Stevens Nuke Expert Discusses Trump and North Korea

My Stevens colleague Alex Wellerstein, an historian of science, has become a go-to expert on nuclear weapons, published in The New Yorker, Washington Post and elsewhere. His blog, Restricted Data, and NUKEMAP website, which lets you carry out virtual nuclear strikes, are enormously popular. He and two Stevens colleagues, political scientist Kristyn Karl and oceanographer Julie Pullen, recently got a grant for “Reinventing Civil Defense,” which aims at rethinking U.S. responses to nuclear threats. Below are excerpts from a Q&A I did with Alex in August for Scientific American. See the full interview at –John Horgan

Horgan: If President Trump sought your advice on North Korea, what would you say?

Wellerstein: I think Trump in general could benefit greatly just by learning to empathize with other human beings. It appears to be a core character defect of his, and it’s a scary thing given how much of policy is about understanding consequences, and that typically requires empathy. For nuclear matters it is absolutely essential: you need to be able to understand what the other fellow is likely to do, what they are attempting to accomplish, what they will see their “options” as being.

It is clear that the North Koreans see the development of a nuclear deterrent against the United States as an existential issue. They are probably not wrong about that — the US has a reputation for causing a lot of trouble with regimes it judges as being against its interests, but it gives nuclear-armed states wide latitude. As the North Koreans have developed a mostly credible capability to threaten the cities of our allies, and maybe even our own cities, then the time of trying to imagine a non-nuclear North Korea has probably passed for the time being (maybe someday in the long future, when they feel less threatened, we can imagine such a thing).

That doesn’t mean they are likely to attack the USA. They aren’t. They know that to do so would be suicidal. We need to make clear what conditions would result in unacceptable results for them, and they need to make clear the same for us. In both cases, there need to be options that, while not ideal, can be lived with, e.g., the North Koreans can’t think that starting a war with South Korea would be acceptable, and we shouldn’t think that we can force them to change their regime or get rid of their weapons. For deterrence to work, it requires the “alternative” to the use of weapons to be at least somewhat acceptable. This very basic idea seems not to be something Trump understands; his transactional, “deal” way of thinking doesn’t seem to allow for mutually beneficial solutions, or even mutually-good-enough solutions.

North Korea does not seem any more irrational than any other state with nuclear weapons, and we have managed to make do with fairly irrational, nuclear-armed states before (when China got the bomb in the early 1960s, it was in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, and pretty far from a stable, rational state). But if you force them into a corner, if they think that their central government is in imminent danger of “decapitation,” they may do something rash.

Horgan: Is a nuclear attack becoming more thinkable to you? Do you think, in your gut, there will be an attack in your lifetime?

Wellerstein: What I find most worrying about our present time is the apparent decrease in the salience and power of the “nuclear taboo” in the United States. The American public seems more willing than it ever has since the end of the Cold War to consider using nuclear weapons to achieve its policy aims; read Scott Sagan and Benjamin Valentino’s recent paper on this point. The current US President seems to have no self-control, no sense of personal (much less national) consequences, and no sense of the dangers of war or even nuclear war. It is easy to imagine scenarios in which he might be convinced that a nuclear weapon might be a palatable option to use, and there are essentially no legal checks (and very few possible practical checks) on his ability to order such an attack.

It is a bad thing to have to say, but I find him much more unpredictable and disturbing along these lines than, say, Kim Jong-un, Vladimir Putin, or any of the others in the “rogue’s gallery” of people that get worried about with regards to nuclear weapons… I would like to believe that the attack on Nagasaki was the last time that nuclear weapons would be used in anger. Over a very long time horizon (say, centuries) that seems very optimistic given what we have seen so far of human beings. Is it optimistic for the next decade? For the next three years? I don’t know. I hope not.