A confluence of precipitous conditions and bombastic brinkmanship have placed the United States and North Korea terrifyingly close to nuclear conflict — and despite measured and relative dismissiveness of the gravity from select politicians and supporters of the Trump administration — even a cursory look at the bigger picture evinces cause for an urgent, relentless public outcry.
In fact, with the Doomsday Clock having been adjusted thirty seconds toward nuclear armageddon less than two weeks ago, to a mere two minutes to midnight, any number of extenuating circumstances make the perils of nuclear war — and potential nuclear annihilation of untold numbers of innocent people — a distinct potentiality not to be ignored or taken lightly.
To call this feckless rush to an edge from which there might be no return irresponsible is to downplay that the Government of the United States has unapologetically mapped the course, floored the accelerator, and long ago cut the brake lines in diplomacy, which — since the Cold War — had comprised an uncomfortable if tolerable freeze in the international race to bolster stockpiles of nuclear weapons.
How and why we stand at the precipice could be debated for years; but, with the consequences unimaginable in scope and the likelihood of atomic war seemingly amplifying by the hour, of greater importance is an examination of the factors driving this ill-fated spectacle in their entirety — lest any individually be taken as insignificant or unrelated.
Former Secretary of State and both loathed and revered adviser to a succession of presidents, Henry Kissinger, asserted to a meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee on January 25 the justification for preemptive first strike against North Korea is solid — and that the hermit kingdom poses “the most immediate challenge to international peace and security” — contentions which, regardless their real or perceived veracity, wield the substantial weight of their speaker’s influence over decades of American foreign policy matters.
On determining whether the United States will implement still harsher sanctions or simply activate the military option, Kissinger flatly explained, emphasis added,
“We will hit that fork in the road, and the temptation to deal with it with a pre-emptive attack is strong, and the argument is rational, but I have seen no public statement by any leading official.”
Were the latter statement a cue to action isn’t clear — but it appears the former Nixon-era diplomat captured the attentions of President Trump and officials in the administration and military. More about that after an brief examination of an incidentally-pertinent development occurring the same day of the notorious statesman’s presentation of case for aggression against a nuclear-capable and sovereign nation: the announcement of the 2018 positioning of the doomsday clock.
On January 25, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists issued the 2018 Doomsday Clock Statement announcing the ‘time’ had lurched forward thirty seconds to “two minutes to midnight” — “the closest the Clock has ever been to Doomsday, and as close as it was in 1953, at the height of the Cold War” — in large part due to a series of hapless moves undertaken detrimentally by the United States.
Noting in no uncertain terms the issuance of report should stand as an “urgent warning of global danger,” the Science and Security Board explains,
“The greatest risks last year arose in the nuclear realm. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program made remarkable progress in 2017, increasing risks to North Korea itself, other countries in the region, and the United States. Hyperbolic rhetoric and provocative actions by both sides have increased the possibility of nuclear war by accident or miscalculation.”
Continuing, the report — a regular assessment of imminent dangers to humanity, specifically but not exclusively focusing on the procurement, development, and potential for use of nuclear weapons by nation-states or other actors around the world — solemnly scolds the evisceration of diplomacy and backtracking of functional accords which had maintained a tense if workable deadlock on further nuclear ambitions by any party for decades.
“North Korea has long defied UN Security Council resolutions to cease its nuclear and ballistic missile tests, but the acceleration of its tests in 2017 reflects new resolve to acquire sophisticated nuclear weapons,” the watchdog organization writes. “North Korea has or soon will have capabilities to match its verbal threats — specifically, a thermonuclear warhead and a ballistic missile that can carry it to the US mainland. In September, North Korea tested what experts assess to be a true two-stage thermonuclear device, and in November, it tested the Hwasong-15 missile, which experts believe has a range of over 8,000 kilometers. The United States and its allies, Japan and South Korea, responded with more frequent and larger military exercises, while China and Russia proposed a freeze by North Korea of nuclear and missile tests in exchange for a freeze in US exercises.
“The failure to secure a temporary freeze in 2017 was unsurprising to observers of the downward spiral of nuclear rhetoric between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The failure to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program will reverberate not just in the Asia-Pacific, as neighboring countries review their security options, but more widely, as all countries consider the costs and benefits of the international framework of nonproliferation treaties and agreements.”
While additional quarrels involving other nations, like Russia, contribute heartily to the decision to advance the clock, the Atomic Scientists make plain capricious policy decisions from U.S. leadership have provoked defensive fears and stoked doubt about the imperialist nation’s ability to lead the world back from the brink of nuclear war, rather than headlong into it.
As if a dire warning about nuclear brinkmanship and war weren’t sufficiently disquieting, the Trump administration fomented an abrupt decision to dispense with decades of global non-proliferation efforts by announcing a rather drastic transformation of the nation’s Nuclear Posture Review — its stance on the use of nuclear weapons.
Two days after the Arms Committee meeting in which Kissinger in essence gave his blessing in pretext for the U.S. to strike first against North Korea, Trump directed Secretary of Defense James Mattis to initiate a revision to the Nuclear Posture Review — with a directive not only focused on bolstering nuclear munitions in quantity and quality, but on re-evaluating when, precisely, the United States would consider itself justified in deploying them.
But the result, writes independent journalist and economist Paul Craig Roberts with emphasis, represents a “reckless, irresponsible, and destabilizing departure from the previous attitude toward nuclear weapons. The use of even a small part of the existing arsenal of the United States would be sufficient to destroy life on earth. Yet, the posture review calls for more weapons, speaks of nuclear weapons as ‘usable,’ and justifies their use in First Strikes even against countries that do not have nuclear weapons.
“This is an insane escalation. It tells every country that the US government believes in the first use of nuclear weapons against any and every country. Nuclear powers such as Russia and China must see this to be a massive increase in the threat level from the United States. Those responsible for this document should be committed to insane asylums, not left in policy positions where they can put it into action.”
While overstating the threat posed by China as justification for expansion of the arsenal, critics lambaste the new NPR as pure redemption of failed Cold War tactics, as well as a jarring end to the gradual step-down in supply undertaken by a succession of presidents in the interest of ultimately lessening the potential for utter nuclear annihilation.
Rachel Bronson, president and CEO of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, scoffed at the NPR and its issuance less than two weeks after the doomsday clock adjustment, writing in response,
“There are some real howlers in this document. The administration lowers the threshold for which nuclear weapons can be used and argues for fielding smaller- yield, more ‘usable’ nuclear weapons. The triad remains at the center of the US force posture, even though strategic giants such as former Defense Secretary William Perry and former US Sen. Sam Nunn have raised questions about its continued relevance. Nuclear testing is back on the table, if it’s necessary for the advancement of the US nuclear arsenal. The document makes no commitment to the kinds of investments needed in our science and technology labs that are needed to reduce the likelihood that the US will need to test new nuclear weapons.
“Perhaps worst of all, this NPR seems to argue that the United States should dump huge resources into its nuclear stockpile because other countries are doing the same. But there’s a reason that the North Koreans and Russians are investing in their nuclear arsenals. It’s precisely because the United States is dominant in the conventional realm, including cyber security, that others are seeking to compensate in other sectors. The United States should be channeling more resources into sectors it dominates, so it continues to outpace its adversaries, rather meet them tit-for-tat in the domain of their choosing. […]”
But, as the Brookings Institution notes, an arms race isn’t the sole probability resulting from the edited stance, as, “Like the 2010 review, the new NPR states that U.S. nuclear weapons would be used only in ‘extreme circumstances,’ but it broadens the definition of ‘extreme circumstances’ to include non-nuclear strategic attacks on civilian populations, infrastructure, and U.S. nuclear forces.”
It isn’t as if Washington has backed down in provocation of Pyongyang — today, February 7, Vice President Mike Pence announced the “toughest and most aggressive” economic sanctions yet to be imposed against North Korea in the following days.
“The United States of America will soon unveil the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever,” the Associated Press reports the vice president declared from Japan, after discussions with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, “and we will continue to isolate North Korea until it abandons its nuclear and ballistic missile programs once and for all.”
A brief calm in the bellicose storm between the two nations has taken hold as North Korea competes in the Olympic Games alongside South Korea — an historic first — mirroring indications the two nations may begin exploring avenues of diplomacy, to the consternation of several U.S. politicians.
Fortunately, a number of prominent present and former Washington insiders have expressed vocal concerns about the Trump administration’s seeming determination to veer toward war with one or several adversaries. Notably, Daniel Ellsberg, former nuclear analyst and Department of Defense analyst whose leak of the Pentagon Papers helped foment press freedom, transform public perception, and certify the need for a denouement to the morass in Vietnam, spoke to Time Magazine in January, prior to the aforementioned developments.
Having released his book, “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner,” in December, Ellsberg is keenly aware of the baselessness of aggressive nuclear weapons policy and unchecked power.
“The threats to exterminate North Korea for acts by its leaders are illegal, immoral, monstrous,” the itinerant whistleblower, who narrowly escaped punitive measures under the notorious Espionage Act, told Time — adding “it’s very unlikely” humanity will somehow escape annihilation via weapons of its own creation, though there is a possibility.
“Trump could not totally eliminate, even in a surprise nuclear attack, the North Korean ability to retaliate,” he observed, mirroring the sentiments of other prominent critics.
As the United States and North Korea continue dangerous bickering that could plunge the world into an avoidable conflict, Ellsberg strongly encourages anyone harboring pertinent information to absolutely blow the whistle in the interest of stopping full-scale war.
“Don’t do what I did,” he implored, “don’t wait until the bombs are falling or thousands have died if you have information that might avert that.”
Although the alarm over nuclear war cannot be sounded loudly enough, discerning what the administration next intends with North Korea would be an exercise in futility — but it shouldn’t matter — the war drums are deafening now.
Inexplicably, the noise isn’t being drowned by the screams of millions of Americans and others pouring into the streets to protest policy run roughshod over common sense, diplomacy, reason — and power clearly sprinting off the rails.