When World War II ended, our nation was totally secure from attack. Since then, we have invested trillions to improve our national security. Yet we now can be destroyed in under an hour. What went wrong?
In mathematics, this is called a reductio ad absurdum—a reduction to the absurd—and it proves that at least one assumption, usually a subtle one that is taken for granted, must be wrong. While other factors contributed to our predicament, we need to critically reexamine fundamental assumptions about national security, starting with the concept itself.
In an age of nuclear weapons, cyberattacks, terrorism and environmental crises, is national security becoming inseparable from global security?
I am convinced that our nation’s assumption that security can be bought at the expense of other nations has played a large part in transforming us from a nation inviolate to one that is totally vulnerable. That assumption was true in the past, but not today.
The necessity of rethinking national security at a fundamental level is encapsulated in a statement whose signatories include a former director of the National Security Agency; President Reagan’s ambassador to Moscow; Stanford’s last president; and several Nobel laureates.
In April, the Federation of American Scientists released my report “Rethinking National Security,” which questions 12 assumptions that underlie our current approach to national security. This editorial briefly examines four of them.
Is national security becoming inseparable from global security?
Economically depressed North Korea proves that almost any nation that truly desires nuclear weapons can obtain them. While other considerations played a role in transforming that nation into the nuclear-armed menace it is today, thinking primarily in terms of our own security led us to seek crippling sanctions and to encourage regime change.
Fear of being attacked by the United States led North Korea’s leadership to seek nuclear weapons capable of hitting the American homeland—the surest way that they can deter us. Seeing us overthrow Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi reinforced that concern, especially since President George W. Bush had told Gaddafi in 2003 that giving up his nuclear weapons program would allow Libya to “regain a secure and respected place among the nations.”
The time to treat a nation with respect is before it has nuclear weapons, not after. Unfortunately, because we believe that we are the world’s sole remaining superpower, we often fail to treat even nuclear-armed nations with adequate respect.
Is the United States the world’s sole remaining superpower?
What does it mean to be a superpower? Could a superpower be destroyed in under an hour? Would its wars have produced the results we have seen in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya? If possessing immense destructive power makes a nation a superpower, does Russia qualify? China? North Korea?
Are we the world’s sole remaining conventional superpower? In the nuclear age, what are the advantages to being the only conventional superpower? What risks does it create?
What are the components of American power that qualify us as a superpower? Should we place more emphasis on nonmilitary components of American power?
Have nuclear weapons kept the peace?
We have not experienced a world war since 1945, leading many to believe that nuclear weapons have kept the peace. While caution induced by nuclear weapons probably has lengthened the time between world wars, society’s current complacency seems unwarranted and dangerous.
Even if nuclear deterrence could be expected to work for as long as 500 years before we destroy ourselves, there would be one chance in six of its failing over 83 years. Thus, a child born today in America would have roughly one chance in six of experiencing a nuclear war over his or her expected lifetime—the same risk as in Russian roulette. And, if the time frame is closer to 100 years, we are spinning the cylinder and pulling the trigger five times during that child’s expected lifetime.
Is nuclear diplomacy with “rogue nations” a waste of time?
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, our main nuclear accord with North Korea worked well while it was in force. Known as the 1994 Agreed Framework, it prevented North Korea from accessing its plutonium stockpile for eight years until Pres. George W. Bush ended the agreement in 2002. North Korea then re-started plutonium production and did its first nuclear test four years later, in 2006.
The 1994 Agreed Framework also stopped North Korea from completing two large nuclear reactors that, by now, would have made enough plutonium for hundreds of nuclear weapons. Yet it never received the more proliferation-resistant replacement reactors we promised to provide. The partially completed reactors had to be abandoned, leading North Korea to feel that we cheated them, not the other way around.
At the dawn of the nuclear age, Albert Einstein prophetically stated: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”
To reverse the process that has transformed our nation from one that was inviolate into one that can be destroyed in under an hour, it is imperative that we develop a new mode of thinking consistent with the realities of the current age. We need to rethink national security at a fundamental level, starting with the most fundamental questions of all: In an age of nuclear weapons, cyberattacks, terrorism, and environmental crises, is national security becoming inseparable from global security? If so, how do our policies need to change?
If you would like to learn about new developments on rethinking national security, send an email to RethinkingNS@gmail.com.