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?

Absolutely, more empiricism might have prevented the Iraq War. But here is the tragic reality: as much as more empiricism might have prevented the tragedy in Mesopotamia, we may still in the future be forced to act before all the evidence is in, in order to defend ourselves against a devious revolutionary power. So while preemptive war might in many circumstances be a bad thing, doctrinally, we need to keep all our options open. We can't simply rule out preemptive war in every case.
Where do you think Kissinger actually stands on the advisability of U.S. military action against Iran to prevent it from developing a nuclear capability?

In my article, I write that Kissinger indicated he favored tough action against Iran to prevent it from developing a nuclear bomb - as do I. But he did not specify his position on military action. Like many people, he may still be making up his mind. Since the article went to press, there have been indications that the sanctions are starting to bite. If that is the case, one hopes that we can prevent Iran from developing a bomb without the need for a military strike, which would likely involve an extensive air campaign against many facilities. One more thing: I am quoting Kissinger's book from over 50 years ago. Now, obviously, he seems dead-set against the use of nuclear weapons.

Are you arguing that it's inevitable that the United States will be involved in a limited nuclear exchange with some "revolutionary power"?

No. Simply because of our overwhelming conventional advantage, there are practical reasons as well as moral ones why we should never again be the ones to introduce nuclear weapons onto the battlefield. In my article, I wrote that we must be more willing to accept the prospect of limited war and even a limited nuclear war between states. That's clearly a dreadful, tragic prospect, as I note in the article. But consider the alternative: Are we never even to entertain the possibility of a limited war against a nuclear-armed state? Because in that case, we would be rendered powerless, leading to even more instability in the world. The way to avoid future wars is to be prepared for them--or, put differently, the way to avert tragedy is to think tragically.