“It is in the thick of a calamity,” says Albert Camus in “The Plague,” “that one gets hardened to the truth, in other words, to silence.” Unless we plan comprehensively and prudently in the United States, such “silence” is precisely what we should sometime expect from Pyongyang.
Depending upon America’s dedicated analytic capacity to decipher sorely-complex strategic quandaries, this could become a relatively benign silence of protracted mutual deterrence, or, more ominously, a dreadful silence of mutually-reinforcing annihilations.
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To best ensure the first outcome — no longer optimal, perhaps, but still plainly better than nuclear war — President Trump and his senior advisors will need to acknowledge the impending North Korea crisis as one of “mind over mind” (much earlier, the preferred war-planning orientation of ancient Greeks and Macedonians), and not just one of comparative weaponry.
By itself, the evident and incontestable nuclear superiority of the United States suggests very little about America’s overall capacity for protecting national security in this emerging competition. To wit, even a substantially-inferior North Korea could sometime lay waste to our vulnerable allies in Northeast Asia, to U.S. military forces in that region and — eventually — to major American cities.
For our increasingly-imperiled national interests, the core strategic task is preeminently analytic and intellectual. It is not merely a seat-of-the-pants matter of “common sense.” Accordingly, principal Pentagon planners must now diligently proceed in close conformance with all usual expectations of disciplined scientific inquiry, especially the carefully-deductive elaboration of alternative hypotheses and the subsequent application of dialectical reasoning.
In essence, to assure that prerequisite “mind over mind” requirements are actually satisfied, a broad variety of key questions must first be asked and answered. This must be done comprehensively, systematically, sequentially, purposefully and coherently.
It is not enough to increase U.S. bomber warning flights over the Korean Peninsula or to ratchet up tough talk that is patently disconnected from any credible threats of retaliation. Such sophomoric “remedies” remain silly, almost childish.
Regarding science and U.S. national security, no promising “mind over mind” efforts can make operational sense until all key concepts are expressly defined and then logically differentiated, one from another.
To proceed, capable U.S. strategic analysts must begin by positing an indispensably primary distinction between intentional or deliberate nuclear war and unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war. The derivative risks ensuing from these two very different types of conflict are apt to vary considerably.
Those analysts who would remain too completely focused upon a deliberate nuclear war scenario could vastly underestimate the cumulative nuclear threat to the United States from North Korea, and, as corollary, its impacted area allies.
Much of this quickly-developing nuclear threat could relate to certain prospective forms of decisional miscalculation or inadvertence, whether expressed by North Korea, the United States or both adversarial countries.
It’s also not just about ascertaining unintentional enemy decisions. American strategists who would remain too singularly focused upon comparative nuclear ordnance could similarly miss other grievous hazards. For example, one often hears these days the allegedly “common sense” argument that Kim Jong Un would never consider striking first because he fully appreciates that any such aggression would elicit an immediate and overwhelming U.S. nuclear reprisal.
Significantly, this presumptively reassuring argument can make sense only if it is first assumed that the authorizing North Korean dictator is predictably rational.
Apropos of such a problematic argument, are Americans really prepared, with nary a scintilla of analytic insight or nuance, to uncritically accept such a key assumption?
Louis Rene Beres is professor emeritus of political science at Purdue University. Beres’ lectures and research focus on international relations, terrorism and international law. He is the author of several books, including, “Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy,” which was published in 2016 by Rowman & Littlefield.
This article was first published at The Hill