Yesterday, I wrote (again) about how America’s foreign policy establishment continues trying to keep the wool over their compatriots’ eyes about how the main U.S. security alliances (especially with South Korea) are exposing the nation to the threat of nuclear attack (in this case, from North Korea). Now I’m wondering if this same (bipartisan) group may start to change tactics. The evidence? An absolutely stupefying post in The National Interest that tries to assure Americans that such an attack wouldn’t really be so bad.
Let me repeat that: A (rightly) respected foreign policy journal has just posted an essay arguing that it’s “risky threat inflation” to believe that North Korea’s nuclear weapons represent an “existential” danger to the United States – i.e., one that could destroy it as a functioning society.
In a literal sense, the author, political scientist Robert E. Kelly, is right. Even when the North Korean dictatorship builds nuclear-tipped missiles capable of hitting the American homeland, the United States would probably survive as a political entity. The main reason, as the author notes, is that for the time being, the North’s arsenal will almost certainly remain too small to land on more than a few targets inside the geographically vast continental 48 states and their “widely dispersed population.” So just as Manhattan withstood the September 11 attack, the nation in more or less its current form could probably withstand a North Korean strike.
But this kind of literalness, of course, is the literalness of children. And nothing makes the terrible truth clearer than Kelly’s own words. For example, he writes that
>“The humanitarian costs of even one nuclear detonation would be enormous, of course, and the national psychological shock would be akin to nothing in U.S. history, bar perhaps the Civil War. But this is not the same thing as hitting the United States hard enough that its society begins to fragment and its government collapse.”
>“Large numbers of civilian casualties, even in the millions, and the loss of several American cities is not existential. Horrible, yes. A dramatic reorientation of American life, absolutely. But not the end of America.”
>“Even Imperial Japan in 1945, after months of punishing U.S. bombing, managed to ride out the nuclear detonations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki without a national breakdown.”
>“Assuming…that North Korea strikes Washington and America’s other large cities, it is not obvious that the United States would then fall into some manner of political anarchy or revolution.”
There is, to be sure, a weird twist to Kelly’s analysis. The “threat inflation” risk that’s principally troubling this South Korea-based analyst is not the kind that would cow Washington enough to prevent U.S. nuclear retaliation against North Korea following an unprovoked Northern strike against American territory. Instead, what he’s worried about is that American leaders could grow so (mistakenly) terrified of the North Korean nukes’ destructive capability that the Trump administration would try to take them out with preemptive airstrikes and thus “ignite a disastrous regional conflict.”
Which means that he’s worried mainly that South Korea and its neighbors would come under destructive attack, not the United States. But the arguments he marshals could certainly be used, at least in theory, to stiffen allegedly flaccid public spines in the event of any kind of U.S.-North Korea showdown. And as I have written repeatedly, such a confrontation would be practically unthinkable were the United States not committed to protect the militarily free-riding South, and worse, were tens of thousands of American troops and their families not deployed right in the line of Korean fire, expressly to deny a President any real choice about using nuclear weapons (and invite retaliation) once they were attacked.
Kelly’s article, however, does have one (unwitting) virtue. His description of the likely devastation from even a smallish North Korea-scale attack should be enough to make any reader wonder what possible upside to defending South Korea could come close to justifying this completely unprecedented kind of downside. The question holds even for those who insist that such an attack is unlikely (because North Korea must know that the United States would respond with an annihilating all-out retaliatory strike) and that therefore the risk is worth running in order to maintain deterrence on the peninsula. And it especially holds for missile defense optimists. For if all of them are wrong, America will suffer literally millions of deaths, countless wounded, long-term radiation poisoning of survivors and the environment, and gargantuan material losses. Even a single warhead penetrating anti-missile systems would wreak virtually unimaginable physical and psychological havoc.
Whether running such risks to deter attack – nuclear or not – on the United States itself is debatable, and although I disagree with them, pacifists and anti-nuclear activists have long made counter-arguments that deserve consideration.
But running such risks to deter attack on another country, whose loss, however terrible, Americans unmistakably could withstand (in spades) strikes me, anyway, as lying far outside the bounds of rationality. At the very least, it demands the type of open, explicit debate that the foreign policy establishment remains determined to avoid. If Kelly’s post brings this debate closer, however unintentionally, I’ll be the first one to thank him.