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The Dawn of the Second Cold War

by Harvey Simon on Jul 6, 2006

Harvey Simon

North Korea's unsuccessful test launch of its intercontinental ballistic missile on July 5 only delays the inevitable. Soon Pyongyang will have a missile that can reach the United States and when it does a Second Cold War will begin.

The failed launch buys the United States some much needed time to revise its strategy for coping with a new set of nuclear-armed enemies.

The world survived the first Cold War in large measure because the United States faced rational opponents who did not think like terrorists. But in the Second Cold War, the United States will face incomprehensible foes that cannot be counted on to respond as traditional Cold War models would predict.

The danger is that heads of state who think like terrorists will not be deterred by the prospect of U.S. nuclear retaliation. They may be suicidal and willing to make "martyrs" not only of themselves but of their countrymen. They may refuse to believe the United States would kill millions in retaliation. Or they may just behave in ways that are radically at odds with their nation's self-interest.

In the face of this threat, the United States will have to find new strategies to replace its current deterrence doctrine, a legacy of the first Cold War — that is, to prevent attack by threatening overwhelming retaliation.

North Korea's failed launch does not mean the need for this re-thinking is any less urgent. It won't be long before will Pyongyang will have a rocket capable of boosting a satellite into orbit. A successful 2007 launch would have particular historical resonance, coming 50 years after the Soviet Union sent up the world's first artificial satellite in 1957.

Once North Korea gets its rocket science down, it will replace the old Soviet Union as the Communist nation with the capability to destroy U.S. cities with a strike from the blue. A two-stage version of a North Korean missile could reach parts of the United States; a three-stage variant could reach all of North America.

Meanwhile, Iran is ready to stand in for our other Cold War Communist adversary, China, which exploded its first A-bomb seven years after the first Soviet missile launch. That is about how long Iran will need to build a nuclear weapon, if it continues with its development. With the help of North Korea's rocketry experience, Iran too would be able to destroy American cities at the push of a button.

These two nations present an asymmetrical nuclear threat that the United States, with its traditional Cold-War theories of deterrence, is no more prepared to deal with than it has been with non-nuclear terrorism. Deterrence worked in the first Cold War because the men who led the Soviet Union and China, however rash they may have seemed at times, made the same types of rational calculations about national self-interest as their U.S. counterparts. This gave Pentagon planners the tools to think about nuclear war in the same ways economists calculate, and predict, the behavior of consumers.

Whether the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, accused by South Korea in the 1980s of ordering the bombing of two airliners and otherwise known for his bizarre behavior, will conform to these models is open to doubt. The danger is that Kim may think less like the leader of a nation of 23 million and more like a terrorist. And then there's Iran, where newspaper advertisements openly solicit suicide bombers.

Deterrence was also effective in the first Cold War because the overwhelming U.S. nuclear arsenal contained an implicit threat of annihilation. But that threat may not be as credible now. The traditional theory of nuclear deterrence was grounded in the World War II era, when civilian populations were bombed without mercy.

The Second Cold War, however, arrives at a time when precision strikes that minimize "collateral damage" are considered politically necessary. U.S. war planners must consider whether they can any longer plausibly threaten to kill millions, if not tens of millions, of innocent people. And if they can't, they'll have to find new ways to keep the peace.

The United States should consider itself lucky North Korea's test failed but should use the time that has been gained to prepare for Pyongyang's inevitable success.


Harvey Simon is a writer in Washington, DC, and is the author of “The Madman Theory,” a novel of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Formerly, he was a national security analyst at Harvard University.