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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

MORE ON NORTH KOREA

I need to say more about the North Korean crisis, not because I know any more, but simply because it is far and away the most serious threat now confronting the world.  Let me repeat what I said yesterday.  Every nation armed with deliverable nuclear weapons poses an existential threat to every other nation in the world, because nuclear weapons cannot be defended against.  I wrote and spoke and argued and protested about this almost sixty years ago as a young man, and nothing has changed.  Russia poses an existential threat to every nation in the world.  The United States poses an existential threat to every nation in the world.  China, Great Britain, France and Israel pose existential threats to every nation in the world.  Pakistan and India pose regional threats [I do not know whether they possess intercontinental ballistic missiles or long range bombers or nuclear submarines].  When North Korea succeeds in weaponizing usable long range missiles, it too will pose an existential threat to every nation in the world.

Nuclear weapons cannot be defended against.  The only thing any nation can do is to try to deter nuclear armed nations from attacking it.  Any nuclear armed nation whose government and military forces fall into the hands of a suicidal or irrational, hence undeterrable, ruler can at any moment launch a nuclear attack even if the cost is that ruler’s own destruction.

For reasons that I shan’t trouble you with now, the command and control structure of America’s nuclear forces is deliberately and intentionally designed to make it very difficult to delay or countermand a presidential order to launch a nuclear attack.

It is within the realm of possibility that Donald Trump, obsessed with negative press coverage and ill-tempered because rain is interrupting his golf, could from his vacation retreat issue an order to attack North Korea with nuclear weapons.  If he does that, it is extremely unlikely that the trio of generals around him will intercede to reverse or simply “mislay” that order.


It is my armchair guess that Donald Trump does not care at all about the lives that such an attack would cost, American lives as well as North Korean, South Korean, and Japanese lives.  My guess is that he cares about nothing save whether he looks big and important and powerful on television, in social media, and in the tabloid press.  This is the second biggest crisis since World War II [the biggest was the Cuban Missile Crisis, brought to us by young, handsome, well-educated charismatic John Fitzgerald Kennedy.]

11 comments:

LFC said...

Nuclear weapons only pose an 'existential threat' in the hands of an irrational user for whom deterrence has no meaning. I doubt either Trump or Kim Jong Un is "irrational" in the pertinent sense. (Though admittedly these are not the two I'd choose to be in charge now.)

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.

T Verga said...

You have mentioned a couple of times that the chain of command is structured in such a way that it is unlikely an order would be reversed. Why is that? And who would trump have to actually talk to in order to launch a nuclear weapon? I write from Europe but I am of course very worried about this so I'm wondering how this could go down in practice.

s. wallerstein said...

"For reasons that I shan’t trouble you with now, the command and control structure of America’s nuclear forces is deliberately and intentionally designed to make it very difficult to delay or countermand a presidential order to launch a nuclear attack."

I have no idea of how this works in theory or in practice, but it seems that this is what we need to know more about before we panic. It may be that the top generals have as low an opinion of Trump as we do and will override any stupid belligerent move on his part. Maybe not. Maybe they can't even override any stupid belligerent move on his part or maybe they can and have been preparing to do that since the day he was elected.

F Lengyel said...

I suspect Trump is mouthing off, possibly figuring that he'd match NK's rhetoric and see what happens. It hasn't been tried, could be good for the base--they don't read either, why not. This is not the multilevel calculation one would want to bring to this domain. It's not clear why our commander-in-chief merits from us a high degree of confidence regarding his intentions, when these are murky to himself. As for nuclear weapons posing a threat, existential or not only in the hands of an irrational user for whom deterrence has no meaning--please. The history of near misses and close calls of this technology makes it unnecessary to launch into an argument about why reducing the threat to the intentions of individuals is badly mistaken.

David said...

One of the dangers in this situation is miscalculation: one side says or does something that is misinterpreted, and the other side acts precipitously. For example, no one seems to be making much of the fact that the North Koreans have been reacting to our military exercises involving B1 bombers over South Korea. Maybe that wasn't such a good idea, but now that the rhetoric has been ramped up, some act that isn't meant to be a provocation could be interpreted as a direct threat. That is a very dangerous situation to be in.

LFC said...

@F Lengyel

As for nuclear weapons posing a threat, existential or not[,] only in the hands of an irrational user for whom deterrence has no meaning--please. The history of near misses and close calls of this technology makes it unnecessary to launch into an argument about why reducing the threat to the intentions of individuals is badly mistaken.


I did not "reduce the threat" of nuclear weapons "to the intentions of individuals." I said that a judgment that country X's nuclear arsenal poses an "existential threat" to country Y should not be made without some reference to the intentions of X's leader(s). My aim was not to minimize the dangers posed by nuclear weapons (e.g. by miscalculation, accident, inadvertent escalation, dispersal to non-state actors etc.) but to suggest that the phrase "existential threat" be reserved for situations in which it can plausibly be argued that nuclear weapons possessed by X do actually pose a genuine threat to the basic security of Y.

The point is a more general one about how one should construe or think about threats. Britain's nuclear arsenal is not a threat to any particular country or actor b/c the likelihood of Britain's using its nuclear arsenal in an actively coercive way, let alone an aggressive one, is low. An example not dealing w nuclear weapons, but whose logic is roughly parallel, is that the U.S. is not a threat to the Bahamas b.c it is not interested, from all one can discern, in conquering the Bahamas (hat tip: A. Wendt).

The underlying question is whether a technology, all by itself and by virtue of its existence and without reference to anything else, can be said to be threatening or pose threats. In the case of nuclear weapons, there probably are reasonable arguments to be made on both sides of that question. I was suggesting some arguments for the negative answer, but I acknowledge that reasonable people could differ on this.

----

p.s. During the Cold War, the US and Soviet arsenals posed threats to each other, notwithstanding the condition of MAD and notwithstanding that the degree of (perceived and actual) threat in both directions varied over the years. It's now clear also that there were at least a couple of close calls where a nuclear exchange could have begun by misconstrual of what the other side was doing. Perhaps the classic case is the so-called Able Archer incident of 1983 when, if a mid-ranking U.S. officer had not wisely and fortuitously decided to ignore evidence that the Soviets were responding to a US/NATO exercise as if it were 'the real thing', it could have been curtains. No one familiar even in a general way w this history would want to take a complacent attitude toward nuclear weapons (incl. their proliferation) and I was not doing so, but rather trying to make a more specific point.

Anonymous said...

"It is extremely unlikely that the trio of generals around him will intercede to reverse or simply “mislay” that order."

I've encountered this view many times today, and I'm not sure how we can assess the likelihood at all. Probability depends on cases, and we only have one case of a US president ordering a nuclear strike, from which we can deduce nothing.

It's also a very unparallel case: Truman ordering generals to kill tens of thousands of civilians in a country we were already at war with in a war where tens of millions had already died is a lot different than ordering the killing of millions of civilians in a premptive attack during a Cold War. I think we have vastly overestimated the degree of Trump's sociopathy, but even if we have not, we'd have to assume a similar degree among his generals to think they wouldn't even consider insubordination under such circumstances.

On the bright side, if we're judging probability by single cases, it's worth remembering that we were saved during the Cuban missile crisis by a lone sane Soviet naval officer. (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/03/you-and-almost-everyone-you-know-owe-your-life-to-this-man/)

F Lengyel said...

Well LFC, I was thinking of expectation values (cost of expected loss * probability of loss), which I thought was close to what Prof Wolff had in mind. Analogies with guns lead me to consider extremal arguments. With that notion of existential threat, an extremal argument comparing arming every citizen (or just the good guys) with his own nuclear weapon versus arming them with guns would seem, on the basis of expectation values, to leave little room for intentions to have much effect on the expectation values.

F Lengyel said...

I should be a little more clear (even if my remarks are irrelevant):
expected loss = loss * Prob{ loss } and "existential threat" as I understood it meant expected loss > some civilization ending threshold. It may be that intentions play a role if everyone who is legally entitled to own a gun has one, but this doesn't constitute an existential threat since, presumably expected loss < civilization ending threshold; whereas if those same individuals were equipped with their own nuclear weapon (one could even give them their own personal Department of Energy to secure them), expected loss >= civilization ending threshold. I doubt the human race would last two days in the second scenario.

LFC said...

Not a response to anyone, just a thought:

One could make a case for more alarmist and less alarmist readings of the situation. A less alarmist reading would see this as being like two opponents in a ring, hurling insults and rhetoric but not actually throwing a punch, or planning to. The goal is not a specific bargaining objective -- i.e., you are not sure exactly what you want the opponent to do, other perhaps than stop shouting at you and leave the ring -- but rather an effort at generalized intimidation. In a sense it's kind of pointless, but then so is, arguably, a certain amount of international behavior.

The above occurred to me after looking (or re-looking) at the discussion of "the diplomacy of violence" in ch.1 of T. Schelling's Arms and Influence (1966), but actually the less alarmist reading, as I'm dubbing it, probably is more in the spirit of anthropology than bargaining theory. In other words, this is a rhetorical exchange that sounds scary but perhaps can be fit within a sort of ritualized frame.

I'm not saying this is what's going on, just that it's a possibility. The possibility gains some credence perhaps from the nature of Trump's immediate demand, which is that North Korea stop "making threats." Not that North Korea stop testing missiles or developing warheads, but rather that it simply shut up. This is what two antagonistic fifth-graders on a playground might want the other to do: shut up and go home.

LFC said...

@F Lengyel

Now that Prof Wolff has clarified what he meant by 'existential threat', I will modify/retract/whatever the relevant parts of my first comment.