North Korea has fired a big rocket into the sky, put a satellite in orbit and then splashed the rocket into the sea. How much should I care? Not much. How much should we all care? The answer is not much.
The diet of global horror served up each day by the world’s media demands we compare, reason and ration, or the collective eye will run dry of tears. North Korea’s spending on rocketry is tragic for its hungry people and a nuisance for its neighbors, but it is essentially a political stunt, as pointed out last week by such sober heads as Stockholm’s peace research institute. With a conventional warhead a missile might cause a big bang somewhere. A nuclear warhead is so far off as to be fanciful. It would make a terrible mess, but not conquer territory. The prospect of North Korea using its missiles to topple a foreign regime is absurd.
That has not stopped the usual hysteria. North Korea “rattles Asia and the US,” the International Herald Tribune says. Analysts declare that the rocket “could ultimately be used as a nuclear missile.” Its “hidden purpose” is said to be a “nuclear warhead capable of striking the US west coast.” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calls the rocket “a clear violation” of UN resolutions. British Foreign Secretary William Hague “strongly condemns it,” which I suppose makes him feel better.
The same response greets every new weapon announced by a proto-nuclear state. Iran’s ambition drives the so-called international community to distraction. Any sign of instability in the internal politics of Pakistan is received with a global shudder. A missile of any type is assumed to be a harbinger of some unique horror, like last Wednesday’s news of the Syrian regime using “Scud-type” missiles against rebel targets.
This is mostly nonsense. David Edgerton of Imperial College London said in his book The Shock of the Old on the “paradox of lethality,” with conflicts becoming less lethal even as weapons ostensibly become more so. The reason is that those on which most money is spent — high-tech, high-profile airborne ones — are fundamentally inaccurate and are anyway useless at taking territory. Missiles, which now include drones, seduce generals into an illusion of power, when in reality they are little more than weapons of terror. War is about holding land, not blowing up people and things.
As for nuclear weapons, Edgerton says they are simply too lethal to use. The craziest and most paranoid owners have not dared even to threaten them. They were no help in Vietnam or the Falklands, in Chechnya or Iraq or Afghanistan. The Chinese communists were right to call them “paper tigers,” though that did not stop the Chinese army wanting them as prestige objects.
The trouble is that no one ever sold a book or won a defense contract by downplaying nuclear holocaust. The Cold War was dominated by pro and anti-nuclear hysterics, giving no purchase to anyone accusing both sides of exaggeration. Yet every discussion of nuclear proliferation is awash in such qualifiers of doom as possible, potential, escalating toward, capable of and, most seductive of all, tipping point.
Alarmism has always been the stock in trade of power. Rulers have a vested interest in heightening threats, however implausible, egged on by their armies and arms manufacturers. The Cold War has thus been followed by the “war on terror,” chiefly as manifest by jihadism. However, jihadists, like North Koreans, pose no state threat to Europe, the US or Japan. They can only topple regimes, possibly in Egypt and Syria, by force of conventional arms. The Taliban have no need for missiles. They are defeating NATO with Kalashnikovs and mines.