A Strategy to Avoid Tragedy

Robert D. Kaplan talks to James Gibney about Kissinger, Iran, North Korea and the right way to think about the prospect of a limited nuclear exchange.

When did you first encounter the Kissinger book you write about in the September issue, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy? What prompted you to rediscover it?

Over a decade ago, I was very taken with Kissinger's first book, A World Restored, about the post-Napoleonic peace conferences, which was highly engaging and analytical, and full of historical texture. So I wanted to read the other book that Kissinger wrote as a young man, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, which I did recently. I was immediately struck by how relevant it is to a post-Cold War world where the threat is not a thermonuclear holocaust, but of conventional wars that could lead to limited nuclear exchanges. Deterrence will be as fraught with risk and anxiety in coming years and decades as it was during the Cold War. Paul Bracken of Yale has written succinctly about the "second nuclear age" upon us. President Obama is right to launch a full-bore attack on proliferation, and to reset Russian relations with a new START treaty. But I have re-introduced Kissinger's book into the debate in case Obama does not succeed.
 
You write that the "sine qua non" for a successful U.S. policy of containment toward Iran "will be the ability of the United States to underline any policy...with the credible threat of military action." The United States has been "containing" North Korea for more than half a century. Yet if that policy wasn't able to stop the DPRK from acquiring a nuclear weapon, can it still be called a success?

The recent naval exercises the United States staged in the Yellow Sea and Sea of Japan demonstrate that, if worse comes to worse, the United States is prepared to wage a limited war against a nuclear North Korea in order to defend South Korea. This gets to the heart of my argument. True, we've failed to prevent North Korea from going nuclear. But so far at least, by not being trigger-happy, we've helped prevent another major war on the Korean peninsula. The recent exercises show that the value of our military deterrence in Northeast Asia is still robust. The North Korean regime may yet evolve with a new leader into Chinese-style authoritarian capitalism. If we remain ready for limited war in the region, chances are we'll never have to fight one. That's also my hope for Iran. So I'm still against a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, even as I support the need for deterrence based on the doctrinal willingness to wage limited war.
 
In his book, Kissinger talks about the difficulty of mobilizing public opinion for limited war and argues that our "empiricism" actually "dooms us" to requiring all the facts of a case beforehand. As you put it, "The search for certainty reduces us to dealing with emergencies, not preventing them." But in the case of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, wouldn't a little more certainty have been a good thing?

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James Gibney is a features editor at The Atlantic. He was a political officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, where he wrote speeches for Warren Christopher, Anthony Lake, and Bill Clinton.

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