John Humphrys - Nuclear War: How Scared Should We Be?

August 14, 2017, 4:10 PM UTC

The tense stand-off between North Korea and the United States, and the increasingly provocative rhetoric used by the leaders of each of each country against the other, have made the risk of nuclear weapons actually being used seem greater than at any time in recent history. 

A false move by either could precipitate it and the consequences, all agree, would be catastrophic. But we have lived with the nuclear threat for seventy years and to a large extent have accustomed ourselves to it as just another fact of life. Have we become too complacent? How scared should we be?

The conflict between North Korea and the USA seems more dangerous than any other recent conflict because of the extent to which both sides seem utterly determined to have their way. North Korea boasts of its ability to become a nuclear-armed state and is relentlessly pursuing its goal. Recent missile tests have extended the possible range of any nuclear weapons it might build so that the west coast of America might soon be a viable target. In the last week intelligence reports have suggested the country may be much further advanced than previously thought in being able to miniaturise a nuclear warhead so that it could be carried on such long-range missiles. The threat to the USA looks increasingly close.

At the same time President Trump has made it abundantly clear that the United States will not tolerate North Korea achieving such power. Mr Trump said last week that he would rain down fire and fury such as the world had never seen if North Korea went too far. Kim Jong-un, the young North Korean leader, responded by threatening to test a (non-nuclear) missile just off America’s Pacific island of Guam. Mr Trump retaliated by musing that his first threat had perhaps been too moderate.

What especially alarms even those observers used to confrontations between countries are the personalities of the two leaders facing up to each other. Some regard Kim Jong-un as a madman who would sooner see his country fry than abandon his ambition. Others, who dismiss the ‘madman’ label and regard him as being as rational as any other leader, are no less alarmed. They believe he is pursuing a logic that is far from irrational: that becoming a nuclear power is the only sure way he can see to entrench his regime in power. He has watched what happened to Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi when they lacked nuclear weapons to deter attack and he doesn’t want to go the same way.

As for the hope of Donald Trump proving to be steady in a crisis, some are equally concerned. In the view of some experts who have studied his psychology and behaviour, the American president suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder in which he sees himself as a permanent victim who lashes out with uncontrollable anger when he feels he has been snubbed. Being provoked by Kim Jong-un may ultimately prove intolerable to him and he is the man – the only man – with his finger on the button of America’s nuclear arsenal. No-one can stop him pushing it.

To some, however, any prediction of a potential Armaggedon is much too overblown. They point out that Donald Trump is surrounded by ‘grown-ups’, highly experienced military figures intent on preventing Armageddon. While not resiling from the determination of the President (and his predecessors) to stop North Korea in its tracks, these figures have publicly deployed the carrot as well as the stick, saying the United States is still ready to resume negotiations. Mr Trump has said so himself.

Some point to the Iran deal, brokered by Barack Obama, as the way forward. Long and patient diplomacy ended in an agreement in which Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons was at the very least put on pause if not halted altogether. But there is a big difference. The Iranians always claimed not to want nuclear weapons. Even if many didn’t (and still don’t) believe them, their stance made possible a deal in which that particular can has been effectively kicked down the road. North Korea, however, makes no bones about its intentions and their logic is clear. So even with Russia and China onside, it is hard to see what diplomatic deal could be struck that could satisfy all sides.

In the face of this potentially hugely dangerous stand-off, there is, however, a completely different response, albeit one not advocated by anyone in power in the United States. It’s to let North Korea have its nuclear weapons in order to make the world safer. 

The case behind this apparently contrarian view is that deterrence works. That, say its proponents, is the lesson of the nuclear stand-off of forty years between the United States and the Soviet Union. A confrontation between ideologies and national interests was converted from something with the potential to produce hot wars into a Cold War by the fact that both sides had nuclear arms.  

Another example of the supposed effectiveness of nuclear deterrence is the story of the antagonism between India and Pakistan, who gained independence from Britain seventy years ago this week. Conventional wars were fought regularly between the two until both got nuclear weapons; since then, there have been only skirmishes, not war.

The logic of this approach would seem to be that the way to make the world safer is for every country that wants to become a nuclear power to be allowed to do so. Yet even convinced believers in deterrence theory have baulked at this. At the same time as existing nuclear powers (including Britain) were building up their nuclear arsenals, they were devising means to prevent others from joining the nuclear club. They negotiated the Non-Proliferation Treaty in which, in return for abjuring the ambition to have nuclear weapons, countries outside the club were assisted in developing nuclear energy policies. That the latter would not lead to the former was dealt with through a stringent inspection regime. 

In short, those who held a belief in nuclear deterrence, adopted a parallel (possibly contradictory) belief in ‘the fewer nuclear states, the better’. Their reason lay in the possibility of accidents and in the danger of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of maverick leaders. This, after all, is why George W Bush and Tony Blair claimed they had to go to war against Saddam Hussein.

So we live in a world that both believes and doesn’t believe in nuclear deterrence. Meanwhile history carries on producing wars such as those now being waged in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, which we on the outside earnestly regret and do what we can to bring to an end, but which do not affect us directly. We assume that the future will continue to throw them up. The question is, though, whether deterrence theory has persuaded us that the casualties of such wars will continue to be measured in the thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, but that war will never escalate into a nuclear exchange that would claim the lives of millions.

Those of us old enough to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 recall the intense public fear of that long weekend. Many people believed it could well be the last weekend that they would see before being fried. It is hard to detect even the shadow of such fear now, even as the confrontation between North Korea and the United States presents the world with perhaps the greatest risk it has seen since then.

Have we become complacent about the nuclear threat? Should we be more scared? Or should we not be too bothered what Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump might get up to?

Let us know what it feels like to you to be living in the nuclear world of 2017.

Image: Getty