As most readers know, whenever the US seeks to force a nation to accede to its wishes, a spokesperson will say, “All options are on the table,” meaning the use of military force is at least a possibility if not likely. Seldom, however, will one ever hear a US spokesperson say, “The use of military force has been taken off the table.” Instead, one is left to ponder when military action doesn’t occur if it might have been called off because the offending country acceded to American demands. Thus, the mere threat of military action is sometimes sufficient to bring about the desired result.
Perhaps the most famous example of military action taken off the table occurred at the time of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. While older readers will recall, often to their horror, what happened then, younger readers may not be aware just how frightening it was. Simply explained, it was a confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union that escalated into an international crisis when American deployments of missiles in Italy and Turkey led to similar Soviet deployments of ballistic missiles in Cuba. The confrontation is considered, for good reason, as the closest the Cold War ever came to escalating into full-scale nuclear war.
After several days of tense negotiations, an agreement was reached between the US and the Soviet Union. Publicly, the Soviets agreed to dismantle their offensive weapons in Cuba and return them to the Soviet Union. In exchange, the US pledged not to invade Cuba again. At the same time, the US agreed, albeit secretly, to dismantle all of its missiles deployed against the Soviets in Turkey. Collectively, the entire world breathed a sigh of relief at what could have easily escalated into a nuclear Armageddon.
Since that time, the prevailing wisdom has been that nuclear powers learned a lesson from that crisis. Namely, while it is still possible to threaten and use military force against a non-nuclear armed nation, don’t threaten to use nuclear weapons against another nuclear power, for fear it will escalate to full-scale nuclear war and the end of civilization as we know it. For all intents and purposes, that lesson appears to have prevailed to the present day. Or has it?
Readers will recall that in January 2002 President George W. Bush described Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil.” To identify an enemy as “evil” carries particular weight in a Christian majority country like the US, for many Christians, albeit not all, believe God calls them to fight if not vanquish evil. In addition, the word “axis” was carefully chosen to suggest a connection between these three nations and the three major Axis powers of WWII, Germany, Italy and Japan. And, of course, the US did go on to launch a full-scale invasion of Iraq in 2003, based on completely false assertions. This could not but leave the leaders of Iran and North Korea to wonder which of them would be next.
In the case of Iran the jury is still out. For a time, after the 2015 nuclear deal was negotiated with Iran during Barack Obama’s presidency, it appeared the threat of US invasion had been averted. However, together with President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the treaty in 2018, came the renewed possibility of US military intervention. This possibility continues to the present although the current negotiations for the US to rejoin a rejuvenated nuclear agreement may, once again, lead to a resolution of the conflict. But what of North Korea? Who or what could save that nation from invasion?
Since mid-1993 North Korea has had the capability to strike military targets in South Korea and US support bases in Japan. Yet, especially following the demise of its patron, the Soviet Union, in 1991, Pyongyang’s end goal has been the development of a deterrent capable of striking the United States. Needless to say, the US is well aware of Pyongyang’s goal and has done everything in its power, including threats of a preemptive strike, to prevent this development. For example, Senator Lindsey Graham, a leading advocate of attack on North Korea, stated: “It would be terrible, but the war would be over there [in Asia], it wouldn’t be here. It would be bad for the Korean peninsula. It would be bad for China. It would be bad for Japan. It would be bad for South Korea. It would be the end of North Korea, but what it would not do is hit America.”
Graham is but one of many US leaders to speak along these lines. California Congressman Duncan Hunter claimed that a preventive strike was necessary because North Korea was “not a logical player.” In an opinion piece for the New York Post titled: “The moral answer to North Korea’s threats, Take them out!,” Lt. Col. Ralph Peters wrote: “The fundamental reason our government exists is to protect our people and our territory. Everything else is a grace note. And the words we never should hear in regard to North Korea’s nuclear threats are, ‘We should’ve done something.’” H. R. McMaster, President Trump’s national security adviser, claimed that even if US military action resulted in a “human catastrophe” in South Korea, it was unacceptable for North Korea to possess an ICBM deterrent that could reach the continental US. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreed with him.
In light of bellicose, racist-tinged statements like these, one can only wonder how the people of the affected Asian countries, especially allies like South Korea and Japan, would react if they were fully aware of the willingness of American political and military leaders to subject them to a “human catastrophe” in the name of protecting the US? As for me personally, I almost feel like expressing my congratulations, when after 25 years of research and development, North Korea successfully tested its first ICBMs, the Hwasong-14 and -15 in 2017. Why do I use the word “congratulate”? Because the Hwasongs and North Korea’s subsequent ICBM development have succeeded in taking a devastating first strike off the table, thereby preventing the massive death and destruction of all those people “over there.”
At the same time, I say “almost” because I cannot help but recall the following words of (former General) and later President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his “The Chance for Peace” speech: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
If President Eisenhower’s words were true when first spoken in 1953, their significance has only increased many times over in the intervening years, especially in light of the devastating effects climate change has already wrought and the far worse damage it will inflict in the future. Beginning with US military expenditures in excess of $700 billion per year, the world now annually spends some $2 trillion on life-destroying, if not civilization-ending, weaponry when it ought to be doing everything in its power to mitigate the effects of climate change and decisively end the possibility of nuclear warfare.
The world’s profligate misuse of its resources is representative of the collective ignorance of our species, especially that of our leaders. It is an ignorance so great that we may well go the way of dinosaurs, not due to meteor strikes or volcanic eruptions, but due to our own shortsighted, self-destructive actions. How truly wonderful it would be if we could collectively exert ourselves to take that prospect off the table!
Will we do so?
Brian Victoria, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow, Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies