by Toby Gill
Madness. Or, more precisely, M.A.D.ness. This is the doctrine which has governed foreign policy among major powers for the last half a century: ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ – the idea that the possession of nuclear arms is, in of itself, the ultimate deterrent against aggression from other nuclear armed powers.
It is the reason why the UK is willing to continually bankrupt itself keeping its Trident system running. It is the reason why, in the Cold War, the US and Soviets tolerated one another pouring funding into nuclear missiles, but mutually agreed to ban investment in systems to defend against nuclear missiles, as they were too dangerous. It is the reason why many International Relations experts believe that additional nuclear weapons could actually make the world a safer place. M.A.D. is the key to understanding the ecosystem of superpowers, in the Cold War and beyond.
There is, of course, only one problem – we have no idea whether it really works.
This week, North Korea claimed to have successfully tested an ICBM (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile). This is the ‘worst case scenario’ that international commentators had been talking about for months, if not years. It is also the ‘line in the sand’ drawn by President Trump. If the North’s boasts are true, it now has the capability to reach Alaska with a nuclear strike. Of course, many experts are casting doubt on the validity of Pyongyang’s claims (this actually matters less than you might think – in the game of deterrents and bluffs, what you say you can do matters almost as much as what you actually could do, if the big red button were pushed).
The US, with its nuclear arsenal and gargantuan military, has long acted as a guarantor for the security of North Korea’s foes in the region – namely South Korea and Japan. The US was able to do this safe in the knowledge that Kim Jong-Un had nothing to hit them with in return. The creation of a (potentially nuclear) missile capable of striking US soil is a game-changer.
The ICBM was Kim Jong-Un’s way out. He’s seen what happened to the leaders of regimes, such as those in Iraq and Libya, which had defied US authority. The ICBM was the only route left for Kim’s regime to secure sufficient leverage in order to keep the Americans at bay. And, on the face of it, he has succeeded. The US can no longer touch him.
Now that the threat of a retaliatory nuclear strike looms, the principles of M.A.D. kick in. The US can no longer risk confrontation with North Korea, and will no longer be able to act as guarantor for its nearby allies.
Now that the threat of a retaliatory nuclear strike looms, the principles of M.A.D. kick in. The US can no longer risk confrontation with North Korea, and will no longer be able to act as guarantor for its nearby allies. Without the US threat, the North will have nothing to fear in utilising its (disproportionately large) military against its regional enemies. Japan and South Korea, alarmed at their new exposure, will be forced to ramp up their own military investment. For Japan and South Korea, the only remaining route to absolute security will be the creation of their own nuclear arsenals, with which to ware off Kim Jong-Un. This will lead to a spiralling arms race and nuclear proliferation in the region.
Or, at least, that’s what the theory says should happen. The reality is far, far more uncertain.
The Trump administration has said it will not tolerate a nuclear armed North Korea. America already has a sizeable naval presence in the area, based mostly on the Japanese island of Okinawa, including aircraft carriers equipped with a potent set of Tomahawk missiles. The US believes it has a decent enough satellite reconnaissance of North Korea to already know where all the regime’s missile silos are. In theory, the US could dismantle the entire North Korean nuclear program with a single strike from a single ship. When the validity of Pyongyang’s claims to have even a single ICBM remain even slightly in question, the temptation to do this pre-emptive attack could become overwhelming.
In the situation we now find ourselves, it is easy to see how the principles of M.A.D. may not be able to prevent two nuclear armed powers from coming to blows. The US may reach the conclusion that the safest course of action is a preemptive strike against the North Korean missile program, before the regime’s ICBMs become any more advanced.
The principles of M.A.D. have prevented catastrophe among nuclear powers since the 1950s. Perhaps they have reached the end of their tether.
However, this decision could have all kinds of messy outcomes. Perhaps there is a missile silo hidden from US reconnaissance. Perhaps the North would be able to launch their ICBM before the Tomahawks landed. Perhaps the US attack could be badly planned or implemented, and its objectives missed. Any one of these scenarios would allow North Korea to launch a successful nuclear retaliation.
The US now faces a decision similar to that of a man locked in a room with a sleeping tiger. The man could sit and do nothing to provoke the tiger, in the knowledge that eventually it will probably wake up. Or, he could try to slay the tiger in its sleep – seizing his initial advantage, but risking the situation getting very, very out of hand.
The principles of M.A.D. have prevented catastrophe among nuclear powers since the 1950s. Perhaps they have reached the end of their tether. M.A.D. describes the logical course of action for rational and informed state actors. We have every reason to doubt whether Trump and Kim Jong Un are informed about each other’s motives and capabilities. We even have every reason to doubt whether either of them is particularly rational.
In short, it seems that the principles of Mutually Assured Destruction can no longer guarantee our safety. The time we live in is more uncertain, and more dangerous, than any before.
Featured image credit: mediakorut
The Norwich Radical is non-profit and run by volunteers. All funds raised help cover the maintenance costs of our website, as well as contributing towards future projects and events. Please consider making a small contribution and fund a better media future.