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You, Too, Can Be a Cocktail Party Wonk

The Bomb is back. For the first time in decades, newspapers are spinning headlines about atomic weapons, the 20th century’s original MAD men—as in, mutually assured destruction!

Am I right, ladies and gents? The Cold War’s done and gone, but this topic is hot like radioactivity. The world-wise need to build up their nuclear know-how (I’m talking to you, citizen) in order to drop knowledge bombs in polite conversation.

Don’t guess-to-impress: get informed! Use the short primer below, and you’ll soon be dropping plutonium pearls of wisdom like, “My cocktail is thawing like U.S.-Russian relations!” With a manhattan (project) in hand, your guests will be “falling out” with admiring laughter in no time at all.

NORTH KOREA

Kim Jong-Il’s regime continues in its rabid jitterbug, with a recent nuclear test that confirmed their membership in the atomic club, as well as a series of provocative missile tests.

The bad news (besides the obvious) is that nobody really knows what North Korea wants, they can’t be ignored, and—with artillery that could put half a million shells on the South Korean capital in an hour, and the fifth-largest standing army in the world deployed mere hours from tens of thousands of American troops—they’re too dangerous to be attacked.

The good news is that you don’t need to start digging a bomb shelter in your backyard. First, though North Korea probably has a handful of nuclear bombs, they can’t yet make them small enough to mount on the tips of missiles—a technological feat that would require years of work.  

Second, the breathless reports of a missile test “aimed at Hawaii” are slightly overblown. They’ve never been able to get more than one of the rocket’s three stages to work, and the theoretical range of the Taepodong-2 still falls 500 miles too short. To illustrate my point, I threw a rock at Hawaii from my driveway; my neighbor pitched a fit, but nobody panicked in Honolulu.

Bottom line: Because nobody knows what North Korea’s long-term plans are, they need to be managed on a crisis-by-crisis strategy—until the situation improves or constitutes such a clear and present danger that our hand is forced.

IRAN

Some of us have been saying for years that Iran’s youthful population (60 percent of the country is 30 or under. Prime territory for new RELEVANT subscriptions? You heard it here first) is far more progressive than the theocratic leadership. The only thing that radicalizes this pro-Western majority is the perception of a common enemy to their proud civilization—a perception we supported every time we took President Ahmadinejad’s intentionally inflammatory bait.

As the Iranian theocrats discovered, however, it’s no fun when citizens realize that the common enemy is their own government.  It turns out that people don’t take that well to finding out that they don’t, in fact, live in a democracy. For the last month, the world watched breathlessly as enraged, inspiring Iranians and the newly politicized Twitterverse took on the ayatollahs. Sadly, dreams of sweeping reform seem out of the question for the immediate future. But Iran’s house seems irreparably divided, and there’s no telling what we could see happen over the coming months and years.

On the nuclear front, Iran’s green revolution may not have immediate effects. The hard-line regime insists that it’s merely pursuing nuclear power, which is its right by international treaty. Everyone else thinks they want the Bomb—or at least the capacity to build one quickly. (The process of uranium enrichment is the same for nuclear power and nuclear weapons, the operative difference being how far you take it.)  Confronted with an angry Western establishment that they publicly blame for the uprising, the ayatollahs and Ahmadinejad may dig in their heels even more.

But here’s the teaser, a little nugget for your nightly prayers: Keep an eye out for a movement in Iran that seeks to throw off isolation and join the family of nations, and uses the abandonment of their nuclear ambitions as a token of good faith. Sounds unreal? That’s exactly what happened in the last days of apartheid South Africa.

RUSSIA

It seems that Barack Obama is taking Lyle Lovett’s advice:

So meet a bear and take him on out to lunch with you
Even though your friends may stop and stare
Just remember that’s a bear there in the bunch with you …

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In a two-day trip to Russia earlier this week, Obama plied his counterparts—President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have a unique dual authority—with honey, taking a first step toward “resetting” the badly strained U.S.-Russian relationship.

The trip seems to have been a significant success. At the top of the list was a follow-on agreement to the U.S.-Russian Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), which puts mutual limits on our nuclear weapons and is due to expire this December. Obama and Medvedev agreed on the structure of the new arrangement: a deal that would limit deployed strategic warheads and their delivery devices (i.e., long-range bombers and land- or sea-based missiles) to 1,675 and 1,100, respectively, over a seven-year implementation period.

When I say that this is an important symbolic step, that’s not to diminish the achievement. In international politics and nuclear weapons—like tweener poetry and emo music—symbolism is huge. This shows the world that the U.S. and Russia are jointly committed to continuing to reduce our bloated Cold War arsenals. Given the time constraints of the expiring treaty and state of U.S.-Russian relations, this treaty’s moving in the right direction may be more important than how big a step it takes.

That said, we should hope and pray that this won’t preclude far more productive steps to improve nuclear security, once both sides get some breathing room. Who knows: We may discover, as Lyle concludes, they just don’t come no better than a bear.

The other issue to watch out for is missile defense, the prickliest thorn in U.S-Russian relations since President Reagan introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative—better known by its moniker, Star Wars—in the early 1980s. Even today, most Americans are astonished and alarmed to discover that we have no operational defense against incoming missiles. The problem is that such a system is almost impossible to build, but even when it fails—as our attempts repeatedly have—other nations see missile defense as an attempt to become invulnerable. This upsets global stability and results in a net decrease to national security, which sort of defies the point of missile defense in the first place.

How Obama handles missile defense will be definitive: domestically, it’s a fiercely partisan issue and, though the arms control orthodoxy despises its destabilizing effects, some give and take may be key to getting Republican support for Obama’s nuclear proposals. Conversely, missile defense could be a dealbreaker for the Russians. If he can figure out a third way, a shared system that protects both sides against rogue missile threats, he’ll have threaded a needle that’s stymied negotiators for decades. This is a narrow tightrope to walk, with no easy solution. All the more reason to keep that dial locked on the nuclear channel—stay tuned.

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson is the founding director of the Two Futures Project (Twitter @2FP). Help create a safer, more righteous future by signing up for the movement at http://twofuturesproject.org.

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