Interview: "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.
In 1957, a 34-year-old Harvard faculty member, Henry Kissinger, published a book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, putting forth a counterintuitive proposition: that at the height of the Cold War, with the United States and the Soviet Union amassing enough hydrogen bombs for Armageddon, a messy, limited war featuring conventional forces and a tactical nuclear exchange or two was still possible, and the United States had to be prepared for such a conflict. Fresh in Kissinger’s mind was the Korean War, which had concluded with a truce only four years earlier—“a war to which,” as he wrote, “an all-out strategy seemed particularly unsuited.” But President Dwight D. Eisenhower believed that any armed conflict with Moscow would accelerate into a thermonuclear holocaust, and he rejected outright this notion of “limited” nuclear war.
The absence of a nuclear exchange during the Cold War makes Eisenhower and what became the doctrine of mutual assured destruction look wise in hindsight. But more than half a century after Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy was published, it still offers swift, searing insights into human nature and a deeply troubling contemporary relevance. Eurasia—from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sea of Japan—is today an almost unbroken belt of overlapping ballistic-missile ranges: those of Israel, Syria, Iran, Pakistan, India, China, and North Korea. Many of these nations have or seek to acquire nuclear arsenals; some are stirred by religious zealotry; and only a few have robust bureaucratic control mechanisms to inhibit the use of these weapons. This conjunction of circumstances increases the prospect of limited nuclear war in this century. Kissinger long ago considered this problem in full, and the current nuclear impasse with Iran gives fresh reason to bring his book back into the debate.