This Week's Show •

100 Seconds to Midnight

On the famous clock-face of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the time now is 100 seconds before midnight. Meaning: humankind is closer to nuclear doomsday than it’s ever been. But it’s worse than that: those ...

On the famous clock-face of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the time now is 100 seconds before midnight. Meaning: humankind is closer to nuclear doomsday than it’s ever been. But it’s worse than that: those educated alarmists at the Bulletin advanced the second-hand on their clock before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. It’s a fiasco now, in mid-May: we can see a Russian autocrat with a taste for cruel and crushing force, facing humiliation and huge losses, but holding an arsenal of 4,500 nuclear warheads, which he says he could use. Stranger still: one in three Americans favor US military action in support of Ukraine, “even if it risks a nuclear conflict with Russia.” Are we scared yet? What if we’re not scared half enough?

We Americans, ever deeper into the fight for Ukraine, are “gambling with Armageddon,” in the title of Martin Sherwin’s history of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963. But we’re in a different world of weapons and warriors, and we’re a different people looking on: perhaps less aware of nuclear weapons than in the ’60s, when there were fewer of them. We may be generally less worried than when everybody you knew had seen Dr. Strangelove, the nightmare comedy, two or three times. The question this radio hour is: Do we worry enough these days, you and I, about the risks built into nuclear weapons? Or maybe: Do the politicians and the generals in Washington worry as much as we do, about the Doomsday Machine, as Strangelove called it, with the design feature that the attack was beyond recall as soon as it was launched? We’re drawing on history this hour, also on strategic logic, on our citizen heads and popular culture.

This week’s show is the latest installment of In Search of Monsters, our limited-series collaboration with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

This Week's Show •

A Dangerous Puzzle

It’s Iran, again, at the center of a tricky, dangerous puzzle. Four years after Donald Trump broke out of the nuclear ban agreement, Iran is just days or weeks away from having enough enriched uranium ...

It’s Iran, again, at the center of a tricky, dangerous puzzle. Four years after Donald Trump broke out of the nuclear ban agreement, Iran is just days or weeks away from having enough enriched uranium to build a bomb—a bomb it doesn’t seem to want. At the same time the talks in Vienna to restore the ban on Iran’s bomb works are drifting downward, taken to be expiring. The question, really, is who cares? It was Barack Obama’s passion that got the great powers in on banning Iran’s bomb in 2015. It was Donald Trump’s personal choice three years later that took the US out of the deal. In Biden time, it’s the merely casual interest in Iran that could be letting a new deal drift away.

In the nuclear bomb-building business, “breakout capacity” is a measure of the time required between ordering up a bomb and having it. In the Iran case, it is mostly the time needed to enrich enough uranium to fire a single bomb. And it’s now down to about a week in Tehran, at the rate Iran’s whirling centrifuges have been building its stockpile of fuel – most of it since our President Trump abandoned the ban on Iran’s nuclear project. Our guests are three authorities on the longer story here: Trita Parsi wrote the inside account of the roller coaster ride to the Iran deal of 2015, and he’s deep in the details of efforts to revive it. Historian John Ghazvinian at the University of Pennsylvania has made an epic novel of three centuries in his masterpiece called America and Iran: A History, 1720 to the Present. Hussein Banai is a political scholar in Indiana who’s written an almost psychiatric account of the identities in struggle here, Iran and the US.

This Week's Show •

Grain War

Try this, to get a fresh grip on the war in Ukraine, and its effects still to come: we’ve got a food war in the breadbasket of the world, on the vast Eurasian prairie that’s ...

Try this, to get a fresh grip on the war in Ukraine, and its effects still to come: we’ve got a food war in the breadbasket of the world, on the vast Eurasian prairie that’s been feeding Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa for ten thousand years. It’s the last in a long line of historic bread wars – remember Marie Antoinette’s quip in the French Revolution, when the bread ran out? “Let them eat cake,” she was said to have said. Food war today is about controlling those fabled Black Sea grain ports like Odessa, and the bounteous grain fields inland. This is the story you haven’t heard told: when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, the world price of wheat doubled, overnight. Next come shortages, hunger, food riots, maybe worse.

Scott Reynolds Nelson.

The war in Ukraine is a war, not least, for the wheat and corn that has fed the world, back to the Stone Age. Could that be a main line of the war story, the reason Putin invaded, the key to some awful consequences? Our guest, Scott Nelson, is a scholar of useful stuff, raw materials, food commodities, over time. He says: in fact those nutritious and shippable grains between Ukraine and Russia are very nearly the whole story, underlying Russia’s long lust for empire and Ukraine’s claim to its share and its identity. What it takes to size up a food war, Scott Nelson says, is the memory and the imagination of a grain dealer, and he says the ruthless President Putin has it all. Oceans of Grain is Scott Nelson’s provocative account of the history that brought us to Ukraine.

This Week's Show •

How Do We Look?

We are encouraged to believe, we Americans, that if anything good for the world comes out of the war in Ukraine, it will be that “the US is back,” not shooting but supporting, maybe midwifing ...

We are encouraged to believe, we Americans, that if anything good for the world comes out of the war in Ukraine, it will be that “the US is back,” not shooting but supporting, maybe midwifing a new birth of freedom. The indispensable nation again. What does it tell you that most of the world doesn’t see it that way? We like to say that the cause going forward is democracy against strongman politics, but India, the biggest democracy in the world, is also the world’s biggest buyer of Russian weapons, and has refused to condemn the Putin invasion of Ukraine. Neither has Israel, among the liveliest of democracies. Two thirds of the human race, some 5-billion people, live in countries that want no part of the sanctions against Russia: the people of Africa, Southeast Asia, as well as Latin America and China.

Most Americans have no trouble sorting the good guys from the bad in the war for Ukraine. We take comfort that US power stands with the victims of Russia’s invasion—that we’re defending universal values of freedom and democracy. The invasion was a crime, and Russia should be punished for it, as simple as that—all the better if our right role in Ukraine puts our own Iraq and Afghan invasions behind us. The puzzle this radio hour is why much of the world sees US power in Ukraine with doubts and some dread: as an uncertain step in the gloom of uncharted territory. Marc Weitzmann is first-up among a variety of non-American voices we asked to ventilate the commentary on Ukraine, and on us. We’d never heard of Marc Weitzmann until we read his take in The Atlantic a couple of weeks ago. He’s a sometime radio producer in France, who writes nonfiction and novels. He spoke to us from Paris about his Atlantic piece, titled: “The Reckoning is Yet to Come.”

This Week's Show •

Real Questions for the Realist

Twenty questions this hour on the war in Ukraine. For starters: will the war end in April? May? Maybe June? Who gets to announce the good news? An essay question: Can a war look more ...

Twenty questions this hour on the war in Ukraine. For starters: will the war end in April? May? Maybe June? Who gets to announce the good news? An essay question: Can a war look more grotesquely cruel week to week, and look at the same time like a war without end? Can you have a war without a winner? Assume Putin and Company have lost this war in hearts and history; then, count the damage also to Ukraine in thousands of innocent lives lost, and some loss of territory too. Whose idea was this war, anyway? Multiple choice: the war will turn finally on A: NATO weaponry; B: the human spirit; or C: the sanctions on Russian business. Who gets to convene the war crimes trial, to punish the atrocities in this war, and who gets the defendants to show up?

Stephen Walt.

The war in Ukraine, so far, is our subject this hour. The angle of observation is “realist,” so-called: it’s a way of thinking about world affairs that is founded on the vital interests of nation states—like security and survival—in an often tragic arena of rise-and-fall competition. Steve Walt, from the Kennedy School at Harvard, is among the most respected and quoted of realists. He’s been coaching us in conversation for 20 years, since George W. Bush prepared to invade Iraq. “Not in the US interest,” Steve Walt and the realists declared flatly. The war in Ukraine has been more complicated. “Not in Russia’s interest, or Putin’s,” Steve Walt thought before it happened. Since then the question has been whether realist thinking ever caught up with what Putin was doing and why: was he really feeling threatened by NATO’s expansion toward Russia? Was Putin bent on a new Slavic empire? Was he out of touch with reality?

This Week's Show •

War in Yemen

We’re engulfed by war, rumors of war, videos of war, crimes of war—are we looking at ‘end times’ approaching? Or just the dead end of the forever wars? Our conversation this hour is about the ...

We’re engulfed by war, rumors of war, videos of war, crimes of war—are we looking at ‘end times’ approaching? Or just the dead end of the forever wars? Our conversation this hour is about the seven-year war in Yemen. Our Yemeni guest sets it in the Ukraine context this way: “Yemen,” she says, “is the war we can stop.” It is called the worst humanitarian catastrophe on the planet, and still it gets scant news coverage. It is older than Ukraine’s war, vicious in its own way, an autocrat’s war much deadlier than Russia’s hammering of Ukraine, so far. The Yemen war, too, is a mismatch: Saudi oil wealth pounding the poorest nation in the Arab world, and using American planes dropping American bombs to do the pounding.

The hellscape and heartache of war come very close these days: atrocities and naked war crimes, on Youtube and Twitter, and not just from Ukraine. Our guest this hour—in the latest episode of our limited series called In Search of Monsters, made in collaboration with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft—is a young Yemeni-American teacher of teachers at the Ed School of Michigan State University. Shireen Al-Adeimi was born in Yemen, raised in India, then Canada. She got her education doctorate in the States and became an American citizen so as to vote against US support of the Saudi war on her homeland. “Yemen,” she said a week ago, “is the war we can stop.” And then, strange to tell, came a ceasefire.

This Week's Show •

Moral Realism

The war questions are back, you notice—in everyday America: the talk of risk, the chance of ruin, the push and pull of righteousness, restraint; and all that history in our heads. Who gets it right ...

The war questions are back, you notice—in everyday America: the talk of risk, the chance of ruin, the push and pull of righteousness, restraint; and all that history in our heads. Who gets it right about the moral stakes between war and peace, the plain people’s interest in the so-called strategic national interests? The point of reflection this hour is Martin Luther King’s radical sermon against a war underway, in Vietnam, half a century ago. “Somehow this madness must cease,” King said, in April of 1967, half a decade of that war yet to be fought. The test of American maturity, Dr. King said, would come later: would we see and repent an immoral war of colonial domination? Would we atone for our damage to the Vietnamese people? Would we change our ways?

Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his second most famous speech 55 years ago this week. Three years earlier he’d been the youngest ever to win the Nobel Peace prize. One year later, to the day, he was assassinated. Dr. King’s sermon in Riverside Church in Manhattan beamed a searing moral judgment on the war in Vietnam and equally on the soul of America. It was an anti-war speech for Vietnam time, and it resounds today like a call to conscience and to moral realism for all time, including our own. We’re opening that time capsule this hour in our collaboration with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, in a radio and podcast series we’re calling In Search of Monsters. Quincy Institute founder Andrew Bacevich is one of our guests this hour. Before Dr. King’s Vietnam speech in April, 1967, the drive in his civil rights movement had been aimed at equality and justice for the descendants of slavery, and for poor people in general. But the war had undermined the priorities and funding for social reform, he said, so Vietnam had forced a turn on his vocation.

Bonus: Noam Chomsky on War, Morality, and Martin Luther King Jr.

This Week's Show •

How to Stop Burning Things

When Bill McKibben looks at the war in Ukraine, what he sees is a chapter, maybe the very last one, in the chronicle of a planet that we humans are burning unto our own extinction. ...

When Bill McKibben looks at the war in Ukraine, what he sees is a chapter, maybe the very last one, in the chronicle of a planet that we humans are burning unto our own extinction. To the environmentalist’s eye, oil power is the universal villain, hiding in every savage scene from Ukraine. “Oil is Putin’s weapon,” as McKibben puts it: it’s the fossil fuel that leaves climate-changing carbon fumes in the sky. Oil, while it lasts, is Putin’s bankroll. It’s Russia’s last exportable treasure, the concentrated power base of a one-man petro-state. In Bill McKibben’s scenario, there will be no Putins when the world is powered by solar panels and wind farms. Meantime, this war is one more wake-up warning.

Bill McKibben.

In Bill McKibben’s planetary picture of a heedless, oil-addicted, maybe terminal human species, the war in Ukraine is a shock but no surprise. Oil and cruel despotism go together, he will remind you. Oil is Russia’s great underground treasure, the price on it rising as the war staggers on. Oil is Vladimir Putin’s paymaster in the Ukraine invasion, and it’s his weapon. Bill McKibben is the heart and mind of environmentalism, and he’s our guest this hour in a podcast series we’re calling In Search of Monsters, a collaboration with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. In The New Yorker magazine this week, McKibben writes at length with his own peculiar scientific, moral, and popular authority. He’s been losing ground year by year on his target goal of reducing fossil-fuel carbon in the atmosphere; all the while he’s been gaining confidence and a worldwide movement behind him. This is a moment to be seized, he told me this week, to save a livable climate.

This Week's Show •

Lessons Learned

Big lessons out of the war in Ukraine about “how the world really works” are showing up on the ground, not in theory class. They’re what you can learn just by watching. Example: it’s almost ...

Big lessons out of the war in Ukraine about “how the world really works” are showing up on the ground, not in theory class. They’re what you can learn just by watching. Example: it’s almost a rule now that invasions don’t work—not Putin’s in next-door Ukraine any more than Americans landing on faraway Afghanistan or Iraq. Second, that economic sanctions can work like poison when they take Russia’s central bank out of play and tie up trillions in Russian assets overseas. Third, specially for Americans, it appears that a great power can strengthen its hand by declaring it does not have a vital strategic interest in the fight and will not be sending its troops into battle. In the Ukraine catastrophe, with no winners, countries may end up boasting what they didn’t do in an awful war.

Lessons learned this hour, from a tyrant’s unspeakable war on Ukraine, and it’s not over yet. It’s a war about everything, it turns out: barbarity on the ground and from the air over Ukraine. Nuclear confrontation looks all too possible. It’s a test of democracy facing a dictator; it’s a spectacle of sickening inhumanity, out of control. So what are we absorbing? We’re in collaboration here with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, in a radio/podcast series we’re calling In Search of Monsters. We’ve got three guests this hour from the rising generation of scholars of international politics. Emma Ashford is a Russia-watcher, Scottish-born, senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. She wrote the book forthcoming Oil, The State, and War. Stephen Wertheim is a historian at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. His big book Tomorrow, the World is about universal military supremacy for the US: that was an idea born in the panic after Hitler rolled over France in the spring of 1940, and it’s been a fact ever since. David Kang travels all of Asia and seems to study it inch by inch, and teaches it at the University of Southern California.

This Week's Show •

A New Nuclear Age

Sobering questions: how could this unmerciful war in Ukraine go nuclear? If Russia’s barbaric smashing of cities and civilians finally pushes the US and NATO (past just sympathy) to “doing something”—with their own troops or ...

Sobering questions: how could this unmerciful war in Ukraine go nuclear? If Russia’s barbaric smashing of cities and civilians finally pushes the US and NATO (past just sympathy) to “doing something”—with their own troops or aircraft—we would suddenly see the two nuclear giants, drawing guns and poised to fire on each other. Could Putin risk it? Could we? Contrarily, if a sputtering Russian ground game turns toward a humiliating defeat, would Putin take a last chance with his so-called “tactical” nukes? And what would the US do then? When cold-blooded old strategists use words like “extraordinarily dangerous” to describe the Ukraine situation, what they’re thinking is how neatly it could slide to nuclear escalation, and from there to doomsday.

Ukraine is one of those gruesome scenes that come with the warning: “it could get a great deal worse.” We are looking hard this hour into the deep dark shadows of nuclear weaponry and war, looming all around the hard slog on the ground, inconclusive in its third week, between Russian invaders and Ukraine’s military and volunteer defenses. The Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, even before he invaded Ukraine, boasted of his nuclear potency, matched only by the American arsenal, roughly six thousand warheads on either side. President Biden for the US stands with the Ukrainians, but not on their battlefield, precisely to steer clear of Armageddon between the superpowers. The plea from President Zelensky and besieged Ukrainians (and some in Congress, too) is to get the US off the sidelines, into the fight. At what risk? We put it to our guests this hour. We’re in collaboration here with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, in a radio/podcast series we’re calling In Search of Monsters. Joseph Cirincione leads off. He’s been a plain-spoken citizen voice in every arms-control argument for most of thirty years: for arms control and abolition, against nuclear proliferation.