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On The North Korean Conundrum

26 Sep

Like two petulant six-year-old boys lobbing insults at each other about who has the most complete football sticker album or the best Transformer, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un continue to have at it. If a kindergarten class was dosed up on Sunny Delight and extreme political positions, and given access to nuclear weapons, this is what it would look like. Were it not so serious, it would be laughable.

There’s been millions of words written and spoken about the situation in an effort to inform and understand. There have also been millions of words written and spoken in an effort to take us (meaning humankind) to war. I’m sure everyone will agree that the former position is preferrable.

This is, then, a short, annotated rundown of some of the more useful, sane output on the situation. One issue that the vast majority of us (and I include the president of the United States in this) do no understanding of North Korean history and politics. However, Gregg Brazinsky does, and these remarks are essential listening for those who want to get to grips with North Korean motivations.

It’s also vital that we understand the long legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War and the way in which the United States (as the lead actor on the United Nations side) prosecuted that war. While I don’t always agree with Bruce Cumings, this piece in the Guardian is a useful rundown of the massive aerial bombing campaign that levelled much of the north during the war.

Gaining perspectives from inside he DPRK is tough, but not impossible. Evan Osnos’s lengthy essay in The New Yorker is definitely worth your time, given the author’s very recent experiences on the ground in Pyongyang.

How, therefore, do we approach the situation and what can history tell us? Jayita Sarkar are thoughtful, exceptionally well-informed analysts of nuclear issues, they present the case for diplomacy and export controls in this great Washington Post op-ed.

Also in the Washington Post, I argued a couple of weeks back that diplomacy is the only route forward. I still stand by that position, although there has been some respectful disagreement.

And what are the challenges for diplomacy? The chances of persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear capability is practically zero. As Uri Friedman notes, South Africa is the only nation to have developed and given up nuclear weapons. His article in The Atlantic offers a useful rundown of the similarities and differences. It’s also worth reflecting on the toxic effects of Trump’s recent speech to the United Nations.

Yes, all of this stuff is from what some would describe as ‘the liberal media’. You can find plenty of warmongering for yourself, and I have no intention of providing links to calls for the destruction of North Korea and its people.

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The Heights of the Cold War

3 Dec
Above: The height of Cold War satire.

Above: The height of Cold War satire. Slim Pickens as USAF Major ‘King’ Kong rides the bomb in Dr Strangelove.

A recent article in the Daily Mail, plus a subsequent Twitter conversation, has provoked me to address this blog posts to journalists everywhere. This is not some academic lecturing from his lofty ivory tower (it’s actually made of brick, and my office is only on the first floor), rather a plea for a little bit of historical thinking.

Daily Mail journalist Matt Hunter examines on a tense standoff between the air forces of the United States and the Soviet Union in October, 1986. Hunter notes that “The incident above the Barents Sea, near Soviet waters, took place between a US Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird and a MiG-31, the premier Soviet interceptor aircraft, at the height of the Cold War 30 years ago.”

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Trident, Cold War History, and the ‘Myth’ of Deterrence

5 Apr

Trident nuclear submarine HMS Victorious pictured near Faslane, Scotland.

This piece was originally written for the excellent Retrospect, a student-led history journal created and produced by undergraduate students from Edinburgh University’s School of History, Classics, and Archaeology. I am grateful to Kerry, Enzo, and the rest of the team for their permission to reproduce the article here.

Since April 1969 – the same month that British troops arrived in Northern Ireland at the start of ‘The Troubles’ – the Royal Navy began Operation Relentless. Since that time, not a day has passed without there being a British nuclear missile submarine on patrol somewhere in the North Atlantic or the Arctic Ocean. This is Continuous At-Sea Deterrence (CASD), the ability to strike back without warning – and with terrible force – should the UK or its strategic interests be attacked.

‘Deterrence’ is the cornerstone of debates about Britain’s nuclear future, a word used by politicians, military officers, think-tanks, and campaigners. If we fail to replace our current Vanguard-class submarines and their Trident nuclear missiles – so the pro-replacement argument goes – we will be exposed to attack from enemies known and unknown. In 2013 the then Secretary of State for Defence Philip Hammond stated that Trident was a “tried and tested deterrent” and that there was no alternative that “provides the same level of protection.” A recently published Ministry of Defence factsheet on the Trident Successor Programme noted that “the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent remains essential to our security” and that it could “deter any aggressor”. To discuss who our nuclear weapons might be used against is to enter a Rumsfeldian world of known and unknown unknowns.

But – and this is the heart of this article – what do we mean when we talk about deterrence? And do those arguing for renewal or disarmament understand what the term involves and the ways in which history complicates and confuses the concept? As political scientist Nick Ritchie argues, talking about “the deterrent” assigns an implicit, infallible ability to deter, an ability which stands counter to actual historical evidence. Speaking generally (always bad for an historian), the level of historical understanding when it comes to the nuclear debate is very poor. Thus, this article offers some historical context for the debates that are happening right now and demonstrate that an understanding of Britain’s nuclear history and the complicated, multifaceted ways in which nuclear weapons affected the Cold War can add to our contemporary discussions.

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Teaching the Nuclear Cold War: Week 11, The Final Countdown

12 Dec

The_Final_Countdown_singleThe hectic nature of the end of semester means that this penultimate post about the nuclear Cold War course has been more than a little bit delayed. Apologies for that.

Our final class examined the end of the Cold War and the influence of nuclear arms (and related issues) on the conclusion of nearly five decades of confrontation. Did ‘the atom’ have any influence? In the big scheme of things, did the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty – as an example of arms control – actually do anything to help? I argued (and many students agreed) that the end of the Cold War is in fact even more complicated than the beginning of the Cold War. Disentangling the various threads (no pun intended) is one of the challenges of studying this period.

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Teaching the Nuclear Cold War: Week 8, the 1970s

10 Nov

IMG_0004A slightly shorter than usual commentary on the Nuclear Cold War class, as I’m currently immersed in marking semester essays for…my Nuclear Cold war class.

In week 8 we examined arms control in the 1970s, obviously looking at stuff like SALT, ABM, the PNW treaty, and so on and so forth. Before we got stuck into that, I had each class split into two groups and – on whiteboards – draw a big mind-map of ‘the nuclear Cold War’ up to 1970. Like the dullard I am, I only photographed the two from my afternoon class.

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