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The security challenges facing the United States and other liberal democracies in the Western world have grown more complex and dangerous in recent decades – with the rise of turbulent terrorist organizations and rogue governments who intentionally act to destabilize or at least disrupt the world order. Graham Allison, the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government and director of the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, has been studying international security issues for more than 40 years – both in government and in academia.
Q: North Korea is the most recent country to demonstrate its willingness to develop a nuclear weapons program. What is the strategy for Western governments to contain this threat?
Allison: The first fact that is very inconvenient is that U.S. strategy to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons has failed. North Korea has developed nuclear weapons; it has conducted three nuclear tests; it already has an arsenal of six to eight nuclear weapons; it has a production line for nuclear weapons. So this is a huge failure of U.S. policy, of Chinese policy, and of international policy. That’s the place to start.
At this point, while the U.S. and its allies can try to persuade North Korea to give up nuclear weapons, I would say that is no more likely to be more successful than efforts to get Pakistan or Israel to give up nuclear weapons. That’s a good long-term aspiration, but it is not a short-term strategy.
Over the short term, while we can continue to say that we are trying to roll back North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, the primary focus should be on trying to prevent North Korea from selling the nuclear bomb to a terrorist group like al Qaeda or to a rogue state like Iran. While it can seem somewhat inconceivable for North Korea to take such a radical action, that’s only because we don’t recognize that North Korea has already taken such a radical action when it sold to Syria a plutonium-producing reactor that would by today have produced enough plutonium for Syria’s first nuclear bomb had Israel not destroyed the facility back in 2007.
Q: At the current time there is little diplomatic engagement with North Korean leaders. In a diplomatic void like this one, is negotiation possible or is conflict inevitable?
Allison: I would say that negotiation with the North Korean leaders is not likely to be very successful. The most successful possibility in dealing with North Korea would be if the U.S. could successfully engage China which provides North Korea’s lifeline of both fuel and food. So absent China, I don’t think U.S. strategy will be very successful, and engaging China has not yet been successful either.
Q: What would you say to people who are trying to understand what is happening and what's at stake?
Allison: About the North Korea crisis, I would say two things. The first thing is that this is a re-run of a show we've seen at least 18 times previously.
The North Korean regime has developed a very good script for extortion. And the script consists initially of a provocative action, like testing a nuclear bomb or conducting missile tests, then lots of heated rhetoric which then lead to fears of war. And the North Koreans certainly demonstrate a capacity for rhetorical flourish that is hard to compete with as they talk about a "sea of fire" or attacking particular sites in the U.S., things they are not capable of doing, but still they raise the risk of war.
Then, some third party, usually China, steps in to say that "all the parties should cool down," not distinguishing between the arsonist and the firefighters – so treating the South Koreans and North Koreans, or the North Koreas and the Americans as being somewhat equal – but in any case, “everybody calm down.” At some point, someone pays a bribe to North Korea because this is about extortion. And it's often the Chinese; sometimes it's the South Koreans; sometimes it's under the table; sometimes it's the Japanese; on a few occasions it's been the Americans. And then things calm back down. The North Koreans go back to the six-party talks at which they are prepared to promise additional things—including eliminating their nuclear weapons for benefits today. Somebody celebrates success for a few minutes. Six months later they push the replay button and they do this again. So we've seen this many times, and I would say that's the first thing that's going on.
Second thing – in this instance it's more dangerous because we have on one hand a new, young kid who has taken over in North Korea, a person without any experience who seems in a Mafioso style to be “making his bones” and seems prepared to take risks to that end, risks that are extremely dangerous – not actually conducting an all-out attack, but taking actions that could trigger severe consequences. Combine that with the new untried president of South Korea who is politically weak, having just barely succeeded in becoming president and having a weak coalition government, who feels therefore obliged to be tough in response; you could have bluster, which would be the traditional storyline leading to a provocative action, either deliberately or accidentally, which then the South Korean government feels obliged to respond to militarily, and then an escalation ladder that would lead to an outcome that nobody wants.
If there were a war, if this sequence of events led to war on the Korean peninsula, there's no question whatever who will win. At the end of this story the North Korea regime is eliminated; the U.S. can destroy the North Korean regime quite easily. The South Koreans will take over North Korea, but there will be a mess in the meantime and a million people could be killed. So it's a genuinely dangerous situation particularly because you have new leaders on both sides.
Q: Iran continues to play a destabilizing role in the Middle East. What are the strategies by which its influence in the region can be mitigated?
Allison: The focus of policy for the United States under both [President] Obama and [President] Bush before him has been to try to prevent Iran going the route of North Korea and acquiring nuclear weapons. Iran today stands closer to nuclear weapons than it did four years ago. It was closer four years ago than it was four years before that. Four years ago, Iran had 4000 centrifuges spinning; today it has 10,000 and is installing 3000 more advanced centrifuges. Four years ago when President Obama became president, Iran had sufficient uranium so that if it had been further enriched it would have been enough to make one bomb. Today it has sufficient uranium to make six bombs, if further enriched.
So the U.S. strategy of sanctions, sabotage and international isolation has successfully slowed Iran’s nuclear progress but not stopped it or reversed it. And I think we will see over the next year or two the U.S.-Iranian relationship come to a crossroads. I’ve written about it as a Cuban missile crisis in slow motion where you can see the actors moving inexorably to a showdown at which an American president is going to have to choose between two ugly options – either attacking Iran to prevent it from becoming a nuclear weapons state or acquiescing in Iran becoming a nuclear weapons state -- neither of which are very pleasant.
Q: Your latest book, “Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States and the World,” examines myriad questions surrounding China’s growing role in the world. How best can and should the United States and other world powers respond to these developments?
Allison: Lee Kuan Yew is the world’s premier China watcher. He’s actually a Hmong Chinese himself ethnically, but he was also the first prime minister of the Republic of Singapore, and served some three decades in that position, during which time Singapore grew from a very poor country to a first world country with a higher per capita income than the United States. He’s also been the person that Chinese leaders have reached out to as kind of a case study for them to do their own planning, but also the person they have looked to as sort of their mentor in trying to think about economic reform. In the book, Lee discusses in great detail the rise of China, which he believes is destined to overtake the U.S. as the largest economy in the world within the next decade. This is something the world has simply never seen before.
Last year the increment of growth in China’s economy was bigger than the entire GDP of Spain. This is a huge fact, and for Americans and especially for American policy makers, taking account of the rise of a state that has risen faster, further and in more dimensions than any state ever in history is something that we still haven’t come to grips with.
I’ve written about this as a phenomenon that I call the Thucydides trap. Thucydides was the great Greek historian who wrote about the Peloponnesian War five centuries before Christ, arguing that it was the rise of Athens and the fear that it inspired in Sparta that made the war inevitable. So when you have a rising power rivaling a ruling power, generally this does not turn out well. In the study that I’ve done -- in 11 of 15 cases over the last 500 years -- the result was war. Think World War I, the rise of Germany, the fear this inspired in Britain, and the outcome was a catastrophic war in which everyone lost.
So I would argue that the big policy idea for Americans and also for the Chinese leadership would be to face the fact that both parties have a great deal to lose if they don't figure out how to co-exist peacefully during a time of great competition and transition on the global stage. It would be a catastrophic event for both the Chinese and the Americans if this should end as badly as the previous cases, but preventing it from ending that way means starting with a notion that this is a huge historic challenge of Thucydidean proportions and that business as usual and bureaucratics as usual, and strategy as usual, and policy as usual will lead to a catastrophic outcome.
Q: Your first book, “Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis,” focused on a very tense moment in American history – a time when many citizens feared of a possible nuclear war with Cuba. What lessons from that crisis are still relevant today?
Allison: Given that last year was the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, there has been a lot of discussion about this.
I think that because the crisis was the most dangerous moment in recorded history, the only occasion in which two powers contemplated actions that could have led to a nuclear war in which 100 million people would have been killed instantly, it contains many lessons that continue to be relevant.
First -- nuclear crises are possible, even crises that could lead to war. [President] Kennedy thought the chances of war in this case were somewhere between one-in-three and even, and as an historian looking at the evidence since then, I see no reason to disagree with that judgment. So there was a genuine risk of nuclear war.
Secondly, in the crisis, at the moment of confrontation, Kennedy was given two options with respect to Cuba, just the same as [President] Obama will be in respect to Iran – either attack to prevent Cuba becoming a Soviet-nuclear weapons base, or acquiesce in a fait accompli in which Cuba is a Soviet nuclear weapons base. And at that last minute, looking at those two options and seeing why each of them were in his view catastrophic, Kennedy began an intense and inventive search for something else, for an alternative different than the ones his advisors had given him. And I would say that in the case of Iran and the Iranian nuclear challenge today, if we are to avoid having to choose between two unacceptable options, we should become a lot more inventive now about ugly options, ones that won't be pleasant but would be better than the other two.
Interviewed by Doug Gavel on April 8, 2013.