How close are we today to nuclear war between the United States and North Korea? As close as somebody in the military on either side making a mistake that looks to the other side like an escalation from mere words, however heated, to actual intent to kill. As close as a group of military hawks egged on rather than restrained by civilian authority (See John and Robert Kennedy versus the chief of the Strategic Air Command, Curtis Lemay, during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Lemay was hell-bent to attack Cuba, which we now know would almost certainly have resulted in holocaust.)
Hot words are all about credibility. But nuclear credibility contains a tragic paradox. Nuclear weapons are not intended for actual use, but to deter adversaries, while at the same time nuclear weapons, in order to deter adversaries credibly, must be ready for instant use – and so must conventional weapons for that matter. So everyone is rehearsing madly – madly in both senses of the word. Rehearsals take the form of joint military exercises on the part of South Korea and the U.S., and test firings of missiles and warheads on the part of the North, accompanied by fiery contests of macho rhetoric from leaders who really, really ought to know better.
When nuclear war gets this close, the situation begs examination beyond the level of right and wrong, of sides, of positions, of causes, of who was the first to violate agreements. It needs to be observed systemically as a planetary event, in terms of interests and probable results. What we find is that (setting aside momentary differences in tactics between the Presidents of the US and South Korea) the US is locked into its pledge to support its ally, and locked into credibility generally, just as North Korea is locked into its nuclear program as a reliable way to maintain the regime’s power in spite of being regarded as an international pariah.
Working backward from a war that went nuclear without anyone wanting it, what would have been resolved as a result of mass death on both sides of the 38th parallel? "The North Koreans begged for war; they brought it on themselves" would ring pretty hollow as a rationale. The United States would instantly join North Korea, what was left of it, in the pariah role. There would be a fission-level increase in the plotting of all those anywhere who wish America ill to make the United States suffer as they have made others suffer. The Korean peninsula would be united after fifty years of tension – united in a horrendous agony and chaos beyond description. The earth would endure yet more poisoning of the total life system by radioactive clouds of soot. This is resolution?
The question is, as realists, are we trapped? Are all parties, not just the US, constrained by the pitiless demands of credibility to keep escalating their chest-thumping, as war-abetting pundits make what seem like reasonable arguments to justify each further step into the abyss?
As a system, nuclear chicken is completely nuts – and not less so because our representatives and their day-by-day pronouncements, lines in the sand, threats, ultimatums, sound so reasonable to the patriotic ear – that is until everything spirals out of control.
One hundred and twenty-two nations recently signed a U.N. treaty outlawing nuclear weapons, but the nine nuclear nations still haven’t gotten the message. If humans can acquire the immensely complex technological expertise to build these no-win weapons, we can also figure out how to make a gradual transition to a security system that does not rely upon them, knowing that security with them is a technological fantasy.
The United States, with its clear superiority in conventional forces, becomes the indispensable nuclear nation to lead the other eight beyond nukes. Without any loss of security we can pledge no first use. We can promise not to pursue regime change in North Korea as long as South Korea is not threatened. We can take measured diplomatic de-escalating and confidence-building steps. We can acknowledge, as President Reagan inevitably had to, that a nuclear war cannot be won and thus must never be fought. We can rely upon our experience of containing the Soviet Union for 50 years to contain North Korea, while an international conference implementing mutual, reciprocal, verifiable reduction and final elimination of all nuclear weapons goes forward, prodded and encouraged by those 122 nations who have already decided against deterrence by mutual assured destruction in favor of mutually assured survival.
Meanwhile we in the United States could use a good long look at ourselves – at a political system that allows a person of this level of inexperience, poor judgment, and impulsive temperament to get so close to nuclear decision-making that could affect the fate of millions.
If we get past the present acute crisis unscathed, someday North Koreans, South Koreans and Americans are going to meet and build relationship on post-nuclear ground, the common ground of a shared desire to survive and flourish. They will look back and see just how deeply irrational and silly this moment was, when humans possessing and possessed by immense, world-destroying powers threatened each other like sixth graders challenging each other to a recess brawl.