The US has forgotten the cold logic of nuclear diplomacy. Time to remember itby Jeffrey Lewis / October 10, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
North Korea is now, unquestionably, a nuclear power. Over the past year, under the leadership of its dictator, Kim Jong-un, it has completed a decades-long effort to acquire the ability to deliver a thermonuclear weapon against major cities in the United States. It has tested a new long-range ballistic missile, designed and produced domestically, that can strike targets thousands of miles away, as well as a thermonuclear weapon—with 10 times the destructive force of the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki—to arm it. This military build-up has been matched with tough talk from Kim.
The US has responded in its own way by adding bombers to military exercises with South Korea and deploying new missile defences. President Donald Trump has taken to Twitter with missives that often exceed the bombast of Kim’s own statements. Trump has talked of unleashing “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” used a speech at the United Nations to deride Kim as “Rocket Man,” and threatened to “totally destroy North Korea.” The spectre of nuclear war seems to haunt us once again, as the world’s only superpower finds itself threatened by one of its poorest, most isolated nations.
This is a new experience for most Americans. The US has not experienced the emergence of an overtly hostile nuclear-armed power since the chilliest moments of the Cold War. In the meantime, Americans have forgotten the cold, unremitting logic of the balance of terror. The Soviet Union was stagnant and wretched, but held half of Europe in chains and America at bay for 40 years. That is the awful power of nuclear weapons, something seemingly forgotten in the aftermath of America’s Cold War victory. The unfamiliar situation has resulted in a kind of a shock. How did this happen?
The very question though is absurd. No great power has maintained an indefinite dominion, let alone the invulnerability that is currently taken for granted in Washington. The assumption that the US would remain apart from a troubled world where it could intervene with might and impunity is itself the aberration. The shock of 2017 lies in the delusions of 1991.