My greatest fear is a reality: A lunatic has gained control of nuclear-armed missiles that could reach halfway around the globe. And, to make matters worse, Kim Jong Un has them, too.
I jest, of course: It is unfair for compare the president of the United States to Kim, a man who has allegedly executed people with antiaircraft machine guns and worse. President Trump has not shot someone on Fifth Avenue, at least not yet, but as someone who studies nuclear weapons and their uses, this doesn’t comfort me. With Trump in the White House and Kim at the helm in North Korea, nuclear deterrence, the bedrock of U.S. security policy for the past 72 years, seems to be in peril. We have to ask ourselves whether we really think that no leader would ever be so reckless as to plunge us into the nuclear abyss and that mutually assured destruction can be safely relied upon indefinitely to preserve the peace.
The very phrase “mutual assured destruction” is a calumny, a term of abuse created by those who wanted the United States to plan to fight and (somehow) win a nuclear war. The Kennedy administration had a policy of assured destruction — the ability to destroy the Soviet Union in retaliation for any nuclear attack. Hawks, though, thought that deterrence might very well fail — and the United States should be prepared to win a nuclear war. They lampooned settling for a nuclear deterrent by calling President John F. Kennedy’s approach assured vulnerability or mutual assured destruction, to emphasize the point that limiting ourselves to a retaliatory capability meant accepting vulnerability to Soviet missiles.
But in one of those perverse repurposings that are common in language, most people thought: Yeah, that’s an apt description of the nuclear age. I mean, it is sort of crazy, but then again basing our security on the permanent threat of nuclear holocaust is fairly crazy to begin with. And the alternative — the notion that we could arms-race ourselves into a position where we might plausibly “win” a nuclear war was insane.
Neither Trump nor Kim is crazy, political rhetoric notwithstanding. Trump has, on occasion, spoken movingly about the power of nuclear weapons and the influence of his uncle, who was a professor of engineering at MIT. As for Kim, he wants to save his skin — he sees nuclear weapons as a guarantor of his survival, not a route to suicide.
And yet, for deterrence to fail, neither Trump nor Kim have to be insane or suicidal. They merely have to be the flawed human beings that we all are. North Korea has made it clear that it will use nuclear weapons first against U.S. forces throughout South Korea and Japan if it thinks an invasion is coming, in a desperate effort to stave off the overwhelming power of the United States. Trump has talked about killing Kim and seems to be willing to improvise nuclear threats with little or no discussion. I don’t think Trump or Kim wants a nuclear war, but I do think they could blunder their way into one, with each giving the other the impression that war is coming, and with military advisers who will argue that it is better to go first rather than risk not going at all.
But whatever we may wish to say about nuclear deterrence, we must also ask whether we think that our luck will hold forever, and whether every leader who comes to possess nuclear weapons will be transformed by the awesome power of these weapons. If the sight of Trump or Kim with the bomb disturbs you, then you believe in nuclear disarmament.
Jeffrey Lewis is a scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.