The looming military conflict between the US and North Korea contains a double danger. Although both sides, the US and North Korea, are for sure bluffing, not counting on an actual nuclear exchange, rhetoric never functions as mere rhetoric but can always run out of control. Furthermore, as many commentators have noticed, the weird thing is that Trump decided to occupy a position symmetrical to Kim Jong Un, raising the stakes in the game. This escalation resembles more and more the struggle for recognition between the two subjects described by Hegel, the struggle in which the winner is the one who proves his readiness to die rather than make a compromise on behalf of life. Trump thereby inadvertently got caught into a game which does not become a true superpower. Something that can be understood as a strategy of North Korea, a small and weak country, is simply ridiculous in the case of the US where a discreet stern warning would have been enough.
We should apply to today’s situation what we know about the Cuban missile crisis. The view of this crisis by the US military establishment was best rendered by Raymond Garthoff, at the time an intelligence analyst in the State Department: “If we have learned anything from this experience, it is that weakness, even only apparent weakness, invites Soviet transgression. At the same time, firmness in the last analysis will force the Soviets to back away from rash initiatives.” The Soviet perception of the crisis was different: for them, it was not the threat of force that ended the crisis. The Soviet leadership believed the crisis ended because both Soviet and US officials realized they were at the brink and that the crisis was threatening to destroy humankind. They did not fear only for their immediate safety and were not worried merely about losing a battle in Cuba. Their fear was the fear of deciding the fate of millions of others, even of civilization itself. It was this fear, experienced by both sides at the peak of the crisis, that enabled them to reach a peaceful solution; and it was this fear which was at the very core of the famous exchange of letters between Khrushchev and Fidel Castro at the climax of the crisis.
In a letter to Khrushchev from October 26, 1962, Castro wrote that “if the imperialists invade Cuba with the goal of occupying it, the danger that that aggressive policy poses for humanity is so great that following that event the Soviet Union must never allow the circumstances in which the imperialists could launch the first nuclear strike against it. / I tell you this because I believe that the imperialists’ aggressiveness is extremely dangerous and if they actually carry out the brutal act of invading Cuba in violation of international law and morality, that would be the moment to eliminate such danger forever through an act of clear legitimate defense, however harsh and terrible the solution would be, for there is no other.”
Khrushchev answered Castro on October 30: “In your cable of October 27 you proposed that we be the first to launch a nuclear strike against the territory of the enemy. You, of course, realize where that would have led. Rather than a simple strike, it would have been the start of a thermonuclear world war. / Dear Comrade Fidel Castro, I consider this proposal of yours incorrect, although I understand your motivation. / We have lived through the most serious moment when a nuclear world war could have broken out. Obviously, in that case, the United States would have sustained huge losses, but the Soviet Union and the whole socialist camp would have also suffered greatly. As far as Cuba is concerned, it would be difficult to say even in general terms what this would have meant for them. In the first place, Cuba would have been burned in the fire of war. There’s no doubt that the Cuban people would have fought courageously or that they would have died heroically. But we are not struggling against imperialism in order to die, but to take advantage of all our possibilities, to lose less in the struggle and win more to overcome and achieve the victory of communism.”
The essence of Khrushchev’s argument can be best summed up by Neil Kinnock’s anti-war argument, when he was the Labour candidate in the UK elections: “I am ready to die for my country, but I am not ready to let my country die for me.” It is significant to note that, in spite of the “totalitarian” character of the Soviet regime, this fear was much more predominant in the Soviet leadership than in the US leadership. So, perhaps, the time has come to rehabilitate Khrushchev, not Kennedy, as the real hero of the Cuban missile crisis. In the emerging New World Order, there seems to be less and less space for such thinking. Why? This emerging order is no longer the order of global liberal democracy imagined by Fukuyama but one of a fragile co-existence of different politico-theological ways of life, co-existence unfolding, of course, against the background of the smooth functioning of global capitalism. The obscenity of the process is that it can present itself as a progress in anti-colonial struggle: the liberal West will no longer be allowed to imposed standards on others and all ways of life will be treated as equal. No wonder that Robert Mugabe displayed sympathy for Trump’s slogan “America first!” – “America first!” for you, “Zimbabwe first!” for me, “India first!” or “North Korea first!” for them… This is how the British Empire, the first global capitalist empire, functioned: each ethnic-religious community was allowed to pursue its own way of life, Hindus in India were safely burning widows, etc., and these local “customs” were either criticized as barbaric or praised for their premodern wisdom, but tolerated since what mattered was that they were economically part of the Empire.
If the basic underlying axiom of the Cold War was MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), the axiom of today’s War on Terror seems to be the opposite one, that of NUTS (Nuclear Utilization Target Selection), i.e., the idea that, by means of a surgical strike, one can destroy the enemy’s nuclear capabilities, while the anti-missile shield is protecting us from a counter-strike. More precisely, the US adopts a differential strategy: it acts as if it continues to trust the MAD logic in its relations with Russia and China, while it is tempted to practice NUTS with Iran and North Korea. The paradoxical mechanism of MAD inverts the logic of the “self-fulfilling prophecy” into a “self-stultifying intention.” The very fact that each side can be sure that, in case it decides to launch a nuclear attack on the other side, the other will respond with full destructive force, guarantees that no side will start a war. The logic of NUTS is, on the contrary, that the enemies can be forced to disarm if it is assured that we can strike at them without risking a counter-attack. The very fact that two directly contradictory strategies are mobilized simultaneously by the same superpower bears witness to the fantasmatic character of this entire reasoning. In December 2016, this inconsistency reached an almost unimaginable ridiculous peak: both Trump and Putin emphasized the chance for new more friendly relations between Russia and the US and simultaneously asserted their full commitment to the arms race, as if peace between superpowers can only be provided by a new Cold War…
A similar perverted strategy of profiting from the very threat to one’s survival (and from the worst outcome of one’s own reign) is at work in a new type of state socialism which is emerging in North Korea (and up to a point also in Cuba and Venezuela); it combines ruthless Party rule with the wildest capitalism. While state power is firmly entrenched in the ruling Party, the state is no longer able to provide the daily necessities of life, especially food, to the general population, and so it has to tolerate wild local capitalism. In North Korea, there are hundreds of “free” markets where individuals sell home-grown food, commodities smuggled from China, etc. The North Korean state is thus relieved of the burden to take care of ordinary people and can concentrate on new arms and the life of the elite. In an unheard-of cruel irony, the North Korean basic ideological notion of juche (self-reliance) arrives at its truth: not the nation, individuals themselves have to rely on their own forces…
This predominant trend is extremely dangerous because it runs directly against the urgent need to establish a new mode of relating to our environs, a radical politico-economic change called by Peter Sloterdijk “the domestication of the wild animal Culture.” Till now, each culture disciplined/educated its own members and guaranteed civic peace among them in the guise of state power, but the relationship between different cultures and states was permanently under the shadow of potential war, with each state of peace nothing more than a temporary armistice. As Hegel conceptualized it, the entire ethic of a state culminates in the highest act of heroism, the readiness to sacrifice one’s life for one’s nation-state, which means that the wild barbarian relations between states serve as the foundation for the ethical life within a state. Is today’s North Korea with its ruthless pursuit of nuclear weapons and rockets to hit distant targets not the ultimate example of this logic of unconditional nation-state sovereignty? However, the moment we fully accept the fact that we live on Spaceship Earth, the task that urgently imposes itself is that of civilizing civilizations themselves, of imposing universal solidarity and cooperation among all human communities, a task rendered all the more difficult by the ongoing rise of sectarian religious and ethnic “heroic” violence and readiness to sacrifice oneself (and the world) for one’s specific Cause.
Back in the 1960s, the motto of the early ecological movements was “Think globally, act locally!” With his politics of sovereignty echoing the stance of North Korea, Trump promises to do the exact opposite, to turn the US into a glocal power, but, this time, in the sense of: “Act globally, think locally!”
[Appeared in The Philosophical Salon on August 21st 2017.]