From Surviving Nuclear Knife Edge to 100 Pinpricks: The Next U.S. Foreign Policy


Sunday in the Los Angeles Times, an excerpt ran of a new book that was partly sponsored by the New America Foundation/American Strategy Progam titled America and the World: Conversations on the Future of U.S. Foreign Policy with Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and David Ignatius.
On the same subject, I recently hosted former National Security Advisors Brzezinski and Scowcroft for a meeting which is watchable above.
And Michiko Kakutani gave the book an outstanding review in the New York Times.
I hope that folks buy it — and read it. It’s an excellent primer on the strategic choices facing the U.S. and how these challenges should be faced.
From the LA Times selection, I found this bit most compelling:

Ignatius: Brent, how would you lead off in assessing the nature of our problem? What’s broken in our ability to respond?
Brent Scowcroft: I look at the world in much the same way Zbig does. But let me start from a more historical background. I think the end of the Cold War marked a historical discontinuity in the world environment.
The Cold War was an intense concentration on a single problem. It mobilized us. It mobilized our friends and allies against a single bloc. It affected our thought processes. It affected our institutions, everything we did. I don’t know if there’s ever been a time we were more concentrated.
And suddenly, historically in the blink of an eye, that world came to an end, and it was replaced by a world without the existential threat of the Cold War. If we made a mistake, we might blow up the planet — that was gone. Instead, there were 100 pinprick problems. Instead of looking through one end of the telescope, at Moscow, we were looking through the other end at this myriad of little problems. And we were dealing with them with thought processes and institutions geared for that one end of the telescope.
Ignatius: What was it like to sit in the White House in a world where the great fear was nuclear annihilation?
Scowcroft: There was the ever-present thought that if either side made a serious mistake, it could be catastrophic for humanity. Did we spend all our waking moments thinking about that? No. But it was a combination of that and a struggle to understand what the Soviets were up to, and what was their capability of, for example, a technological development that could suddenly make us vulnerable, and change this standoff to an asymmetry.
Ignatius: Zbig, what did it feel like for you to be in the cockpit?
Brzezinski: Well, one of my jobs was to coordinate the president’s response in the event of a nuclear attack. I’m not revealing any secrets, but it was something like this: We would have initial warning of an attack within one minute of a large-scale launch by the Soviet Union. Roughly by the second minute we’d have a pretty good notion of the scale and the likely targets. By the third minute, we would know more or less when to anticipate impact and so forth. By the third minute, the job of the national security advisor was to alert the president that this was ongoing, that we have this information. And the president then decides how to respond.
It begins to get complicated immediately. If it’s an all-out attack, the response is presumably easier. You just react in total. But suppose it’s a more selective attack. There are choices to be made. The president is supposed to weigh the options. How will he react? There’s an element of uncertainty here. In any case, the process is to be completed roughly by the seventh minute. By which time — I assume this was roughly the same with you guys, right?
Scowcroft: So far, uh-huh.
Brzezinski: By the seventh minute, the order to execute had to be transmitted and whatever we decided had to be carried out. Roughly by the 28th minute, there’s impact. That is to say, you and your family are dead. Washington’s gone. A lot of our military assets are destroyed. But presumably, the president has calmly made the decision how to respond. We’re already firing back. Six hours later, 150 million Americans and Soviets are dead. That is the reality we lived with. And we did everything we could to make it as stable, as subject to rational control, as possible. To be nonprovocative but also to be very alert and determined so that no one on the other side could think they could pull it off and survive.
It’s very different now. I think Brent has described it very well — 100 pinpricks. The new reality is a kind of dispersed turbulence. And that requires, I think, a different mind-set, a more sophisticated understanding of the complexity of global change.

More soon.
— Steve Clemons


10 comments on “From Surviving Nuclear Knife Edge to 100 Pinpricks: The Next U.S. Foreign Policy

  1. söve says:

    Everyone who said our delusional ‘Democracy’ Spreading and the GWOT would end with the elephant on it’s knees from a thousand bites, raise your hand. (Me raising my hand)( I’ll raise POA’s hand for him


  2. Mr.Murder says:

    The reason Brzez did not wish to mention Venezuela is that the Russian Navy is there now and we’re about to relive the Cuban missile crisis.
    That’s the only way these guys can remain relevant in entirety, is to try and rebuild the old model in new hemispheres.


  3. Mr.Murder says:

    You want to flip the model?
    Engage Iran.
    Their proliferation is welcomed as an enabler to the missile shield in East Europe.
    As is North Korea’s, in its deterrent to China.
    Iran would welcome the dollar, boosting our influence. It would open new markets and ease oil speculation concerns.
    Syria would end up trying to get inside of this agreement by becoming a bit more transparent as well. They’d wish to remain ahead of Iran regionally
    Iran would provide the security we need to stabilize Iraq and provide client state triangulation to both Arabia and Israel, the same with Dubai.
    Iran would help address security concerns in the tribal regions so we could effectively address Al Qaeda.
    Then Pakistan develops peaceably as a buffer to China the same way Iran and Iraq can hedge Russia.
    Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Israel, Arabia each have major ethnic minorities whose rights must be respected as part of a regional aid effort across institutional and banking power houses such as Dubai, Cyprus and Jordan as a way of addressing the Chalabi types who gutted those institutions and their ties to our credit crisis.
    Small and large states.
    Interdependence of problems isn’t quite as complex if you layer several solutions in the approach to developing transparency.
    We just have different ways of coming about it than do the NSA types.
    Besides, engagement develops multiple penetrative opportunities for the IC so we can address security concerns coupled with such transformational eras.


  4. Carroll says:

    Have these guys used the 100 pinpricks to describe what we are up against before?
    I know I and others on here have been describing our coming and current situtation that way for several years now.
    Everyone here who used death by a thousand cuts (for America) raise your hand. (Me raising my hand)
    Everyone who said our delusional ‘Democracy’ Spreading and the GWOT would end with the elephant on it’s knees from a thousand bites, raise your hand. (Me raising my hand)( I’ll raise POA’s hand for him also)
    Here’s another truthism’ for you.. it doesn’t matter a rats ass what the ‘very serious’ fossils in DC and the talky tanks think.
    It only matters now what the world outside of the US thinks..and this is what they think:
    UK press, German press, Asian press, ME press,Russian press, China’s MP, etc…
    “Here is a historic geopolitical shift, in which the balance of power in the world is being altered irrevocably. The era of American global leadership, reaching back to the Second World War, is over.”
    Do you suppose all the ‘very serious’ people in DC get it now? Nope, probably not.
    America is no longer going to be a capital “A’ Actor on the world stage, America will now be in the position of having to ‘React’ to a world it can’t any longer control.


  5. Peter Hofmann says:

    Think of Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov and Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov


  6. Mr.Murder says:

    These guys still use old world views, they see everything through a prism of fossil fuels
    Energy independence utilizing solar, wind, hydro could get us off oil and coal titties, entirely.
    No, let’s blow up mountains and wash the debris down with what was once pure drinking water and call it “clean coal” for a clean profit.
    Let’s continue forcing a two faced policy with the charade called democracy by kissing the ass of whoever the sheik of the month is. Who will rid us these thousands of pinpricks? Where is the final solution to them?
    Brzez was long ago ready to fight Russia for the Bering strait offshore oil lease rights. He knew our perception of the giant was really that of a country with an over hyped military. Maybe Palin can actually go through with this idea….
    Turns out Barack is overtaken by his ear as well. You do realize Brzez actually helped found and support the Al Qaeda pinpricks?
    What new future foe will he enable to defeat that one. He won’t defeat them. They serve greater purpose than the commies once did. Instant means justification.
    All your wonderful meeting is missing was a wheelchair for Dr.Strangelove to be wheeled in upon. “I can walk!”


  7. rich says:

    Of course the Cold War was an anomaly, or a “discontinuity” as Brent (Oh, Brent!) put it.
    But a return to ‘normalcy’ doesn’t mean we’re navigating less dangerous waters. To think otherwise is plainly foolhardy.
    America swung from a reflexive militarism that insisted we faced an imminent mortal threat, to blithely assuming the U.S. held ‘Lone Superpower’ status (like the Lone Ranger, I guess), all while busily disassembling and exporting the economic engine that created American primacy in the first place. We burned up the soft power of American idealism by instigating wars overt and covert, deviating in practice from our widely admired political values that’d proven power accrues to those siding with just causes and popular movements.
    We completely misunderstood the source of national Power then, and the “100 pinpricks’ comment indicates Brent Scowcroft continues to do so now.
    To think we’re a Giant surrounded by gnats is as irresponsible as it is dangerous.
    What’s the answer to the rising national heft of Brazil, India, China? To a multipolar economic world? To China’s and Japan’s ownership of U.S. debt and currency? When Turkey and Morocco and Vietnam all build high-speed rail, but America won’t, what’s the answer? More pyramid-schemes on Wall Street? More unauthorized bombings? More unprovoked wars?
    When technological capacity is accelerating worldwide, how do you put a cap on nuclear technology? You can’t.
    The only two questions left are 1) if America can make money selling nuclear technology before other nations earn that capacity on their own; and 2) whether we can shape how that technology’s used and monitored.
    Our military power does not offer viable options in facing the multipolar geopolitics. Coercion of sovereign nations—John Bolton demanding that “France and Germany .. just follow orders”—is wrongheaded in dealing with Iran, and it will not work.
    Our overreaction to the Soviets, in allowing our Cold War stance to turn an American Athens into Sparta, cost us a critical opportunity to reshape geopolitical affairs and retain an economic head start. I don’t believe we’ve navigated the post-1945-to-now soundly or deftly.
    Overhyping the military threat–Soviet achives again and again document Cold War leaders were equally intent on avoiding Armageddon–and succumbing to the notion that our rivalry had a military solution, just sucked resources out of the economy and inured Americans to the corrosive excuse that, “hey, it’s national security.”
    Now, we’re laboring under the delusion that ALL we face is “100 pinprick problems.” No kidding it ‘requires a different mindset’—but as usual, we’re very late to the game. And our swagger will cost us big time; we’re not the giant we like to think, and we’re far more vulnerable than any will admit. Just one “pinprick” on 9/11/01 exhausted the army, bankrupted the treasury, bought us two quagmires, cost us allies, moral standing, geopolitical position, and what little economic edge we had left. All because we thought we could give orders, go anywhere, and ignore what everybody else said.
    Still believe David Ignatius, given his record on Iraq, is ill-suited to lead this discussion. Has he learned any lesson? Has he acknowledged any mistake? Yet here we are talking about new mindsets, and Ignatius hasn’t applied that imperative to himself, or to America’s decision-making process when faced with plainly false intel and a pathetic justification for war.


  8. Henry S says:

    For those on-line readers who did not get a chance to see the actual exchange between these great minds, please take the time to look at the video. Steve and the New America Foundation team hosted a great event.


  9. Chris Grayson says:

    Thank you for providing this content.


  10. Mr.Murder says:

    Gulliver’s Travels.
    The giant is actually our own world view.
    Until we arrive at new lands on a flat Earth and discover our moral stature to be miniscule.
    It turns out that a Yahoo is our deliverance. Individuals able to bridge these views and cultures, keeping reason intact, these friends can give insight.


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