February 8, 2018 | By Brian Hanson, Ivo H. Daalder

Deep Dish: Nuclear Postures and Bloody Noses

NATO Ambassador Ivo Daalder and POLITICO's Susan Glasser react to the Pentagon's new nuclear posture review, the rumored "bloody nose" strategy for deterring North Korea, mismatches between the State Department and the White House, Russia's upcoming election, and the destabilization of US institutions. 

Transcript

 

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Ivo Daalder: The entire strategy assumes that he may be crazy enough to start a nuclear war with the United States, but in response to us using nuclear weapons, conventional weapons first, against his nuclear [inaudible 00:00:33], he will be deterred.

Susan Glasser: We have people in Washington basically telling us, "Ignore the president," but any analysis that says, "Ignore the president," who is in the end not only the decider, but has made very clear that he's willing to overrule these people, that analytically is probably not going to hold up very long.

Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson, and today we're going discuss a number of issues that have been running below the headlines. These include a new nuclear arms policy of the United States, a recent discussion of a bloody nose strategy toward North Korea, dissonance between the president of the United States and the secretary of state, as well as the upcoming Russian election. I'm here today with Ivo Daalder, who's president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and former U.S. Ambassador to NATO from 2009 to 2013, who has just published an article in Foreign Affairs on Russian foreign policy. Welcome back to Deep Dish, Ivo.

Ivo Daalder: Great to be here.

Brian Hanson: Also here is a return guest, Susan Glasser, Politico's chief international affairs columnist and host of Politico's weekly podcast, The Global Politico. Welcome back, Susan. It's great to have you hear again.

Susan Glasser: Thanks so much.

Brian Hanson: The press and debate has focused on the Russian investigation or the special counsel's investigation of Russia's meddling in the election. We've had controversies over dueling Congressional Intelligence Committee memos. While all that's been grabbing the headlines, there are some important stories that have been unfolding underneath, and that's really what I want to talk about with you two today.

I want to start with the Nuclear Posture Review, which the Pentagon just released. What this is is a new nuclear arms strategy. It follows on the last time this was done was back in 2010. What struck you about this new strategy? To what extent is it similar? To what extent is it different from what had existed and what had been ruled out in the Obama administration?

Susan Glasser: I'm no expert on nuclear weapons, for sure, but I have been struck by the fact that this appears to represent a real expansion of U.S. doctrine when it comes to the cases and uses in which we would consider deploying nuclear weapons, a lot of discussion of tactical nuclear weapons, and it also comes at the same time as there's a major modernization program of our nuclear weapons that was started and agreed to somewhat reluctantly, and almost paradoxically, by President Obama. The Global Zero president was also the president who set this more than $1 trillion modernization underway. That was actually part of a deal in order to get his New START treaty through, I believe, and Ivo is much more informed about this. At any rate, I just feel like one striking aspect that we may be remembering long after we've probably forgotten the Nunes memo is President Trump has clearly been enamored with nuclear weapons, and now has had his Pentagon issue a strategy that represents perhaps the beginning of a new, much more threatening nuclear age when it comes to the perceived role in great power confrontation.

Ivo Daalder: I had a small hand in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review at the time, and I think it was underappreciated even at the time how radical a change that Posture Review was from particularly the Bush administration's Posture Review of before. Here was the change. Number one in terms of concerns that the Obama administration put on the list was, how do we think about our nuclear posture in relation to nuclear nonproliferation and in relation to preventing nuclear terrorism?

The answer to that was, "We need to reduce our reliance on nuclear weapons." If you go through just the chapter headings of the Posture Review in 2010, that was the guiding motive. In this Posture Review, just as Susan said, nuclear weapons are back as the primary instrument, as the main instrument to dealing with the threats that we face from great powers, from North Korea and Iran, and how you use nuclear weapons as a deterrent for, as it says, nuclear and nonnuclear war.

One footnote, however. There was a major change in U.S. declaratory policy under the Obama administration, and it's retained in this document. The so-called negative security assurance, it's an assurance in which the United States says, "The United States will not threaten or use nuclear weapons against a nonnuclear weapon state party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty who is in good standing with regard to its nonproliferation obligations," which means that 184 countries in the world which are members of the NPT as nonnuclear weapons states, and are in good standing, we would not threaten or use nuclear weapons even if they used chemical and biological weapons, or today, a cyber attack. Importantly, this Nuclear Posture Review repeats that language unchanged, exactly the same, so that-

Susan Glasser: That's interesting.

Ivo Daalder: ... the only place in which the new doctrine applies is with regard to nuclear weapons states, Russia, China, North Korea, but not Iran. Iran is a member of the NPT in good standing.

Susan Glasser: Notwithstanding Trump's rhetoric.

Ivo Daalder: Notwithstanding, but according to the international community, it is. As a result, this new idea that we can use nuclear weapons in response to nonnuclear strategic attacks applies to Russia, and China, to North Korea, India, Pakistan, Israel, and France, and the UK, not likely to happen anytime soon in the latter three cases, one hopes, but an important qualification. Yes, back to placing nuclear weapons at the center of our deterrence strategies in a way that the Obama administration tried to walk away from it, but retaining this very important negative security assurance.

Brian Hanson: Another aspect of this policy that got a lot of attention was the focus on developing new low-yield nuclear weapons, particularly submarine-launched cruise missiles or new weapons for Tridents. How significant is that?

Susan Glasser: I'll defer to Ivo's expertise, but I just want to throw in there, I'm curious what your answer is. Jim Mattis's role appears to have really flip-flopped in the course of developing this strategy. I find that very interesting when it comes to this issue of what new weapons we're developing, because there was a great article. It was buried in the Washington Post. It didn't get a ton of attention, but it was really ... It talked about how Mattis came in as a real skeptic on nuclear weapons, ICBMs. He was very open to the idea that we should in fact retire that aspect of our triad, which is something that he had been out at Stanford, and George Shultz, William Perry out there, that's what they've been advocating. Now he appears to have really changed his views on this subject in a way that paves the way for this.

As we know, Donald Trump has always been very interested in nuclear weapons. We do not yet have good reporting on what the actual internal dynamics were, whether there were different recommendations or not, but I throw that out there when it comes to the more technical question of pursuing development of new nuclear capabilities.

Ivo Daalder: That's interesting. I haven't read that piece, and that's worth ... You're right. At Stanford, you have George Shultz and Bill Perry, two of the four horsemen who advocated for a world without nuclear weapons back in '07, which actually gave Obama the cover to make that a central part of his election campaign. That's fascinating.

My view on nuclear weapons is that a nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon. Whether it's a low yield, or a high yield, or a medium yield, or a dial-a-yield, or whatever, when that thing goes up, it's a big bang. The low yield they're talking about are more yield than we saw in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Without having a sense of how this president would deal with it, my view has been very much influenced by Tom Schelling, one of the great strategists of all time, a Nobel laureate in economics, but then gave his speech on the issue of a nuclear taboo. His argument has been, since Dwight Eisenhower, presidents have looked at nuclear weapons as fundamentally different than any other kind of weapon, and that the decision to use those weapons would be so extraordinary, so existential that you make the difference between that and almost everything else when it comes to war.

You may have a low-yield nuclear weapon, but there's no president up to this point who would have said, "Easy. It's only 10 kilotons. Let's just deploy it," when in fact he wouldn't have done that if it was 100 kilotons, a megaton, or more. This idea that you have more usability, that the deterrent effect is more credible, is it seems to me people talking themselves into trying to put themselves in a logic chain that omits the reality that a nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon, and everybody who is confronted with its use will respond accordingly.

Susan Glasser: Which is why it's terrifying.

Brian Hanson: Yeah, which is why it's terrifying, and the fact that ... Susan, to follow up on the point that you made about there's a switch with Mattis, the defense secretary, who signed onto this, are there people ... Does it indicate people are thinking about that differently than you laid out, Ivo, that people are contemplating, maybe there are gradations where it could be used?

Ivo Daalder: We're having this argument today in the same way that we used to have the arguments in the '80s, and the '70s, and the '60s. We're back into this idea that because the Russians have a lot of tactical nuclear weapons, we got rid of most of ours, they did not, that they might be tempted to use them thinking that because we didn't have a way to respond in kind, we would give up. The reality is, when a nuclear weapon gets used, that will be the most significant event since the end of World War Two. Nothing will compare to it that has happened in the past 70 years. Whether it's a low yield, or a medium yield, or whatever, it's a nuclear weapon. That reality means that whoever decides to use a nuclear weapon first has to think about the possibility that somebody will retaliate. That retaliation is as possible when you have nuclear weapons that are a few hundred kilotons or they are 10 kilotons.

We're talking about extraordinary weapons that make extraordinary damage, long-lasting environmental and everywhere else. This idea that you have to match one for one, which is behind the kind of strategy we had in the 1980s ... Remember people writing about how you can win, survive and win nuclear war.

Susan Glasser: Right. The winnable nuclear war, the tactical nuclear backpack weapons. People think that somehow this is a new strategy in that sense, and yet in fact, this is an echo of an old debate.

Ivo Daalder: It's very old.

Susan Glasser: An old debate in which presidents looked at it and basically said, "There's no way I'm seriously going to be considering using this."

Ivo Daalder: I think this is like inside baseball. To that extent, what does Mattis really believe? Has he just signed off on this thing and said, "Let him go out"?

Susan Glasser: Do you really think it's inside baseball in the sense that by all accounts, Donald Trump, who has the power to use these weapons, has had a lifelong fascination with nuclear weapons?

Ivo Daalder: I have spent the last 14 months trying to figure out how Donald Trump thinks and failing. I'm not sure. I would prefer that he not have the capacity to make that decision by himself. I would hope that if we ever come to that point, rationality would be there. I don't think, in that sense I disagree with some of the critics, that he is more likely to use a low-yield nuclear weapon than a high-yield nuclear weapon. He may be more likely to use a nuclear weapon than some of the previous presidents, although even ... It's an awesome responsibility with an awesome consequence. Given how he was affected by the chemical weapons use, which he seemed to have been personally affected, just think what pictures of Hiroshima look like as a way to hopefully influence those kinds of decisions.

Susan Glasser: I hope the Pentagon has a PowerPoint ready in that eventuality.

Ivo Daalder: Right.

Brian Hanson: I want to maintain the nuclear threat, but look at a specific case. There was a lot of talk recently about North Korea. One of the points of discussion was whether or not the U.S. was developing and considering using a so-called bloody nose strategy to signal its seriousness and to try to deter the North Koreans. Could one of you lay out, what is the bloody nose strategy, and is this a real possibility?

Susan Glasser: This is, as you might imagine, the subject of heated discussions, speculation inside the Beltway. Allegedly, it has been reported that the Trump administration, in particular the National Security Council and H.R. McMaster, have been looking at options for this so-called bloody nose strike, the idea being conventionally it has been believed that there basically was no good military option, conventional military option, to go in and attack the North Korean nuclear weapons program because of the physical proximity to Seoul, South Korea. It's just 30 miles or whatever. The estimates are hundreds of thousands dead from artillery and other things within hours of any attack, and so it was believed for a long time that really constrained any options that were available for a military strike.

The reports that began emerging from the Trump White House, I would say by about last summer, again lots of debate. Is it serious? Is it just that they're putting this out there because H.R. McMaster wants to restore the credibility of the military deterrent? I would say the reporting has changed, and it has come out, and we can talk about this more, but it does seem to be more serious than some people considered it to be, their contemplation of a military attack that they believe would not invite this kind of massive retaliation on civilians in South Korea. Of course, many people think that's crazy, literally crazy, and that in fact you'd be playing with a lot of people's lives.

Ivo Daalder: I think the logic of the argument is that if the United States would have a military option to significantly reduce the nuclear potential threat that North Korea posed, then we could deter their response, so we give them a bloody nose and affect their nuclear potential not totally, but to a significant degree, and then Kim Jong-un would have to make a decision that, if he were to respond by going after Seoul, that we would then go after him, and his regime would be destroyed. So, we can actually have a free pass on the first step.

Victor Cha, and we can come back to Victor Cha, because he was nominated or is about to be nominated, he wasn't actually nominated, but about to be nominated to be the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, reportedly was pointed out that there was a fallacy in that argument, which he then published in the Washington Post after his nomination was withdrawn, which is to say, the reason why we want a bloody strategy is because H.R. McMaster and others have gone out and said, "Kim Jong-un can't be deterred in the normal way we deter other people, because he's crazy. That's why we need to take out his nuclear potential that can reach the United States, because otherwise he'll use it, because he's crazy. We can't do it in the traditional way that we've been doing it with the Russians since 1949," and what have you.

The entire strategy assumes that he may be crazy enough to start a nuclear war with the United States, but in response to us using nuclear weapons or conventional weapons first against his nuclear [crosstalk 00:18:36]-

Susan Glasser: Right, so in fact-

Ivo Daalder: ... he will be deterred.

Susan Glasser: Not only that, but-

Ivo Daalder: He'll be rational enough.

Susan Glasser: Also, our CIA assesses that he is not crazy, and has testified publicly to that effect. Again, NSC basically is pursuing, planning for something that assumes something that the rest of the government doesn't think is accurate.

Ivo Daalder: Exactly. In fact, its plans are based on the presumption that he may be irrational until we start a war, but once we start a war, he's going to be rational.

Susan Glasser: Then he'll act rationally, yeah, and then that'll stop him.

Ivo Daalder: That will stop him. Victor Cha suggested that he didn't think that added up, and in his criticism, was rewarded with a longer tenureship as a professor at Georgetown University.

Susan Glasser: Also, it's interesting, because he's really well known as a fairly, by Washington standards, very hawkish on North Korea. He served in the Bush administration, the George W. Bush administration, on the National Security Council. If he's not hawkish enough for this White House, I think a lot of people were very concerned about the message that that was sending about the range of our options are being considered, even if ultimately they rule this out.

Then there's the other interesting dynamic, which is, does this incident suggest to us that there is more of a gap in thinking between the more hawkish NSC and even the Pentagon? Up until now, those deliberations have not been very clear.

Ivo Daalder: There is that point, and then there is also the message that we are sending to our allies in South Korea, because what we have basically now told them is that a very hawkish but a very sensible ... Victor is a ... He's a great scholar on Korea, and on the hawkish side of the debate on North Korea, is not hawkish enough apparently to represent the United States in South Korea. Therefore, even after he was fully vetted, and this diplomatic dance that needs to be played, you have to ask a government to agree to the nominee ... When you send an ambassador, it's called agrement. Agrement was asked in December, and this government in Seoul said, "Yes, we love Victor Cha." It was all over the newspapers, and it was fantastic. We have now withdrawn him not because we don't like him but because he happens to disagree with the strategy that, if implemented, risks the survival of South Korea.

Susan Glasser: We'll do this right before the Olympic Games are supposed to start on their territory, and of course many, many months into what has already been a political crisis of a very significant level without any senior U.S. envoy appointed, which also puts this in the context of the larger hemorrhaging of diplomacy and the State Department. In fact, not only is there no senior-level person in place to oversee this North Korea crisis from the diplomatic side, this is true on most of the other ongoing crises in the world today.

Brian Hanson: Let me pick up on that and talk about another thing that was recently in the news about U.S. message-sending to allies. Secretary of State Tillerson was down in Latin America telling leaders there that this relationship was very important to us, and that we value working with them. At the same time, President Trump was highlighting immigration flows, drug flows, and even threatening to cut foreign aid if these countries didn't change their tunes, so two very different messages at the same time. This hasn't been unusual in the last year.

How is this now being processed by our friends and enemies around the world when they hear these two different messages? Is this important that there is such dissonance?

Susan Glasser: I tried to take stock of exactly this phenomenon, and go back at the end of the year, and do a lot of reporting around Trump has now had encounters with, by his own account, more than 100 world leaders. He's been to 13 countries. Obviously he's been in many other more multilateral settings, like at the UN. That's where I think the potential disruption and damage to relationships is more significant than even some of the policy shifts might indicate. It's early days. Some of the policy debates, he's kicked the can down the road, so you don't 100% know where they're going to come out. For example, he's rhetorically attacked the Iran deal, he's quote decertified it with Congress, which is a meaningless thing, but he hasn't taken the final step of blowing it up yet. There's a lot of people who are still saying, "The jury's out on the policy. We don't like aspects of it, but it hasn't destroyed NATO. He hasn't done all these things."

 I take a different view. It comes more to your question around the fraying and even assault on alliances and on the way that the United States has, up until now, through presidents of both parties, played a leadership role. Those activities have more or less ceased, in my view, number one. Number two, your question had the premise I think correctly that the United States is now unpredictable and a source of instability in and of itself because no one knows what our policy is or who speaks for the United States. I think that is an extraordinary situation to be in, when you think about how much of the international order is built around the premise of U.S. leadership.

If the U.S. isn't leading, and it literally cannot lead, or even people can't get their cues from the United States because nobody knows is the president, or the secretary of state in charge, or the defense secretary, and we have people in Washington basically telling us, "Ignore the president," but any analysis in my view, and I think that of a lot of people, that says, "Ignore the president," who is in the end not only the decider but has made very clear that he's willing to overrule these people, that analytically is probably not going to hold up very long.

Specifically in Latin America, you're right that Trump from the beginning of his campaign has made a cause celebre of issues that are very disruptive to them when it comes to immigration. He's been a huge demagogue. He's still talking about the wall. He doesn't mention Mexico paying as much anymore, but if you press him, he will. I reported in that article, actually, the meat of it was about a previously undisclosed dinner that the president had with Latin American leaders, not including Mexico, so countries that had been less in the public cross-hairs, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last September, for countries who are close allies of the United States. These are not problem countries for us. These are people who we work closely with.

They came out of the dinner shocked by their interaction with President Trump. He not only repeatedly raised the issue of a military option with Venezuela. The idea that he's just going to ask them over a dinner in September, "Hey, should we invade Venezuela?" It was more than that. It was on all of their issues, what they all reported back to their governments, every single one of them, was that he was both misinformed on their issues and potentially very dangerous in the viewpoint that he suggested. I think that's got to be worrisome to people. It's not really ideological.

Ivo Daalder: No, I think you're exactly right. For our listeners, if you haven't read Susan's really brilliant article, The Year of Living Dangerously, late December I think it came out in Politico, or early January, really a brilliant piece of reporting on exactly this issue. How do you as an ally, how do you as a diplomat, how do you as a foreign minister or a president deal with a country where the messages coming from the two most important people, the secretary of state and the president of the United States, are consistently at cross-purposes?

They have been for a very long time. It started over Article Five, the defense of NATO, where the president repeatedly refused to say that he as president of the United States was committed to this idea of an attack against one is an attack against all. Again, Susan did a lot of reporting early on about how these sentences were [inaudible 00:27:21] by him against the wishes of McMaster, and Tillerson, and Mattis. It has continued. We have had it over Korea, whether there should be negotiation and diplomacy. We've had it now in Latin America, where just as the secretary of state is going on his first Latin American tour, really a continent completely neglected in our diplomacy, it gets undercut by the president, who goes after Colombia and Mexico, two of the four countries that the secretary is visiting, and says, "We'll start cutting aid," and, "They're letting drugs [inaudible 00:27:56] in," and all that, all the stuff that you always hear from.

It's just you know that everybody's sitting there. "Who do I believe?"

Susan Glasser: Also, even if you say, "Well, look at the policy. Don't pay attention to the tweets. Don't pay attention to the words," you have knowing that even if somebody manages to get to Trump, as they did with NATO, so eventually after three weeks of uproar then he says the words, does anyone think he means them? Same thing with Afghanistan. For months, McMaster and others, but particularly McMaster, lobbied him not only to continue the U.S. troop commitment in Afghanistan but to increase the numbers, to change a strategy that clearly wasn't working. Trump very begrudgingly, after months of saying no, says, "Okay, fine. There's nothing else I can do here," and says yes. Does anybody think he's really committed to that strategy? If anything bad happens, what's he going to do? He's not going to do what it takes to follow through.

Ivo Daalder: That, just the last point, that's exactly going back to what Susan said. This affects our ability to lead. The administration likes to say, "We're leading again. We're out there." What leaders need is followers. If you are the only one driving a car, and there's no one in the backseat, you're just driving a car. That's not leading. You need to have followers. What's happened over the past year is that those followers who have been there for 70 years are starting to say, "Maybe not. Maybe there's an alternative. Maybe we'll go somewhere else."

On trade, for example, 35 negotiations going on on trade. The United States is a partner to one of them, which means that 34 negotiations are being done by other countries, setting their own rules, letting them decide what to do, and the United States is not a player. Increasingly, when you look around the world, is the United States a player in Syria? We weren't at the negotiating table. Is the United States trying to forge new relationships in eastern Europe and dealing with the challenges that are coming there, not only from Russia but from populism and right-wing counter-revolutionary almost elements that you're seeing in these states? The United States is nowhere to be seen.

That's part of the problem. That's new. It's different. We've never had it before in the last 70 years. Had it in the '30s. We know what happened when the United States wasn't part of it, and that's the debate that we should be having, rather than this issue of which memo should be released by which body in the American Congress.

Susan Glasser: I want to challenge this, though, because both of you have now brought up about the memos. The Nunes memo obviously ... I actually don't think ... Sue me if I'm wrong, but nine months from now, my guess is so much else will have happened we won't probably be remembering it. The but I want to underscore here is that it's very complicated and baroque, as these Washington investigations and scandals tend to be, but the point I want to make, though is that that's part of how the damage is done to our democracy. When people tune out and they say, "A pox on both their houses," that is the goal of this.

I actually think what's happening in Washington over the last couple weeks with the Russia investigation, it is very serious. It is a significant, significant escalation in tactics by the president. Clearly the White House is operating hand in glove with the House Republicans on this. Not with the Senate Republicans, interestingly, so one can still draw distinctions, but I think it's important. I know that people understandably, I feel that way too, want to say, "Who knows? Who can understand this?" It's significant. This is something that we have not seen in our democracy, arguably, since Watergate.

Brian Hanson: As we close, Susan, I can't have you here without asking you about the upcoming Russian election. You're a person who's followed Russia very, very closely. We know what the outcome is going to be. Vladimir Putin's going to win. Beyond that, what is something you would encourage our listeners to focus on as they watch that unfold?

Susan Glasser: As you said, it's not going to be a cliffhanger of a result here, but Putin has already now been in power, since last fall, longer than any Russian leader since Josef Stalin. He surpassed Brezhnev's record last fall. The question of what is he offering Russians in this election, they need to get enough people to turn out to vote so that it's not completely embarrassing, so I think that's what you need to pay attention to. What is it that you hear coming out of the Kremlin, and what does that indicate for Russia's aggressive position in the world over the next few years?

Brian Hanson: Ivo, Susan, thank you so much for being here. A terrific discussion.

Susan Glasser: Thank you.

Ivo Daalder: Thank you.

Brian Hanson: Thank you for tuning in to this episode of Deep Dish on Global Affairs. If you have any questions about anything you heard today, please go to the Deep Dish on Global Affairs Facebook group and pose your question there. We'll ask Ivo and Susan to answer. Again, head to the Deep Dish on Global Affairs Facebook group, ask a question, and we'll have Ivo and Susan get back to you. As a reminder, the opinions you heard today belong to those who expressed them and do not represent the institutional views of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. If you liked the show, please subscribe and share the show with someone who you think would enjoy it as well. You can find this podcast under Deep Dish on Global Affairs wherever you listen to podcasts. Deep Dish is produced by Evan Fazio. I'm Brian Hanson, and we'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.

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