Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

29 May 2018

Trump and Kim, Stumbling toward Peace


[I have not forgotten my pledge to supplement my post on Training New Voters. But the subject of the essay below could be as important, or even more so. For links to popular recent posts, click here.]

The off-again, on-again dance of Trump and Kim toward peace talks would make a good comic opera, were it not so important. A successful conclusion would not only postpone or avoid the gravest and most immediate threat of nuclear war in the world today. It would also give our species some confidence that we can distinguish our petty squabbles from existential threats to our collective survival.

As an intelligent species, we humans are awkward and bumbling at our best. In arranging for our own peace and security, we are slow learners and even slower actors. But we can be quick and decisive at our worst.

Nazi Germany was decisive in invading Poland in 1939, kicking off the active phase of the most horrible war (yet) in human history. When the dust had settled around the defeated Axis, fifty million human beings had suffered premature deaths. Vast swaths of human civilization had been reduced to rubble, as in Syria and Yemen today, albeit on a much smaller scale there.

Nazi Germany was not the only decisive nation. Imperial Japan was decisive in its successful sneak attack on us at Pearl Harbor. We Americans were decisive in declaring war on the German-Japanese Axis the next day. Later, we were even more decisive in wreaking havoc on Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear weapons, mere weeks after we had invented and tested them, and while the Soviet Union’s slow transfer of a million troops to Manchuria made eventual Japanese defeat inevitable. (One motive for our decisive use of nuclear weapons may have been asserting control over a sure-to-be-defeated Japan before the Soviets did.)

Among our species, decisiveness is a valued individual trait. We admire the business leader who snaps up a once-great rival down on its luck, even if the acquisition price is high. We still study and admire Hannibal for his unexpected elephant-borne assault across the Alps, and Alexander for his overnight forced march up a seemingly unclimbable cliff and across a seemingly impregnable plateau.

But decisiveness has risks and costs. The agonizing costs of all the multilateral decisiveness in World War II sobered us up for a time. We created the United Nations and what eventually became the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (“GATT”), in order to establish a world order for security and economic justice. Those structures have helped stave off major wars among major power for seven decades. Yet regional and proxy wars have continued apace; they are going on even now in Syria and Yemen, and, at a low level, in Ukraine.

Unfortunately, direct memories of our worst war in history are fading as its participants die off. The question before our species is “can we remember”? Are our institutional and scholarly memories strong enough to keep us from making the same or similar mistakes again? Can our species climb further along the learning curve once the last person who actually experienced the horror personally has died off?

There is hope, and in the oddest of places. Who would have thought that one of the most absolute and capricious tyrants in human history and the most openly narcissistic and erratic US president would become seriously invested in peace? Who would have thought that two undemocratic strongmen would seek security and their fellow creatures’ adulation not through “fire and fury,” storm and conquest, but through peaceful agreement?

While Trump and Kim were insulting and threatening each other last year, you could almost see our alpha-ape ancestors baring their teeth, stretching their powerful arms, jumping high, and screeching at each other. Threats are part of our human evolution. Paradoxically, they are a protective part. If the weaker alpha male perceives his weakness and slinks away, both alphas survive to propagate and enrich the species.

Many mammalian species have that same kind of protective evolutionary trait. In the animal world, alpha males’ battles for dominance, turf and females are seldom fatal. There are lots of posturing, lots of noise, and lots of show. Bucks, for example, use their pointed antlers to clash and shove, not to impale vital organs. Dominance through death is not the purpose of the combat.

But our population and technology have now outrun our human evolution in that respect. We humans are the only species on our planet that has ever killed off vast numbers of our own kind in a quest for collective dominance. We may be the only species in our Galaxy that has ever killed off fifty million of our own individuals in a single spasm of collective violence.

So laugh, if you must, at Trump’s and Kim’s antics, bragging, reversals of direction, and self-contradictions. We descendants of apes are indeed funny at times. But do not laugh at their goal.

Do not laugh even at the grossly premature commemorative gold medal that President Trump has minted, showing profiles of his face and Kim’s. It may be premature, and its goal may never be fully reached in our lifetimes. But its very existence is worthy of note.

Two millennia ago, the great sometime-democratic empire was Ancient Rome’s. There, commemorative coins showed only the victor’s head; the vanquished were despised and soon forgotten. You will never find an ancient Roman coin showing the heads of two leaders of two rival societies, let alone two leaders of different races from different continents.

About two millennia ago, Cato the Elder stood in the Roman Senate and repeatedly declared “Carthago delenda est.” (Carthage must be destroyed.) The motive was a great commercial rivalry for Mediterranean trade, not unlike the rivalry between us and China today.

It took Cato a long time, but eventually he goaded Rome to do his bidding. Roman armies attacked Carthage, killed or enslaved its citizens, pulled down its stone walls, and sowed its fields with salt. Carthage ceased to exist, except as an historical footnote to human jealousy and depravity. We still study that incident in world history with awe and sometimes even with admiration.

With nuclear weapons, we humans today can do to any city in seconds what Rome did to Carthage. With modern thermonuclear warheads we can do that to every major city on Earth, in less time than it took Rome’s conquering army to debark its ships and set up camp.

That, of course, would spell species suicide. Scientists estimate that as few as fifty nuclear weapons, detonated within a period of days or weeks, could cause a nuclear winter that would extinguish or maim human civilization by blotting out the sun with dust and crushing agriculture.

Peace on—and eventual reunification of—the Korean Peninsula would mark a decisive step away from that brink. The mere possibility of peace evokes moral responsibility among the major powers. Although North attacked South in the Korean War, the North was not a conquering major power like Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan. The war was both a civil war and a proxy war among major powers, principally China and the US. It was also a contest between rival economic systems, Communism and capitalism.

In contrast, Germany in its Nazi psychosis bore primary responsibility for the most terrible war in human history. Yet now Germany is whole. Korea, which in many ways has been a victim and pawn of outside forces, is still divided. Major powers like China and the US have a clear moral obligation to do what they can to right that historic wrong.

Japan can help, too. Its Peace Museum in Hiroshima is the world’s only publicly accessible memorial to a whole city’s destruction by nuclear fire. Japan cannot force foreign leaders to visit the Museum, but it ought to invite them, publicly and expenses paid. Democrat or dictator, every leader worldwide, upon assuming power, should receive such an invitation and the global pressure to accept it that inevitably would follow.

I have been there. A visit to the Museum shakes and moves you to your core, for days. It fills you with the most absolute conviction that there must never be a World War III, or even a regional conflict with nuclear weapons. The first and last actual uses of nuclear weapons must be the ones that ended our species’ most terrible war.

No doubt the cold advice of hard, practical military men, in the US and North Korea, infused their respective leaders with similar conviction. No doubt their instruction was responsible for the turnabout from insults to consultation, and perhaps from there to talks. The same informed caution, delivered to Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev during the Cold War, jump-started the disarmament talks that produced the arms-reduction treaties that are now falling into desuetude, as the US and Russia revert to posturing and threatening.

Somehow, the military men made Trump and Kim, Reagan and Gorbachev, see their hands not as fists to be shaken, or teeth to be bared, but as triggers of the most awful power: the power of the gods not to create, but to destroy. It was as if these leaders suddenly became J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist most responsible for inventing nuclear weapons. On seeing the first real test, he declared, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

His exclamation was bare truth. Nuclear weapons have no power to create or build. They have only the power to destroy. And their destruction is irrevocable: the radiation and fallout that they create can make cities uninhabitable for decades or centuries, like Fukushima and its environment today. (Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both coastal cities, got lucky, in that fortuitous and strong fall storms washed most of their fallout out to sea.)

Like nuclear destruction itself, the epiphanies of leaders who ken their power and existential menace take only seconds. In separate instants Reagan and Gorbachev understood the right path for themselves, their nations and our species. Let us hope that Trump and Kim both have experienced similar epiphanies, or soon will.

So however much we may lack respect for the the men who lead us now, we must not reject this peace initiative, this most important of their enterprises. We humans have always been far more awkward and clumsy at peace than at war.

Now, with over seven billion souls on our planet and global warming threatening to make it uninhabitable, that must change. Every one of us should hope, pray and work for the talks’ success, so that the fruits of peace remove the looming threat of what could be our species’ penultimate or final war.

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