On Friday, October 6th the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced that the International Campaign to abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has been awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, “The organization is receiving the award for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its groundbreaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee said in a statement. Indeed, perhaps at no time since the unstable 1950s has the world been closer to nuclear war. Over the past few weeks the rhetoric has increased between Trump who threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” and referred to President Kim as “little rocket man” and Kim Jong Un who, in turn, said, “I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire.” North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Yong Ho on September 25th proclaimed that Donald Trump had declared war on North Korea when Trump tweeted that North Korea won’t be around much longer.
What are we to make of these exchanges in which both leaders call the other madmen and threaten military action against the other that sounds as if it’s consistent with pre-emptive attacks by either side? And the attacks sound like nuclear attacks as per Trump’s declaration when he threatened to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” How are people to understand such rhetoric?
It is against this backdrop that ICAN has been working to press for support of the disarmament treaty that they negotiated in July. Those negotiations were boycotted by the nine nuclear nations (the U.S., Russia, China, North Korea, Britain, France, India, Pakistan, and Israel) and their allies. However, there was participation by two-thirds of the U.N.’s member nations and 53 countries have signed on. This is a show of international anxiety about the current instability of the nuclear threat.
The instability of the 1950s led to a mutual strategy between the U.S.A. and the USSR called MAD (or mutually assured destruction). Both countries had the largest stockpiles of weapons that were deployed in various regions so that they might respond to an offensive attack by the other party. On top of this informal strategy were the various bi-lateral treaties to limit the stockpiles of the two nations and the multi-national Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Though the tensions were high, there was a general confidence that neither side wanted a nuclear war. It was an unthinkable outcome to be avoided at all costs.
Today, the world does not have such confidence when we bring in the leaders of the U.S.A. and North Korea. At this writing it seems improbable that North Korea could render a single nuclear weapon against the United States, much less a destructive event envisioned by MAD. However they could reach Seoul, (population of 10 million/ metropolitan area population of 25 million). They may be able to hit targets in Japan, as well. This would amount to an enormous bloodbath. Thus, launching a nuclear or even a conventional attack against North Korea might have some severe consequences.
Is this a sable situation similar to what we possessed under MAD? There is no way to know for sure. It depends upon the leader of North Korea understanding that he is NOT under attack and that all pressure to be applied will be economic and political. Does Kim Jong Un understand this? It depends upon who you ask. Prior to January 20, 2017 the answer was, “yes.” After this date the game changed to one of bluffing—aka “chicken.” The rules of this game require that each party (Trump and Kim) believes that the other may actually commit a military act to gain advantage—even though that game scenario has cataclysmic negative outcomes from both directions. Thus, one would have to say that each leader is either bluffing for some sort of posturing effect or that one or both is stupid or mentally unfit. Various outside commentators have made assessments about the capacities of the leaders, but thankfully, neither country is totally dependent upon the man at the top, alone.
Kim has a circle of advisors and so does Trump. How much sway do these advisors have? In the United States we have Mattis and Tillerson (who has recently claimed to have forged a direct contact with North Korea—though Trump rebuked him for that remark). Both Mattis and Tillerson have shown themselves to have the capacity of independence as evidenced by their comments when the President spoke out about the Charlottesville unrest.
It should be noted that un-written protocol for the President to have the power to launch a nuclear attack goes back to Truman who ordered the only two atomic attacks in history. However, there is precedent for disobeying orders in the military. Anyone in the Army, for example, may disobey a command when that command directly contradicts the Army Code of Conduct. This might create the groundwork for Mattis and/or Tillerson disobeying/interfering with a Presidential order to mount a nuclear attack against North Korea in response to a North Korean nuclear weapons test, for example. They could claim that such a response fails the proportionality provision of the rules of war to which the United States is a signatory.
Will these advisers have the independence to disobey an order to initiate a nuclear or conventional attack—when either scenario has a cataclysmic negative outcome? Time will tell. But a possible bright spot is the planned China trip by Trump in November with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Certainly it would seem that this would discount military action against North Korea before then (unless it’s all a ruse).
The stakes are certainly high. Beatrice Fihn, Executive Director of ICAN responded to the Trump-Kim exchanges this way, “Nuclear weapons do not bring stability and security. . . We can see that right now.” Diplomacy is our only hope. Let’s pray that those around Trump and Kim can make the difference and save the world.
Michael Boylan is Professor of Philosophy at Marymount University. He has held positions at the Center for American Progress and the Brookings Institution and has served on federal government committees. His most recent books are: Natural Human Rights: A Theory (political philosophy), Teaching Ethics with Three Philosophical Novels (pedagogy), and Georgia: A Trilogy (philosophical novels).