Living Life in a Nuclear Armed Crowd
Living Life in a Nuclear Armed Crowd
The title of this essay comes from an article written by the preeminent US nuclear strategist, Albert Wohlstetter. Long a professor at the University of Chicago, Wohlstetter was one of the first nuclear strategists of the 1940s and 1950s, having been involved in the preparation for and target selection of the nuclear strikes on Japan that ended World War Two. No fan of the lesser evil approaches that led to the decision to use atomic weapons, Wohlstetter was nevertheless pragmatic in his approach to the nuclear genie once let out of the bottle, and even more so when the US lost its nuclear monopoly in 1948.
One of his axioms was that “a madman with one nuke holds the rest of us in check.” By that he specifically meant that a lesser power, when confronted by the military might and thermonuclear arsenal of a larger adversary such as the original “atomic five” (the US, United Kingdom, France, PRC and the Soviet Union, who codified their preeminent military status in 1968 via the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT)), had as its best defense the combination of two things: at least one deliverable nuclear weapon; and a penchant for engaging in “irrational” behavior such as brinkmanship, provocations and the like.
True, any first strike by such a small power against one of the atomic five would result in its annihilation, but the point was that its unpredictability and clear capability meant that no one could foresee where its nuke(s) would land. Pre-emptive strikes against the potentially mad bomber could only work if absolute certainty as to the number, location and means of conveyance of his weapons was assured. Worse yet, if the launch was conducted against another non-nuclear state, allied or not to larger powers, the problem became one of acceptable and commensurate response by a nuclear state not directly threatened or injured by the attack. Confronted by that potential scenario, large nuclear actors are deterred from attacking smaller nuclear-armed countries because the potential costs are both unpredictable and unacceptable. The madman may be crazy, but in an entirely rational way given the logics of nuclear deterrence.
This is what compelled Fidel Castro to welcome Soviet nuclear weapons on Cuban soil in the early 1960s (leading to the Cuban missile crisis), and which, with some modifications, saw South Africa test a nuclear device in the 1980s (although, in a perverse twist, the Afrikaner regime abandoned its nuclear program in advance of the arrival of majority rule fearing the consequences of such weapons falling into Black hands). It is the logic under-riding Israel’s development of a nuclear strike capability (which it shares in part with the US), and which led India and Pakistan to engage in tit- for-tat nuclear tests in the 1990s. It is also the rationale behind Iran and North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons regardless of their specific ideologies or the personal idiosyncrasies of their leaders. The hard fact is that to have nukes is to avoid the fate of Saddam Hussein (the ironies of the pretext for toppling him shall go unmentioned but not unnoticed at this point).
To Wohlstetter’s sage advice can be added something I learned while living in the US desert Southwest. As a gentleman farmer in an otherwise working cattle ranch town, I was struck, while sitting one evening at the local bar, by the preponderance of guns holstered by the beer-swilling, jukebox-jamming, foot-stompin,’ pool-playing crowd. I asked the well-seasoned bartender if she felt threatened by all that armament in the hands of drunken cowboys. Her response was the purity of the second amendment distilled: “son, an armed crowd is a polite crowd.” On that night and all the others I spent at that locale, so it was.
Which brings up the recent North Korean nuclear test and the future it heralds. The regime led by Kim Jung-Il may be a weird cult of personality for most foreign observers, and it certainly practices some odd insular logics as it approaches the external world, but when it comes to its nuclear weapons program, it is anything but crazy. Long before George W. Bush backed it into a corner with his “axis of evil” speech (which is bound to go down in history was one of the most unfortunate foreign policy pronouncements ever made by a US president), North Korea was using the threat of developing a nuclear weapons capability to extract diplomatic, trade and economic concessions from the West that allowed it to survive what is, by all accounts, a miserable record of impoverishing and oppressing its people while feeding and equipping its military. Wise foreign policy practitioners in the West played along with this stratagem because they understood that one of the main Achilles Heels of authoritarian regimes is the problem of leadership succession. Unless institutionalized like the Soviet Russian and Mexican PRI regimes during sixty years (although both failed precisely because designated leaders faltered on the issue of one-party rule), or the PRC to this day, authoritarian regimes are doomed to fail. The Fascists in Europe could not outlive their original leaders, nor did the original populists in Latin America. African despots come and go, and their regimes do not survive. The Saudi regime and other Arab pseudo-monarchies have succession hierarchies, but since blood rather than merit is the criteria for leadership succession, their future is foreclosed. The same might be said of the Assad regime in Syria, passed from father to son without the institutional backing needed to sustain another generation of family rule, which probably would have been the fate of the Hussein regime in Iraq if the US had not intervened.
In the case of highly personalized regimes the issue is acute because most do not outlive their original charismatic leader. Such may well be the case in Cuba once Fidel passes from the scene, certainly will be the case once Robert Mugabe exits Zimbabwe (most likely horizontally), could be the case with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela (his semi-democratic, neo-populist credentials notwithstanding) and will probably be the case in North Korea. Put another way, family dynasties inevitably fall prey to the universal law of genetic decline: at some point an idiot son or daughter assumes power, and at that point things collapse. Kim Jung-Il may be strange but he is no idiot. He has not designated his off-spring as potential successors. The question is (and thus the reason behind the Clinton administration’s “softly-softly” approach of exchanging economic and food aid for IAEA inspections): who then will succeed him, and will that person or cadre be more or less prone to engage the West on the nuclear question?
In North Korea the twist is that, like most authoritarian regimes, it is divided between hard-liners and soft-liners. Hard-liners, most of them in the military and within Kim Jung-Il’s personal retinue (including his designated successor), favor confronting the West using the threat of nuclear weapons development in order to set the terms and conditions for negotiations on any other substantive mater. Soft-liners, mostly economists and those who dealing with the urgent issues of malnutrition, illness and mortality affecting the North Korean population, urge the “Supreme Leader” to open a dialogue with the outside world by making an opening cooperative gesture. With the detonation of its nuclear device (however partial it may have been, and understanding that denotation is still a step removed from effective weaponisation, much less deployment, of an effective warhead), the hard-liners have gained the upper hand in the internal power struggle. Matters of face and honor matter much to Koreans, so it was probably inevitable that the soft-line approach would fail given the US posture on North Korea as both a rogue and a failed state. But the triumph of the hard-line faction means that if it can survive the problem of leadership succession once Kim Jung-Il joins his “heavenly” father in the afterlife, then confrontation with the international community is more likely than not to continue over the medium to longer-term.
There is, however, some comfort in all of this. As professor Wohlstetter and his successors believed, nuclear weapons are not meant to be employed, but instead serve most usefully to deter would be aggressors. After their use in 1945, the strategic logic underpinning Mutual Assured Destruction and Flexible Response was based upon war-prevention rather than war-fighting. Only once Ronald Reagan proposed the Star Wars missile defense system, followed by subsequent development of an array of bunker-busting field nukes, did the US shift towards a more decidedly war-fighting stance. Even so, this more aggressive stance was largely tactical rather than strategic. Improvements in intercontinental ballistic missile technology, including upgrades in MIRVs (multiple independent re-entry vehicles), MARVs (maneuverable re-entry vehicles), and tighter CEPs (Circular Error Probable, the radius around a target where warheads could be expected to land with reasonable certainty), are all designed to provide multiple levels of deterrent capability towards adversaries by decreasing their ability to defend against a US second strike. As for the rest of the atomic five and smaller nuclear states, the prevailing logic continues to be deterrence of aggression rather than first use.
In North Korea’s case it has yet to develop a viable nuclear weapons capability even if it has shown at least a partial ability to detonate a nuclear device (thankfully underground rather than an old-fashioned air burst). It may be able to launch rockets, but it has shown little ability to target counter-force rather than counter-value objectives (i.e. military versus civilian assets), and therefore can only use its potential nuclear arsenal as a countervailing threat and psychological weapon. With such a limited capability, it is reasonable to assume that for the medium term North Korea’s nuclear posture will be defensive and deterrent rather than offensive and aggressive.
Following the frontier logic of my old cowboy town, the more states have nuclear weapons, the less likely that they will behave aggressively towards each other and instead pursue diplomatic solutions to intractable conflicts. In this instance, North Korea has entered the saloon, and although unwelcome and despised, will now need to be respected in a measure previously unseen.
It should be clear that the Bush doctrine of unilateral military pre-emption against “rogue” or “failed” states, coupled with his axis of evil speech and the invasion of Iraq, only confirmed in the minds of the North Koreans and Iranians the urgency of acquiring a nuclear deterrent. Long-standing refusal of the US to recognize the Pyongyang regime and engage in bilateral talks designed to replace the 50 year old cease-fire with a genuine peace and non-aggression treaty serve as the backdrop to the North Korean nuclear test, and remains its foremost demand after the test. As far as the claims that North Korea might share its nuclear weapons technology with others, it should be recalled that although a weapons supplier to other states (including Iran), North Korea is no worse than the US, Russia, Germany Israel, France or the UK in this regard, has no record of connection with jihadi groups, and other than small border skirmishes with US and South Korean forces, has never engaged in offensive military operations against any foreign state. It may be a failed state , but it is not demonstrably rogue.
Thus, once the rhetorical fog emanating from the US and barking poodles such as New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters is dissolved (Peters apparently wants to lead the charge into North Korea to remove any potential nuclear weapons threat himself, although cooler heads in the Labour government might wonder what, exactly, New Zealand can do about North Korea other than support UN sanctions), it becomes clear that the North Korean gambit is a strategically calculated defensive move that gives it the initiative when confronting the West. From now on any negotiations start with the proven fact that the North Korean has immediate nuclear weapons potential.
As for the international communities’ response, the bottom line is sobering. Sanctions will not work because a) the Pyongyang regime will starve its people to feed its military; b) in the measure the regime is hurt by sanctions, hardliner fear of internal collapse or external attack designed to bring about its capitulation will increase the possibility of miscalculation and war (the so-called garrison state mentality where a regime believes it will be attacked, arms in order to defend itself, leading adversaries to do the same, thereby confirming the garrisoned state’s worst fears and pushing it towards preventive war); c) it has plenty of allies who will defy sanctions to keep the regime afloat. Leadership succession questions aside (since that is a longer term issue), the immediate problem of a porous sanctions regime is paramount. North Korea has enough foreign allies, if for no other reason than their shared antipathy towards the US, to help sustain it throughout any sanctions regime (to include attempts to impose aerial or naval blockades). Iran is one of them, but there are others, and China is the foremost amongst them.
That is because the China gains from all of this. It may make the same barking sounds as the Westerners, and may even engage in some low level sanctions, but the Chinese are now the fulcrum around which hinge all negotiations between North Korea, the UN, the US and the other members of the failed 6-Party talks (Japan, South Korea, Russia). Given the deployment of North Korean military assets towards the South and East, it is not prepared or expecting a Chinese military thrust against it. Thus, only China can deliver an armed ultimatum that would not immediately invoke Wohlstetter’s axiom. That gives them diplomatic influence disproportionate to any other interested party. In effect, only China has real leverage on North Korea now that the latter have made explicit their intent to develop their nuclear weapons capability. Taiwan should be very worried about what trade-offs China will negotiate in order to use its influence to rein in its wayward client state. What is also clear is that the US has not only failed in its efforts to curb nuclear proliferation in North Korea (and most likely Iran) with its threats to use unilateral military preemption in order to promote regime change in rogue or failed states, but has accelerated the unwanted outcome and been eclipsed as a viable broker in the process. With Iraq as the example of that policy in practice, it is small wonder that the US has retreated back to the UN Security Council to seek the multilateral support it until very recently disdained.
With mid-term elections in the US scheduled in less than a month and the election of a conservative (some would say militaristic and historically revisionist) Japanese Prime Minister last month, and with South Korea increasingly desperate to resurrect the “Sunshine Policy” of rapprochement between the two states, the timing of the North Korean nuclear test sends some powerful messages to the nuclear armed crowd as well as the rest of the world. It may be unpleasant to contemplate, but given the limited to nil military options available to anyone other than China to forestall the weaponisation of North Korea’s nuclear stockpile, it may be time for the US, in particular, to start being civil and listen to its demands. This may reward the hard-line faction over the short term but has the potential to undermine their position over the long-term.
By making a cooperative bilateral gesture in exchange for North Korea’s return to the 6 Party bargaining table on nuclear matters, the US can salvage something from its recent and heretofore singularly counter-productive approach, even if that means losing face in the short term in order to secure longer term gains. That is because the more North Korea is brought back into ongoing dialogue with foreign interlocutors, and the more its ties deepen with the West, the less justification the hardliners have for maintaining their inflexible and confrontational stand vis a vis the international community. This is a strategy that worked with China from the 1970s onwards, and it would be well worth pursuing here.
By doing so, and admitting the difficulties inherent in the two-track approach towards North Korean nuclear disarmament, broader international strategies oriented towards steering the course of leadership succession towards institutionalised moderate or soft-line outcomes can begin to take hold. In that event the prospects for peace and denuclearization on the Korean peninsula will have been improved rather than destroyed by this particular reminder that the nuclear non-proliferation regime is only as good as the good intentions of those with the capability to violate it.
Paul G. Buchanan is a strategic analyst who specializes in unconventional warfare, intelligence issues and broader issues of comparative politics. Director of the Working Group on Alternative Security Perspectives at the University of Auckland (www.arts.auckland.ac.nz/pols/research), he is currently writing a book titled Security Politics in Peripheral Democracies.