the latest international issue, in which great difference in assessments of the Iranian threat were exposed. The Israelis and the Saudis are still convinced that Iran has the ability to go behind the UN Security Council’s back and develop the bomb if they want to. In fact, Israel wanted to attack the Iranian nuclear reactors in 2012, but did not go through with it when it became clear that Obama was against it.
Even more pressuring is the current tension with North Korea, which keeps testing ballistic missiles that can potentially carry nuclear warheads. The further they develop their nuclear technology, the more of a threat will it pose to Japan, South Korea and the US. President Trump recently issued a warning through Twitter, stating, “North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them”. The Trump administration further said that the US is prepared to use conventional weapons to launch a preemptive strike against North Korea, should they follow through with yet another nuclear test.
As expected North Korea reassured the US of the consequences, saying they are “prepared to respond to an all-out war with an all-out war”. It is true that North Korea often uses harsh rhetoric in order to deter an invasion by the US, Japan and South Korea, but a simple miscalculation could easily trigger an attack, if we are to take the official statements seriously. If President Trump decides to move the US navy closer to North Korea, even if only to provoke, we would have to rely on North Korea knowing that the US isn’t preparing to launch an attack. A miscalculation by the North Korean regime would mean Kim Jong Un could end up facing a dilemma, much like Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis. We can’t be sure that luck will end up saving the day this time.
History is full of irrational people
The threat from North Korea is quite similar to the Cuban missile crisis, only this time the US is facing a leader who uses a country as his own playground, at the expense of millions of people. This is where the second flaw in the nuclear deterrent theory reveals itself. It is widely known that Kim Jong Un killed his own uncle along with numerous officials, in order to replace them with people he could trust. The stories from North Korean defectors recall the horrors from concentration camps during WW II. Moreover, the North Korean population is held hostage in an isolated country which Human Rights Watch considers among the world’s most repressive.
To make the argument that a man like Kim Jong Un, who obviously cares very little about his population, wouldn’t dare engage in a nuclear war, is not only arrogant, but also extremely dangerous. If President Trump decides to go on yet another military adventure to show the world how great a leader he is, it might end up being what triggers a psychopathic leader like Kim Jong Un to launch whatever nuclear weapons he will have at his disposal. History is full of leaders who didn’t care about their own population Who is to say that Hitler wouldn’t have launched a nuclear attack on the allies if he could?
Terrorist organizations might not have nuclear weapons at their disposal, but the amount of suicide bombers that blow up civilians on a daily basis, should be a red flag when it comes to the making an argument based on the fact that human beings are rational. North Korea should therefore be dealt with carefully, no matter how tempting it can be to roll the dice and hope that the US can “solve North Korean problem” without catastrophic consequences.
Jotam Confino is the editor of Republic Paper and has written extensively about the Middle East in the Danish media. He holds a BA in International Relations and an M.A in Security & Diplomacy.