Many of us believe that if nuclear missiles were to strike the United States, they would most likely come from North Korea. However, it is hard to dramatize this possibility or to make a convincing case for the exact pathway to a war. Jeffrey Lewis, a respected nuclear analyst, sets this as his task in what he calls a “speculative novel,” The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States. This way of explaining events that have not yet happened is, of course, not a new invention. British writers used it to warn of invasions from the continent in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with the menace coming first from France and then from Germany, and Lawrence Freedman recently outlined how future wars have been seen in numerous contexts. It also follows in the tradition of the Cold War movies Fail Safe, The Bedford Incident, and the unforgettable Dr. Strangelove, which got deterrence theory right because Thomas Schelling was an adviser on the film.
The main purpose of these imagined histories is to generate a self-denying prophecy by alarming readers. By showing what could happen, these books seek to energize people to make the effort necessary for it to not happen. This seems to be Lewis’ motive. I infer that he believes that if the United States stays on its current trajectory (or rather the trajectory it was on when he wrote the book, which was when tensions were particularly high following the North Korean nuclear and missile tests and President Donald Trump’s belligerent reaction to them), the likelihood of war will remain dangerously high. This does not tell us what should be done, however, since multiple alternative policies are possible. British authors in the early 20th century were urging more vigilance against Germany and what we would now call a more vigorous containment strategy. Readers of Lewis’ book will take different lessons from it. Some could perhaps be persuaded to support a preemptive strike. I assume this is not Lewis’ intent. His main thrust is toward policies, presumably more conciliatory ones, based on a better understanding of Kim Jong Un’s hopes and fears. He also hints at the virtues of, or at least the necessity for, abolishing nuclear weapons. [Continue reading…]