Maybe Ken Waltz was right

(Credit: Emad Hajjaj)
(Credit: Emad Hajjaj)

 

While we were distracted earlier this week by the Michael Cohen show on Capitol Hill and the failed Trump-Kim love fest in Hanoi, two nuclear-armed rivals tiptoed up to the brink of war and then … stepped back.

On Tuesday, India launched airstrikes into Pakistan, targeting a training camp belonging to the terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed, in retaliation for a suicide bombing on Feb. 14 that killed 40 Indian soldiers on the outskirts of the city of Srinagar, in the Indian-controlled territory of Kashmir. JeM is a Kashmiri separatist group sponsored by the Pakistani government.

A day later, Pakistani jets crossed into Indian territory, then shot down at least one of the Indian fighters that scrambled in pursuit. The pilot was captured by Pakistani forces. Amid all this, news reports indicated that both sides had activated and reinforced their heavy armor formations along the Line of Control that separates Indian from Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. Troops exchanged fire across the border.

By Thursday, leaders on both sides began to acknowledge just how much danger everyone was in:

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said in a televised address that the two sides could not afford a miscalculation “given the weapons we have”.

“We should sit down and talk,” he said.

“If we let it happen, it will remain neither in my nor [Indian Prime Minister] Narendra Modi’s control.

“Our action is just to let them know that just like they intruded into our territory, we are also capable of going into their territory,” he added.

Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj also said “India does not wish to see further escalation of the situation.”

Today, Pakistan handed their captured Indian pilot over to his own government. The crisis seems to have abated.

So what does this episode tell us? It might tell us that nuclear deterrence actually works.

India and Pakistan each have about 140 nuclear weapons that can be delivered by short or medium-range missiles, cruise missiles, or aircraft. Both are working to develop submarine launched nuclear missile systems. Both countries’ nuclear doctrines emphasize deterrence, promising to deliver an unacceptable level of punishment against anyone that dares attack.

Forty years ago, political scientist Kenneth Waltz argued that nuclear arsenals like these would have the desired effect of forcing caution on states that might otherwise be tempted to escalate a crisis like this week’s between India and Pakistan to full scale war. I wrote about this a month ago in the context of discussing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Given the catastrophic damage that nuclear weapons can inflict, even if used in relatively small numbers, Waltz writes that nuclear weapons make “both sides more cautions and the tensions between them less likely to lead to anything more than a skirmish.” Miscalculation, which Waltz rightly says has historically been an important precipitant of war, become less likely under such conditions due to the disastrous consequences of getting it wrong.

Put it all together, and nuclear-armed rivals like India and Pakistan have every reason to quickly de-escalate any crisis that threatens to get out of hand. India and Pakistan have fought three major wars since each won independence from Britain in 1947, two of them over the disputed territory of Kashmir. But since both became nuclear weapons states, their clashes, while troubling, have stayed contained.

When my students read Waltz’s arguments on the virtues of nuclear weapons, they often come away doubting the logic. And it stands to reason. Our human sensibility argues strongly that the last thing we should want is to see more of these weapons in the world. And yet, we have to acknowledge the reality that nuclear weapons, so far, have only been used in anger once. By us. Before any other countries had these weapons.

More nuclear weapons in the hands of more countries has not led to more use of nuclear weapons. So maybe Kenneth Waltz was right. Maybe nuclear proliferation is good.

Kind of right, but for the wrong reasons

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In his belated State of the Union address last week, President Trump had this to say about North Korea:

As part of a bold new diplomacy, we continue our historic push for peace on the Korean Peninsula. Our hostages have come home, nuclear testing has stopped, and there has not been a missile launch in 15 months. If I had not been elected President of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea with potentially millions of people killed. Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong Un is a good one.

I think Trump has the kernel of a valid point here. The situation on the Korean Peninsula was much more dangerous before he came into office than it is today. The situation is more stable, and thus a lot safer, now. The president is just wrong about why.

Trump ascribes this new stability to his self-professed superior deal-making skills and his “we fell in love” relationship with North Korea’s brutal dictator Kim Jong Un. Let me suggest a far more plausible explanation.

The Korean Peninsula is more stable today not because of Trump’s brilliance, but because North Korea has perfected its nuclear capability and clearly demonstrated its ability to deliver a warhead on American soil. In November 2017, following the “fire and fury” summer of escalating threats and counter-threats, North Korea successfully launched the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile with an estimated range of more than 8,000 miles, enough to hit any target in the continental United States.

They haven’t tested a missile since. Because. They. Don’t. Have. To.

Having proven that it can put a nuke on a mainland American target, North Korea no longer needs to test its missiles or the weapons themselves. The lull that Trump is taking credit for has nothing to do with him, and everything to do with the maturity of North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs.

In 1979, in an essay prepared for a joint CIA/Department of Defense conference, political scientist Kenneth Waltz argued that the gradual spread of nuclear weapons was, contrary to the fears of public and policymakers alike, a force for increased stability in the international system, and would therefore produce a safer, not more dangerous, world. (You can read Waltz’s further elaboration on this idea here.)

Waltz argued that nuclear weapons, because their effects are so catastrophic, make states more cautious and less willing to take risks that could lead to an escalation and nuclear exchange. Under these conditions miscalculation, historically a significant contributor to the outbreak of war, becomes less likely because getting it wrong has such dire consequences.

In short, once nukes are introduced into the equation, no one can play fast and loose with the kinds of aggressive actions that risk provoking a nuclear holocaust.

Apply these ideas to the relationship today between the United States and North Korea and you can understand why the Korean Peninsula is more stable, and thus safer, than it was in 2016. Until last year, the nuclear equation was one sided.

The United States could bluster and threaten a preemptive strike against North Korean targets secure in the knowledge that any retaliation by the North would fall on South Korea or maybe Japan. Yes, hundreds of thousands of civilians would die, but those wouldn’t be American cities burning. Seoul or Tokyo aren’t Seattle or San Francisco. That might be the kind of loss an American president could be willing to accept.

That option is now off the table. And that’s the reason why North Korea will never denuclearize, as President Trump’s own intelligence chiefs have testified, contradicting their boss.

North Korea now possesses a nuclear deterrent sufficient to force the United States into a more cautious, less risky, posture toward the Kim regime, just as the American nuclear monopoly induced the same kind of caution on part of the North Koreans.

The Korean Peninsula is safer and more stable today because North Korea achieved nuclear maturity on Donald Trump’s watch. That’s a good thing, but hardly the story the president wants to tell.

Troll level: Expert

40-nuclearosis

North Korea got in some expert-level trolling today in response to this week’s meteor in Michigan and last week’s incoming missile alert false alarm in Hawaii.

The Korean Central News Agency, North Korea’s state-run news service, issued a press release mocking the United States for suffering from a case of “nuclear-phobia” after those events triggered public fears that America was under possible North Korean attack:

Pyongyang, January 19 (KCNA) — Nuclear-phobia by the nuclear force of the DPRK has now caused a tragicomedy in the U.S.

On January 16 a meteor fell from the sky between Ohio and Michigan with a great bang, brightening the sky.

This sparked off the explosive postage of stories about the “fireball in the nocturnal sky” on the U.S. internet websites.

Internet users admitted that they worried the meteor in question could have been a nuclear bomb flown from north Korea.
A twitter user posted words that when meteor brightened the sky between Ohio and Michigan, all internet network users hoped that it would be a meteor, not north Korea’s missile.

Another twitter user wrote that it was sad to have taken the meteor as a bomb flown from north Korea and to have hurried the car in fear.

Lots of people were reported to have greatly worried about it, taking the meteor as an attack from north Korea.

A people said that it was greatly relieving that the meteor did not pass the sky last weekend when there was a misinformation about the flight of a nuclear bomb.

What was all the more irony was the fuss in Hawaii on January 13.

At 08:07 citizens and tourists on Hawaii received all at the same time the ballistic missile threat warning which urged them to evacuate as there was ballistic missile threat and which stressed that it was not just training.

The citizens and tourists in great disarray went busy evacuating amid the heightened fear and delusion of persecution about the nuclear force of the DPRK.

What is all the more ridiculous is that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission put it that the ballistic missile attack evacuation warning which threw the whole of Hawaii in a great chaos was caused by a mistake of a man who pressed the button during shift period.

Good thing the United States knows what to do with cases of nuclear-phobia. Or, as it was diagnosed back in the ’50s, “nuclearosis.”

But don’t worry, there really is nothing to fear. After all, risk is a regular part of life. And your hair will grow back.

What slow learners we are

British Maxim gun section, Chitral Expedition, Pakistan, 1895.
British Maxim gun section, Chitral Expedition, Pakistan, 1895.

 

Whatever happens we have got

the Maxim gun and they have not.  — Hillaire Belloc, 1898

These are the instruments that have revolutionized the methods of warfare, and because of their devastating effects, have made nations and rulers give greater thought to the outcome of war before entering … (The New York Times, 1897)

That quote from The Times is taken from an article posted over at The Atlantic on the development of the Maxim gun, the first modern machine gun, capable of firing 666 rounds in under a minute and responsible for the slaughter of countless numbers of natives in Europe’s endless wars of empire and millions of soldiers who advanced stoically to their deaths on the battlefields of the First World War.

The irony, of course, as The Atlantic points out, is that this new weapon was thought to be so murderously effective that nations would settle their disputes diplomatically for fear of the horrors of war that it could unleash. We know how that really turned out.

The belief that more weapons, newer weapons, better weapons, more deadly effective weapons, can make us safer, and the dangerous dynamic of the security dilemma that this thinking triggers, is a staple of the academic literature on international security. And as my friend Bill Ayres regularly discusses on his own blog (for instance here), this belief regularly results in tragedy when we apply its logic to firearms and the quest for personal protection.

But the beat goes on, from the Maxim gun to ever more modern nuclear warheads, each new advance in weapons technology intended to make us safer than the last, and at the same time making us feel less and less secure. At some point we may reach the logical conclusion of such a progression. And then Dr. Strangelove will move from the realm of satire to that of prophesy.