Mutually Assured Madness

At the brink of who knows what with North Korea, we seem to be back on the scary ledge as in the old Cold War cartoon: enemy rock-climbers hanging off a cliff by the same ropes, ready to fight, though both go down to death if either one slips.  It’s a fog so far of “fire and fury” tweets from our President, threats of “ashes and darkness” for the US from Pyongyang.  We’re on notice that the nuclear age is not over: the age of bottomless anxiety, of crazy-making calculations of the advantage in a first shot, in what could turn to military murder in the millions.  At best it’s a game for so-called ‘rational actors.’ The players we’ve drawn seem to prefer the masks of madmen, but they’re still working well within the pocket of their respective political establishments. It’s already too easy to hear the war drums beating again in Washington as well in Pyongyang. 

The alarmingly phallic cover of Mark Bowden’s North Korea cover story in the The Atlantic 

But what if the real problem is that we’re just not asking the right questions? The New Yorker‘s Evan Osnos is working to reframe the issues at hand through his recent on-the-ground report from the sealed city of Pyongyang. What he found there was not a crisis of derangement, but rather, a more deep seated failure of national imaginations: 

These are not two ships without captains. These are actually two powers that are struggling to figure out a way to co-exist, but what leaves me with tremendous uncertainty is that so much of the problem of nuclear brinkmanship depends on matters of the mind. It depends on what we imagine of the other, and not only what we imagine of the other but what we imagine the other imagines of us.

Eric Drooker’s “Warhead” cover for this week’s New Yorker, which also includes Osnos’s report

But this psychoanalytic reading of conflict can only get us so far. As the Russian historian Greg Afinogenov reminded us in a recent essay for N+1, “remote diagnoses” of foreign countries and leaders too often obscure the real history of our own imperial follies.

It is American foreign policy doctrine that continues to divide the world into rational actors, typically NATO countries, and irrational ones, typically not long for this world: Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, the Kims. In this worldview it is not a set of threats or behaviors that makes a leader a madman—it is the determination to maintain independence from American empire, often through the pursuit of nuclear weapons. In such a framework it is always the advocates of continual pressure, threats, and sanctions that appear the most rational, for they are the ones that maintain vigilance against uncontrollable madmen.

A TIME magazine cover from 2002

In studio, Barry Posen gives us the “realist” foreign policy view and helps us game out possible short term solutions to the crisis. On the other end, the nuclear abolitionists Beatrice Fihn and John Carl Baker give us a more utopian view: the vision of a revitalized, 21st century disarmament movement.

Fihn, through her work as executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), hones us in on new demands for prohibition made in front of the UN.

Baker, a research fellow at the Ploughshares Fund, talks about how we can bring these demands back home, building off the momentum of other millennial-led social justice movements.

The 21st century is the time of Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, and Fight for $15, and it seems likely that a renewed disarmament activism will take a cue from these movements’ confrontational tactics. Today, the dominant style of protest does not passively ask to be heard, but demands it, by actively challenging an injustice at its source. There is of course a long history of peaceful direct action in the disarmament movement, and activists may revive this tradition in the coming years. The US nuclear weapons complex, spread out over multiple sites across the country, certainly provides ample opportunity for disruptive—but peaceful—protest. Thinking intersectionally, though, activists may focus their ire on the defense corporations of the “nuclear enterprise,” who receive billions from the federal government at a time when many Americans feel economically left behind


Guest List
Evan Osnos
staff writer for the New Yorker and author of Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China
Barry R. Posen
Ford International Professor of Political Science at MIT and author of Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy
Greg Afinogenov
assistant professor of history at Georgetown University
Beatrice Fihn
executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons
John Carl Baker
the Mellon-ACLS Public Fellow at the Ploughshares Fund

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  • Darryn Remillard


    Thank you for bringing together the excellent panel of perspectives on North Korea.

    I was reminded of Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History”. Then I remembered Adam Fitzgerald’s poem “The Remake” that you played…about 1 year ago (what a year!). Even though Adam’s poem is a quintessentially 1990’s poem (with a heavy dose of Thomas Wolfe’s “You Can’t Go Home Again”) I wondered if perhaps we could squeeze an extra anachronistic stanza into Adam’s poem- a postscript of sorts:

    History comes roaring back,
    The cold war comes back,
    Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” comes back,
    The threat of mutually assured destruction comes back,
    And this time you also come back.

  • Pete Crangle
  • Potter

    So Trump goes to the UN and talks about sovereignty in his contradictory and confusing (shameful) speech, You see, it’s America First. Well it’s North Korea First, Iran First China First, Russia First, Venezuela First…. And then he threatens. Does he think?

    Thanks to Evan Osnos for daring to go to North Korea and report. Barry Posen was excellent… again a well orchestrated informative conversation.
    My fallback had been, oh hell, let them all have nukes… MAD all around. But then bits of nuclear material could end up in the hands of individuals. We have other forms of WMD to worry about too on that score. I don’t think we can rid ourselves of nukes as Posen says. Maybe one nuke each under lock and key?
    I’d be happier without Trump having so much power even though Posen puts risk at a 3.
    Thank you dear folks at ROS.

  • Tahir Rasul

    Excellent discussion. If I were North Korea and the US offered to disarm itself and the world nuclear powers then I would be certainly interested in going forward. This is where the non-nuclear states should pressurize the nuclear powers to understand the reality of the situation. More so that it is these states who will be suffering greatest destruction, and for no reason, if the nuclear powers were to engage in a nuclear war. The very fact that nuclear powers have achieved for themselves veto powers in the UN is an added incentive to others who feel the un-justification. Add o it the fact that the amount of money spent on warfare and arms could eradicate poverty and economic issues of the world, many times over.

  • David

    Sometimes a nuclear missile is just a nuclear missile…