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How Should the US Deal with Rogue Nuclear States?
We are witnessing a transformative moment in US foreign policy. Long held ground rules and assumptions of the US government apparatus for foreign policy and military affairs is changing.
Operational expectations and career paths are being radically redefined by the administration of President Donald Trump. These changes are proving to be an earthquake to DC’s departments and agencies.
This amalgam of government apparatus which has been in place since the end of World War II is colloquially known as the “Deep State”. Whether “neocons” on the right or “resisters” on the left, the humans within these institutions hang on to an old vision of how the world works. They worship the world that was.
That world is gone.
The United States is leaving an era as the world policeman and entering an era of supportive engagement in world affairs. We are shifting from dogmatic, positional bargaining postures to pragmatic, transaction efficiency strategies with respect to both our allies and adversaries.
Everything has a half-life. Just as the Cold War era came to an end with the fall of the Berlin Wall thirty years ago. The American interventionist era of saving the world from evil that began with Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada culminating with Operating Inherent Resolve against ISIS in Syria is also reaching an end point.
It is being replaced by an emerging matrix of nation state and non-state actors that have perfected asymmetric techniques that undermine the old order of things. New orders of things are emerging. Regardless of what former officials and careerists want to believe, the United States has no choice but to begin to adapt to the next challenges that world places in front of us.
We have major adversaries like Russia and China with equally major internal social and economic challenges. These relationships are a tapestry of dysfunctional co-dependencies where pride and practicality often result in schizophrenic behaviors, and some psychotic ones, as disparate social order philosophies clash even as economic dependencies deepen. It makes us what corporate planners call “frenemies”, fragmented souls who must cooperate closely one minute⏤then argue hellishly the next, a psychologically segmented outlook on life best characterized as male pattern coping strategies.
In the US, it harshly forces domestic society to confront our own xenophobic myopia to realize that beyond our borders and the hopes of academia, the real world is not “woke”, it’s animally human. The necessity of this reality irks and triggers the feminine holism that has, throughout the evolution of homo sapiens, made half of our species uncomfortable thinking this way.
Down the food chain of foreign affairs, we have important regional interests where the frailties of allies and adversaries alike must somehow be woven into tapestries result in imperfect but self-sustaining peaceful stabilities; troublesome regions of unstable and too often hostile to each other actors within regions like the Middle East, Africa, South America, Southwest and Greater East Asia, and even Western Eurasia. They live in a new vacuum where there is neither a Rome nor an America sending a colonial governor and an occupying legion. We give them the dangerous gift of self-determination. They are on their own to figure it out. Tumultuously, they make their way into their unknown futures.
We are less enforcer, more enabler. We counsel more than we compel. We are more and more about being selective in engaging with rogues while leaving decisions in the hands of the locals to find their own balances of democracy and theocracy, some of which we may not like. But, the course of regime change belongs more to them than to us.
It does indeed beg the question, “What do we do to align our nation’s foreign policy apparatus like the CIA and State Department to ensure our interest are tailored for this next world order? What should these agencies look like? What should their personnel be trained to do? What ethics and ethos should the future cadre have? What do we change? How much do we retain?”
If you examine our conflict management strategy, we are clearly shifting to what is called Grey Zone conflict doctrine. The weapons here are more often the sanction enforcement powers of the U.S. Treasury and the disruption by Cyber Warfare of manufacturing and consumer dependencies of adversaries on technology. Except for anti-terrorist purposes, the use of our military is fast becoming the last option on the list. To prevail, our diplomats, spies, securities and banking regulator, military, interior and commerce infrastructure must learn to interoperate as force elements inside new Single Integrated Operations Plans (SIOP’s), a far cry from the inter-department rivalry ethos that still exists today.
Given all that, let’s have a look at one facet of the new complexity, rogue nuclear states.
Nuclear weapons are very scary things. Ever since they were invented, we have feared their ability to wipe out life on our planet. The nuclear nations of earth have for a very long time worked to contain the danger of this genie in a bottle.
We work far more closely with each other, even as adversaries, in the hope that they will never be used.
The wild card in this equation has always been:
“What if a rogue came to possess nuclear weapons?”
This fear created a common interest in nonproliferation; an international regime of global stability management that has reached its half-life point into obsolescence.
The world entered a new post proliferation era when two nation states with questionable behavior pursued nuclear weapons. The crutch that there were technical barriers for North Korea and Iran to achieve nuclear capability are gone. The barrier to the enrichment of weapons grade material is gone. It ended for North Korea some time ago and the Iranian regime is belligerently ending it for that nation now. North Korea has proven itself capable of building ballistic missiles and warheads for them. Iran has proven itself capable of building ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. They have reached the edge of fielding operational forces.
While their military in leadership are still in the stages of mostly posturing about having the bomb, they are not untalented, and they are certainly driven to learn what it takes to reach the next threshold of nuclear power, the achievement of a credible threat. If they are still crazy when that happens, they may be stupid enough to use them. The global stability challenge morphs to making sure they understand but they never can.
What is important to understand for the United States is that we must respond. There’s no choice. The national interest is clear. We cannot allow these nations to achieve credible threat status and still be crazy and stupid enough to use them.
There is a menu of approaches for the US to respond. Some of these are currently being explored. Others currently not. It is important for Americans to understand what that potential menu is because the national interest is best served by understanding each avenue so one can better see why policy is being pursued. Some avenues work better than others. The consequences of getting it wrong are dire.
First, there are presently eight nations known to possess nuclear weapons. They are the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea. A ninth nation, Israel, is suspected of being able to quickly assemble nuclear weapons and is also considered to be operationally capable.
Note that there are also several nations that have de-nuclearized on this planet including the country of South Africa and all the other former republics of the former Soviet Union. Furthermore, two nations in the past, the United States and the Soviet Union successfully drew down their nuclear arsenals through negotiated arms control agreements. It can and does happen.
Unilateral Threat Option
This is the United States as world policeman model. It relies on power projection, intimidation, coercion, sanctions and other means to subdue an adversary into behaving in a desired way. It’s a strategy that works best in concert with other proven Machiavellian tools of statecraft such as fermenting regime change by subversion or force. We’ve done our share of this. It is dependent on iron will and a commitment to going all in, colonial governors, occupying legions, nation building, the works. It’s exactly the phase of world involvement the US is coming out of. Quite honestly, while it can delay the arrival of nuclear capability for the most worrisome nations, it never stopped nuclear proliferation.
Negotiated De-Nuclearization Option
This strategy of proliferation management has worked quite well historically. Think about it. Just under two out of the ten nations that have ever possessed nuclear weapons gave them up. It would be a complete twenty percent if Russia had joined the rest of the Soviet republics in doing so at the end of the Cold War. Such a move would likely have collapsed the US arsenal even further probably doubling or tripling the peace dividend for the planet at the time. While that wind fall didn’t happen, both country’s arsenals were curtailed. Partial de-nuclearization is not a bad thing.
These successes in the past provide hope that it may yet be possible to add one more nation to the de-nuclearization list, North Korea, in the future. While a difficult road, the efforts of US President Donald Trump to explore this avenue do seem to be bearing reduced tensions with Kim Jung Un that the previous unilateral threat approach did not. Like I said, with nukes, partial progress with any one player is still statistically significant progress when your total nuclear club population is ten. I very much encourage President Trump to continue to explore this avenue with the North Koreans.
International Enforcement Option
This was the dream of the United Nations Security Council model. It has proven feckless over time as the UN became democratized and the General Assembly became a cacophonous harbor for the petty ambitions of dictators and despots. At this point, it’s pretty much useless. There is no man from U.N.C.L.E. The end.
Regional Balance Option
This is the current US strategy with respect to Iranian nuclear ascendance. It relies on a matrix of containment zones and social influencers attempting to moderate the behavior of a belligerent regime. It’s basically the group think version of the unilateral threat model. It has as many if not more asymmetric cheating vulnerabilities than a pure unilateral threat model. We have a tumultuous northern Middle East where the Iranians can practice their use of Shia leverage to pursue their dreams of Persian conquest. We have a containment line made up of reluctant frontline allies that looks like an Arabian Nights novel of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. We have external adversaries seeking to gain influence in competition with us causing all of us to undermine each other and ultimately enable the Iranians to keep going. and we have external allies such as the Europeans who’s self-interests also cause them to undermine the process enable the Iranians.
I don’t really hold out much hope for this approach. it seems to neither delay nor deny the Iranians ability to pursue the last piece of their nuclear operational puzzle, the domestic enrichment of fissile material. They already have the means for delivery. The Persians continue to march on towards achieving credible threat status.
This dog’s not going to hunt forever. It’s probably not enough to mitigate the systemic danger that the rogue will achieve credible capability with no credible deterrent to dissuade use in place. I’d encourage President Trump to continue to explore alternative deal options here. This may not be the NSDD you are looking for.
Cooperative Assured Destruction
I include this for completeness for now. This is a presently dormant avenue that was in the past referred to as the Northern Powers option. In ultimate form, it would be a multinational nuclear force created by treaty much in the same way the non-proliferation treaty came to be but with fangs. Under such an arrangement, the signatories would set aside a small number of nuclear weapons designed with common safety circuitry that would only allow them to detonate if all members of the treaty authorized it. Think of it as a “you pissed all of us off” switch.
The specific mission of that force would be to establish an overwhelming threat of assured destruction to a rogue nation that employed a nuclear weapon. Targeting and mission planning would be cooperative. A full range of firing scenarios would be maintained so that treaty leadership would have a range of leverage to apply to dissuade rogue action. Aggressive efforts to convince the rogue to denuclearize would go on in parallel. The strategic objective of such a treaty would be the elimination of the nuclear threat from rogues on the planet.
The price of such a bold move would require some deep burying of hatchets among contentious players; namely, the United States, Russia and China who would all be essential to such a deterrence regimen. The potential positive consequence effect of such a process could be the identification of new avenues for further arms reduction among the treaty participant nations. Not a bad thing, more partial de-nuclearization.
I don’t know how you feel but I’d hold this option in reserve just in case that regional stability model falls through one of its fissures.
Like I said, the consequences of getting nuclear proliferation management wrong are dire.
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