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Wed. November 20, 2019
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IA-Forum Interview: Thomas Nichols
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International Affairs Forum: You teach a class at Harvard on a fascinating subject, the future of war. What are the top three changes in the international system that are affecting the way states go to war? Dr. Thomas Nichols: One, the decline in the protections of absolute state sovereignty. Two, the willingness to use force by all of the great powers. And three, the technology that makes the use of force much more possible and plausible in modern circumstances. IA-Forum: Let me ask about the decline in sovereignty issue. How did this evolve and does it ever go back? Dr. Nichols: I don't think it can ever go back. The sovereignty norm was breached by the repeated humanitarian crises of the 1990s. At that point the major states said, “we can't sit idly by while millions of people die”. One that norm was breached, there was no going back and even Kofi Annan recognized that in a September 1999 speech to the UN. IA-Forum: How do you rate the ability of the international system to control the global nuclear order? Dr. Nichols: Well, the international global order can control the global nuclear system because you can't just pick uranium up out of the gutter. A.Q. Khan sold know-how; he didn't sell uranium. Any smart pair of graduate students, to use Graham Allison's words, knows how to build a nuclear bomb. But getting that fissile material, that's a whole different story. And if the great powers of the world decide to control the nuclear fuel cycle and really control access to fissile material, then yeah, they do have the chance of controlling the spread of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons themselves are not hard to design or build, but putting that fissile material in them is a lot tougher than it looks. IA-Forum: What do you think about when you look at Iran? Dr. Nichols: Well, Iran has to be stopped. It's just a matter of how. By the way, please include that I don't speak for the U.S. government on this. That disclaimer needs to be said. IA-Forum: Certainly. I want to talk a bit about one of the issues that you bring up quite a bit in your class. You write and teach a lot about the idea of ‘preventive’ war. So let's be specific. How do you define that? Dr. Nichols: Preventive war is war undertaken before a potential enemy can become a threat. During the Kennedy administration, the Americans considered preventive war against the Chinese and they called it “strangling the baby in the cradle”. Preemptive war, which is the more legitimate twin of preventive war, is undertaking war when you're about to be attacked. So in other words, preemptive war is a spoiling attack. Preventive war is attacking far in advance of any even potential threats. IA-Forum: Should a liberal democracy be engaged in preventive war? Dr. Nichols: I would argue that that is the major international relations debate of the early 21st century, because until now the answer has been no. But the great powers up until the end of the 20th century had always worked out rules of the road among themselves about things like the use of force. Now we have a bunch of players who have no interest in the status quo or the liberal international order. So preventive war, if I may quote Robert Skidelsky, “rogue states and failed states generate demands for preventive war”. It's not that people want to go to war, it's that they've reached the limits of their ability to tolerate risk, which is a whole different issue. IA-Forum: In your latest book, The Eve of Destruction: The Coming Age of Preventive War, you fear a new age is coming of unregulated preventive war. You write, “we have never in history had a situation where small groups unaffiliated with any state and embracing radical, death-loving ideologies could do vast scale damage to us all.” What role should the UN play in this international debate? Dr. Nichols: I'd be happy if the UN played any role in it at all. But the fact of the matter is the UN was not created to solve problems. The UN was created to prevent World War III. So the UN needs to be dramatically overhauled because in fairness the UN was never designed to solve problems like this. I would love to see the UN play a vigorous, dynamic role in snuffing out these kinds of threats. But the UN, as Henry Cabot Lodge once said in the 1950s, was not created to take you to heaven; it was created to prevent you from going to hell. IA-Forum: How do you look at the Security Council at this point? Would you revamp the whole organization? Dr. Nichols: In my book, I argue that the Security Council is the only element of the United Nations that really matters when it comes to issues like this. And yes, the Security Council needs to be totally overhauled. IA-Forum: If you could overhaul it, how would you do it? Dr. Nichols: Well, first, I would remake it along the lines of something like the G8, where only the most powerful industrial democracies decided who got in and who got out. I would also make part of the price of entry the willingness to abide by group decisions, that is to say I would get rid of the veto. But I would only get rid of the veto under the condition that all of the countries voting were liberal democracies with a vested interest in the international order as it now stands. IA-Forum: Thinking about the veto and the Security Council, where do Russia and China fit in your construction? Dr. Nichols: Actually, Russia's less of a problem. China punches far above its weight in international affairs because of that veto and because of its status as a source of cheap manufacturing. On the other hand, interestingly enough, the Chinese have not shown a particularly obstructionist bent in the Security Council. IA-Forum: Why do you think that is? Dr. Nichols: They've been willing to let the Western powers sort of slug it out while we deal with the fallout from the collapse of the Soviet Union. I think China is a paradox because on the one hand, they are a dictatorship. They don't want anyone to tell them what to do. On the other hand, they desperately want to be perceived as a good member, a citizen in good standing of the international order. IA-Forum: Where does that leave China regarding the issue with the attack on the South Korean submarine this spring, the Cheonan, and North Korea? How does China interact in that way to be a good member of the community in this situation? Dr. Nichols: I think at some point, and this is purely my conjecture, the Chinese are going to have to walk away from the North Koreans. For ideological reasons, the Chinese have always supported the North Koreans, but the North Koreans have always been the equivalent of China's crazy uncle in the attic. They're family. The Chinese but they realize that they pay a huge price for doing it. And 90% of the time, they themselves don't agree with what the North Koreans are doing. There was probably nobody more upset other than the South Koreans over the sinking of the Cheonan besides the Chinese. The Chinese probably covered their eyes and said “oh, not again”. Let's be honest about something. North Korea has no real allies. That's the problem. There's really nobody that wants to be North Korea's friend because the price is too high. IA-Forum: Switching gears, how do we train our soldiers and buy equipment now for future conflicts? Dr. Nichols: I would argue that we have to stop thinking about future conflicts as somehow unique or different. War is war. I think what we've learned is that we can't take over a country with 100 Jedi Knights. We're re-learning some of the lessons of Vietnam; war on the ground looks like it has for a hundred years. I think it's very encouraging that we have General Mattis and General Petraeus running Afghanistan because, in the end, these are men who understand that war is what it is. When the enemy starts shooting at you, let me give you a great quote -- after Vietnam, there was a lot of money put into studying “low intensity conflict”. As one of my Vietnam friends said, “I don't know what low intensity conflict is because when I was there it seemed pretty intense at the time.” The idea that somehow there's some unique species of war…well there is. This isn't like trying to defeat the Weirmacht on the plains of Poland. But on the other hand, it really is trying to capture one village at a time and make sure it stays on [course]. There are only two teams: Team Red and Team Blue. And that's pretty much it. IA-Forum: What do you think about the fact that soldiers, airmen, and Marines are being asked to do civil affairs? How does that fit in? Dr. Nichols: They always have been. I think it's one of the unfortunate canards of our era. Remember, General Patton was relieved of his command because he kept Nazis in positions of authority. But of course that was the commander and I'm not going to make a judgment on that. I don't have a strong feeling about General Patton one way or another. But what I'm trying to get across is this was a commander who, after the conflict was over, had to make decisions about civil administration. That's just the way war is. I think people have gotten too used to the idea that wars have tidy beginnings and ends. We're still in Korea. It's been 57 years. We're still there. And people say well, we're done, right, and we beat the Koreans? Well, we beat the Koreans. There are people serving in Korea whose fathers hadn't been born yet. IA-Forum: Outsourcing and the use of private contractors have become big business for the Pentagon in the last 20 years or so, especially with the “revolution in military affairs” approach. We outsource military software to companies in India and hardware to China for our own military. Does this leave us vulnerable in future conflicts? Dr. Nichols: Well, there are two answers to that question. One is that you never want to outsource things that you might need in a hurry. On the other hand, outsourcing doesn’t mean that you've forgotten how to make those things. It just means that you figured out a way to make them cheaper when there's no war going on. IA-Forum: But we're using that hardware and that software now. Dr. Nichols: I don't believe there's any country in the world that can simply put a stop to American military supremacy by simply saying, “well, we won't make your hats anymore”. Joan Johnson-Freese and I have written a piece about “declinism”. Over 90% of the patents in the world are owned by Americans. What we're good at is knowledge and invention. What other people are good at is taking that and making it cheaply. China and Japan can build computers like there's no tomorrow. What they can't do is design one. I don't want to be too much of an American triumphalist here. But on the other hand, all computers in the world run on one of two microchips: AMD or Intel. They're both made in the United States and they really run on one of three operating systems: Windows, Mac, or Linux. All of them are made in the United States. The theory of making a computer is well known. The code that makes a really good computer is all patented in the United States. You can extend this to things like airlines. There are only two aircraft manufacturers in the world. The United States and Europe. You don't see the Russians or the Chinese making big plays for the passenger aircraft market. It's pretty much either Boeing or Airbus, that's it, and even Airbus cooperates heavily with the Americans. I think people get unnecessarily worried about this. They say, “we're going to be overtaken”. What we're good at is inventing things. What the rest of the world is good at is imitating things. IA-Forum: Let me follow along on this a little bit. The new head of the U.S. Cyber Command, General Keith Alexander, said in June “the Pentagon systems are attacked 250,000 times an hour or six million times a day. The attacks include foreign intelligence agents, criminal enterprises, and hackers trying to make mischief.” Defense computers, defense contractor computers and civilian power grids have become targets of cyber attacks. Stories have circulated that the U.S. and China have attacked each other's computer networks in recent years to test the systems. How would you rate the threat of a cyber war between the U.S. and China or the U.S. and Russia? Dr. Nichols: Have you ever looked at your own computer's antivirus and firewall software and seen how many times a day you're attacked? It's what they do. It's what hackers do because they're not talented enough to do anything else. They sit around all day throwing rocks against people's windows to see which ones will break. I personally think the whole cyber attack issue is important but overblown at this point. In the end, remember that all of America's defense systems were designed and meant to operate under nuclear combat conditions before there was anything like the internet. The idea that somehow now all of our systems are somehow delicate simply because there's an internet is really a kind of early 21st century vanity. In 1966 America had a robust nuclear capacity and nobody had a home computer. Being able to knock out a big part of the cyber grid can be a horrendous pain in the neck, but the internet was designed specifically not to allow that. The internet was designed to withstand a nuclear attack. I'm sure it can withstand some teenagers in China. IA-Forum: In your current article on space and nuclear defenses, you say “preventive strikes are, in effect, acts of war, whether executed by a single unmanned drone or an entire armada of aircraft carriers and the United States will face hard choices in the coming decade.” What are your top three “hard choices”? What do you envision? Dr. Nichols: First, the elimination of rogue nuclear missile programs. By that I don't mean rogue missiles or rogue nuclear programs, but the marrying of those two: rogue, nuclear, missile, programs. There are countries in the world that cannot be allowed to develop the ability to launch a nuclear-armed ICBM. And as some countries get closer to that, we simply can't allow it (“we” being the West). That is probably the largest preventive war issue out there. I would say probably a distant second is the ability to identify incipient humanitarian disasters, genocides in the making. We should have known about Rwanda. We did know. We didn't do anything. It was nice that Bill Clinton apologized, but that didn't save a million dead people. But that will pale in comparison to the ability of some rogue state unveiling one, three, five nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. That must be stopped at all costs. IA-Forum: Are you looking at Iran and North Korea when you're thinking of this? Dr. Nichols: Well, I didn't actually mention any countries. But since you brought them up, yes. To that mix I would add Syria. There was a time I would have added China but the Chinese, I think, seem to have become comfortable with their status as a nuclear power and I think we've all worked out the rules of engagement. But particularly North Korea, which I think has no common sense whatsoever. If current trends aren't stopped, there will come a moment when the president of the United States is going to have to either accept the reality of an enemy nuclear strike or attack the North Korean program in some way. Now I'm working on an article right now as part of a book where I argue that we should not do that with nuclear weapons. That nuclear retaliation has to become a thing of the past. But that what we have to have is a very powerful conventional retaliatory force that's aimed at the utter destruction of the enemy regime, while sparing as many innocent people as possible. I'm saying that if a rogue state launches a nuclear weapon at the United States, and let's face it, they'll only be able to launch one or two, that the United States should, contrary to all historical experience and what the American people will want, the United States should grit its teeth, accept the damage, and then set about methodically and relentlessly destroying the enemy regime and killing or capturing its leaders. IA-Forum: Conventionally? Dr. Nichols: Conventionally. Because it's one thing to talk about striking the Soviet Union back during a global war. Or even striking the Chinese deterrent, which is very deep within China. If you strike North Korea or Iran or Syria or some other proliferator, you are going to kill, maim, or otherwise incapacitate thousands upon thousands of innocent people. At some point nuclear retaliation simply becomes immoral. You could argue that during the Cold War, nuclear retaliation itself was immoral because it would kill 100 million innocent Russians. But we had no choice. IA-Forum: The U.S. is the only country which has used a nuclear weapon in war so far. Dr. Nichols: And we used it after a grinding war that came in the wake of a surprise attack where we lost hundreds of thousands of people over four years of conflict against an enemy that was given ample opportunity to surrender. If the North Koreans drop a nuclear weapon on us out of nowhere in the middle of a conflict, striking the North Koreans back is going to kill thousands of South Koreans, Japanese, Russians, and others. And they know it. The North Koreans and the Iranians are using the people around them as human shields. We have to have a better plan than that. IA-Forum: Where do you think Israel fits in this in terms of Iran at this point? Dr. Nichols: Israel is a unique case. You cannot draw any conclusions from Israeli planning at all. The Israelis are three million people surrounded by what some perceive as 200 million enemies. So based on this premise, nuclear weapons make a lot of sense. But you simply can't generalize and I really want to emphasize this. You cannot generalize from the Israeli case to any other cases in the world. IA-Forum: Let me move it in a different direction. Looking at the recent car bombing in Mexico on the federal police that raised the bar and really set up an alarm because it used insurgent tactics in a criminal enterprise – the drug cartels. Do you see a growing fusion between war and crime? Dr. Nichols: No. It's very trendy to talk about the blurring of the line between war and crime. The fact is, war is a purposeful use of violence between states. Crime is exactly what it sounds like: crime. There is no regard for law. There is no regard for borders. It bears no regard for combatants. It's simply thugs trying to make money. Interstate war is a different matter entirely and is governed by a whole different set of rules. IA-Forum: Do you think that the U.S. is looking in the wrong direction by focusing on immigration reform vis-à-vis Mexico when it should be looking at the drug wars there? Dr. Nichols: No, I think the United States really has to think about Mexico in terms of making sure it's not a failed state. The problems the United States faces around the world are not poorly governed states, the problems are ungovernable states. Mexico at this point is in some places a poorly governed state but it's not ungovernable and it hasn't reached the point of no return. In one country it might be drugs. In another country it might be Islamic radicals. In another country it might be human trafficking, which I think is a threat the United States has not paid enough attention to and should. But in the end, once a state’s capacity to govern collapses, all things become possible. Anything from human trafficking to nuclear weapons become possible. And to focus on any one of those things is to miss the big picture, which is big capacity. IA-Forum: When you think about the future of war, from new technologies coming into play and nonstate actors having larger roles, where do you feel some optimism about future conflicts? Dr. Nichols: Actually I do see a lot of causes for optimism. First, I think that the experience of World War II, the Cold War, and the humanitarian wars in the 1990s have been a terrifically sobering experience for the international community. I think in some way we've finally gotten past our adolescence. The idea that a regime like Nazi Germany could make it state policy to exterminate an entire race of people seems utterly fantastic and insane at this point in history. Whereas in 1933, it was met with, well, shrugs. First of all I think, as many experienced diplomats including Henry Kissinger and others have pointed out, we're now all dependent on the same global system. Now this is a refrain that was heard just before World War I in a very hopeful way. But the one thing that didn't exist in World War I that exists now is instantaneous global communication. If I want to know what's going on in the heart of Siberia, I can put you on hold, dial my iPhone, and find out right now. The fact of the matter is that the level of trust, transparency, and cooperation among what used to be called ‘the major powers’ has never been as good as it is now. To me, the problems are the little guys, the people that still don’t get it. Who have long-forgotten grudges. Or insane leaders. Or access to technology they should never have been allowed to get their hands on. But I have to agree, and I'm speaking now as an old Cold Warrior, as an old Cold War hawk, that I've never seen the great powers more in alignment with each other about keeping the peace and not falling into conflict with each other over small, stupid, or insignificant matters that a hundred years ago could have triggered a conflagration. So I do feel more optimistic. I don't go to bed every night worrying, as I did 25 years ago, that I would wake up and find the world vaporized. I do wake up and worry that I'll find out that 50,000 people or 100,000 people have been killed in some insane terrorist attack or genocidal frenzy. But I don't worry that civilization itself will come to an end. And I think for one man's lifetime, that's enough. IA-Forum: Thank you, Dr. Nichols. Dr. Nichols is Professor of National Security Affairs and a former chairman of the Strategy Department at the United States Naval War College in Newport, R.I., where he also holds the Forrest Sherman Chair of Public Diplomacy. He is currently a senior associate of the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs in New York and a fellow in both the international security program and the project on managing the atom at the Harvard Kennedy School. His most recent book is Eve of Destruction: The Coming Age of Preventive War (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

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