On the Horns of a Nuclear Dilemma

I worked as a shepherd in Israel. One of my key jobs was to take care of the rams. Rams are short, powerful brutes with curved horns and bodies of weight and muscle. They are also extremely stubborn. The only way to move them around, and get them to do what you want them to do, is to put them into a strong headlock and propel them forward. The only exceptions to this mode of operation were when the rams were to be rewarded with food or to service the ewes. Even then, and on many other occasions, they continued to balk until such time as a positive end goal was clearly in sight.

When referring to our planet’s two nuclear dilemmas, North Korea and Iran, what are the end goals for China, Russia and the US? Clearly, the Trump administration has adopted two very adamant red-lines with reference to both Pyongyang and Tehran. First, the US will not allow North Korea to mount a nuclear war-head on an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM); second, the Iran nuclear deal (the JCPOA) must be re-negotiated, or if not, scrapped altogether. Unlike President Trump’s predecessor, Barack H. Obama, this new Republican administration will no longer continue to “kick the can down the road” in hopes of a magically moderate solution sometime in the future.

Make no mistake, absent a negotiated settlement, Donald Trump will use the full scope of American military power to prevent Iran and North Korea from achieving their nuclear end goals — Tehran in secretly developing nuclear war-head capacity, and Pyongyang with regard to the miniaturization of nuclear weapons onto ICBMs. Worse still for Washington is the sharing of such capabilities between these two nations, both correctly viewed as strongly anti-American, and in the case of Iran, professing genocidal intentions toward Israel.

But what about China and Russia? Would these nations stand pat if North Korea or Iran were attacked? I doubt if either country has put much thought into a re-negotiated nuclear settlement with Iran. China’s Middle East policy is clear with respect to the JCPOA; it takes Iran at its word with regard to its declaration of opposition to nuclear weapons. On the other hand, Russia’s Middle East policy is less clear. At times it appears confused and murky. The Kremlin claims to be on the side of both Iran and Israel simultaneously. But Moscow would clearly like to cooperate with the US over Syria. In doing so, the Kremlin would seek a Grand Bargain with regard to sanctions and the crisis in Europe. For the Kremlin, it is not out of the question to view the Middle East as a very important bargaining chip in its far greater quest — the roll back of NATO expansion from its near abroad.

Trump’s original position with regard to Russian relations might have allowed for such a Grand Bargain to go forward. And Russia might have been enticed to move toward a more congenial position on the re- negotiation of the JCPOA and the future of Syria. But unfortunately, establishment politics, Russian meddling in the US election, and severe European-NATO unease squashed hopes for a US-Russia entente. Now the whole process is so entangled within the office of the US Special Counsel, that it would take something (and/or someone) completely outside the system to move the process forward.

So what is Trump’s position on the JCPOA? It’s very similar to Israel’s. If the current deal continues with its legal end-game, within a few short years, Iran will have a break-out time (or a sneak-out time) that, in all likelihood, could be undetectable (a fait accompli). Given the current divisions between the US and its European allies (climate, trade and sanctions) and also divisions erected against Trump and his attempt at a Russian entente, the US will find itself isolated if it attempts to re-negotiate the JCPOA. Yet, there has always been an alternative to the deeply flawed agreement. It’s called the Zone of Peace, and it involves a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East. I have written and spoken about it many times in the last five years. Trump needs a strategy for what comes after the JCPOA. The US being isolated is hardly a strategy.

As badly as the Iran nuclear deal bodes for the not-so-distant future, the North Korean situation is dire right now. Pyongyang is so close to putting a nuclear war-head on an ICBM that it is not at all clear whether the militant communist regime is even willing to negotiate. They are playing a game of “nuclear chicken” with the US, and they don’t appear to be backing down. This places the US-Japan alliance in real jeopardy. Washington will simply not allow American territory to be exposed to a nuclear strike from North Korea. Death and damage to Japan has now become a secondary concern when juxtaposed against death and destruction in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, China has begun to re-position troop formations on their 850 mile border with the so-called Korean “hermit kingdom”. China is actually making preparations for the prospect of war.

But war on the Korean peninsula would be so devastating, it is almost unthinkable. But have any of the politicians even considered an out-of-the-box peace plan for the Korean peninsula and East Asia? Out-of-the-box thinking is what is clearly necessary, but even a simple freeze of US-South Korean war games was considered as too far beyond the pale. But could Washington really live with the prospect of Tokyo being destroyed? Perhaps so, for in the case of the US and North Korea, time is clearly running out for a successful diplomatic agreement. A kind of panic has set in as the ICBM clock has turned dramatically toward 2018. For an out-of-the-box North Korean peace plan, read: Steven Horowitz, Times of Israel, July 7, 2017 — Will Iran Become Another North Korea?

War on the Korean peninsula will almost certainly involve Japan, and it could very easily escalate to the nuclear threshold. And what would such an Asian war mean for the global American alliance system in Europe, and with allies in the Middle East? Already, in the Middle East, the Obama years have caused great speculation that the US Democratic Party is either gravely myopic with regard to Iran, or worse, unconcerned about the future of the region. On the other hand, is the Republican Party under Donald Trump capable of the kind of concessions necessary to grab the horns of this nuclear dilemma and steer it toward the desirable end goal of peace? Certainly now, Trump is not politically capable of entertaining any kind of concessions toward Moscow. But are any of the other players in Asia, Europe or the Middle East willing to lead with the mutually necessary concessions for peace? Or, are we all living at the end of an era of Pax Americana, whereupon the testing of American strength must inevitably lead to war?

The US has a forward defensive military posture around the world. At least, that is what Washington, NATO, Japan and the Gulf states call the posture. Russia, Iran, China and North Korea don’t see it that way. They perceive the posture as aggressive. As the US national debt rises, Pax Americana has become extremely expensive and politically challenged domestically. This is how Trump got elected. He promised an “America First” agenda, and not necessarily the long-standing status quo. On the other hand, the US far Left adheres to a policy of isolationism and global disengagement.

Between Pax Americana, “America First” and isolationism, a new global order awaits conception. This is the challenge for all the Euro-Asian nations — to find an alternative system to Pax Americana without receding to either major power war or regional vacuums. The current US forward posture is now being seriously contested by Russia, Iran, North Korea and China. Unless the world finds an alternative global order, the possibility of intra-regional and/or inter-regional war is real and growing every day. It is time someone begins to lead. We need not only a multi-polar global order, but an order dedicated thoroughly to peace. All the nations of the world must grab the nuclear dilemma by the horns and move it systematically in a more peaceful direction.

For Israel, this nuclear scenario in the Middle East means a full reconceptualization of what it means to be armed with such weapons. For South Korea and Japan, US forward defense offers little protection from the prospect of a nuclear escalation with North Korea. In the final analysis, can we all really expect that nuclear deterrence will not break down sometime in the future? We all must begin to pull back from the brink. The age of Pax Americana is either over, or its last gasp will cause great pain. We are all caught on the horns of a nuclear dilemma. Now is the time for unprecedented historical communication among nations and peaceful cooperation throughout the world.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).