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Diplomacy yes (Part 3)

Q: North Korea has been developing both nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, which have the ability to reach the United States. Do you regret that you did not destroy the nuclear facilities at that time?


A: I regret that we didn’t stop them from getting any nuclear weapons. Whether or not it hits the United States, it can hit Japan, it can hit South Korea. Japan and South Korea are our allies. We can’t sit back and see the threat to maybe tens of millions of people. You know, if nuclear bombs are going off in Tokyo and Seoul, it would be a catastrophe of the first order. We have to care about that, first of all, whether or not it can hit the United States. But I am convinced they are going to go to that next stage and to get to a weapon capable of hitting the United States. It’s sort of a nuclear blackmail approach, and to cause Japan and South Korea to worry about whether we would apply our extended deterrence. That was the logic during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was threatening the United States and Germany. Germany wondered, “Would the United States come to their aid?” The cliche in those days was “Would the United States sacrifice New York in order to save Berlin, or Bonn?” That same question could be asked today.


The way we solved the problem then, at the German request, was we based our nuclear weapons in Germany, with our troops there. And so, we didn’t have an out. We were stuck. We had to defend them. And that gave them the confidence to go ahead. You can imagine the situation perhaps developing today, with either Japan or South Korea. I don’t think it’s desirable, and I think the extended deterrence carried out by our nuclear submarines, say, are sufficient to the job. But I can imagine, I can understand, why the people in Japan and the people in South Korea might want additional assurance. And that could be done by basing nuclear weapons in their countries. I want to be clear, though; I’m not recommending that. I do not think it’s a good idea. I think what we ought to do, what American leaders ought to do, is make it unambiguously clear that we will support the alliance and we will support extended deterrence, we will do the things we have promised to do, and make any--whatever commitment necessary, that’s necessary to assure the Japanese people and the South Korean people that we’ll do that. That’s far preferable to actually basing nuclear weapons in the two countries.


Q: On negotiation with North Korea, what do you think is the role of China and Russia?


A: I’m not sure. I know what China--I have my own view of what China “ought” to be thinking. They ought to be very, very concerned that a war is going to get started on the peninsula, and maybe even a nuclear war. That has to be adverse to their own interests. I think they should be very much concerned that South Korea, maybe even Japan, might go nuclear themselves. That has to be adverse to their interests. The North Korean nuclear program is stimulating actions which, if they occur, would be highly detrimental to China’s interests. They cannot want that to happen. And so they ought to be taking this, I think, more seriously and working more closely to try to get a resolution to the problem than they have been.


But I’m not saying--I’m not pointing to China and saying “You solve this problem,” just like they point to us and say “You solve this problem.” This is a problem that would be solved much better if the United States and China would work together because together they’d make much more powerful incentives and disincentives on North Korea. And had that happened years ago, we might have been able to avoid a nuclear arsenal. Even today, we can minimize the danger of the nuclear arsenal if China would work cooperatively with the United States, as well as with Japan and with South Korea.


Q: President Trump has just finished his first trip to Asia, including meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. How do you see his accomplishments or performance during his first visit to Asia?


A: On the outstanding issue of the day, which we’re talking about right now, which is a nuclear North Korea, I can’t see that he accomplished anything based on the public reports in the media. I can hope that in the private discussions, which are not yet published, he had some progress. But what has been published publicly, I see nothing of any value, I’m sorry to say, relative to the North Korean problem. I’m not making a more sweeping statement than that.


Q: President Trump tweeted that negotiations are a waste of time. And Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said since 1994 and 2006, North Korea lied and now is not the time for dialogue. Many pointed out that diplomacy is impossible with North Korea. What’s your reaction to that?


A: I say maybe this is not the time for dialogue, that’s debatable. What’s not debatable is this is not the time for a nuclear war. And I’m not sure what the alternative to a military conflict is, except diplomacy. So, I favor diplomacy. I favor talking with North Korea and favor talking with or without preconditions. I’m not at all confident that we’ll get a good result from that, but I am confident we’ll not get a good result if we don’t talk with them, because I am confident that we do not have a viable military option right now.


Q: And, from your point of view, how should the Japanese government manipulate this situation or take a position on the North Korean issue? What’s your advice to the Japanese government?


A: I think that in any consideration on the issue in Japan there ought to be a clear understanding on the part of Japanese leaders of what the consequence of failure of diplomacy is. That while I’m convinced that North Korea is not planning a surprise nuclear attack on Japan, I do believe it’s a possible consequence of a failure of diplomacy, of a failure to talk, and the possibility of an accidental war, a blundering war, happening partly as a result of the reckless rhetoric and the absence of a diplomatic path. That’s complicated, as I say. In the absence of diplomacy and in the presence of reckless talk, we have created the conditions which make--which allow us to blunder into a war, a war which could turn nuclear and which would be very catastrophic. So, I get back to the fact that the Japanese government and the Japanese people, as well as the American government and people, should be looking for diplomatic solutions to this problem.


If I thought there were a viable military option, I’d be pushing it. But I don’t see one. And I see what many people, to me amazingly, fail to see is the huge consequences of a war. As bad as the first Korean War was, a war in the Korean Peninsula that extends to Japan and that goes nuclear would be 10 times worse. And we’re talking about casualties that equal those of World War II! I don’t understand why people don’t understand that. It’s so obvious, so straightforward. And we have to get serious about diplomacy. And the Japanese government should be working to encourage that and to promote it. They can’t do it alone, but they can contribute to it. I’d like to see Prime Minister Abe promoting that in his discussion with President Trump.


Q: And if North Korea gets a nuclear arsenal, the Asian security environment will be changed dramatically. And that will encourage voices calling for Japan and South Korea to consider the possibility of obtaining their own nuclear weapons. How do you see the reasonability for Japan to have a nuclear capability or change the principles on nuclear policy?


A: They do have nuclear weapons. They do have one now and that has changed it. Everything’s changed, as a result of that. Yes, it’s already happening. And there’s already been a dramatic change in the public discussion in South Korea. And to a certain extent in Japan as well, to a lesser extent in Japan but still much greater than in the past. So that now people are considering what would have been unthinkable a decade ago. And it’s easy to understand why people feeling under threat of a nuclear attack might want to have their own nuclear arsenal. Certainly all the nuclear powers have set that example, saying that, “Our nuclear weapons are vital to our security,” so why should we expect Japan, South Korea, and other countries not to say the same thing?


And yet, I’m convinced that this move would be a wrong move for both Japan and South Korea. I do not agree at all with the president’s statement some time ago that it would be “Fine, why not?” I do not agree with that at all. I think [there are] many negative consequences. And the only objective reason for Japan and South Korea to go nuclear themselves is if they did not believe that the U.S. extended deterrence was going to be effective, if they did not trust the United States to protect them. So, it’s a crisis in trust, I think, right now. And it’s up to the United States to overcome that crisis of trust, to convince both the Japanese and the South Koreans that our extended deterrence is strong and valid and would react to North Korea. I think we should be willing to do what we need to do to make that point absolutely clear.


The downside of Japan, and the people in Japan who argue for a nuclear program you can be sure are not chess players. In chess, the famous concept is what’s called “the fallacy of the last move.” It’s when you make a move in chess which you feel very good about because it puts the other side in a bad position. But you haven’t thought two or three moves ahead, to how he might exploit the move you’ve just taken. So, people in Japan think, “We’re going to get a nuclear program and that makes us strong and that protects us.” That’s the first move that’s made. But they forget about the second move and third move, “You do that, what does North Korea do, what does China do? How does China react to Japan getting that?” They will increase their nuclear arsenal. Then you have to increase yours, and South Korea .... you get going a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia. The consequence of either South Korea or Japan going nuclear is almost without doubt a nuclear arms race starting in Northeast Asia and it’s hard to believe that’s going to be good for anybody.




Q: And the final part is about the gap of the world free of nuclear weapons and the real world. In 2006, you joined three other statesmen, including Henry Kissinger, in calling for pursuing a world free of nuclear weapons. In my understanding, given your experience in the Cuban Missile Crisis and nuclear deterrence to Russia, and the North Korean crisis, you understand effectiveness of nuclear deterrence. Why do you think the United States should seek a world free of nuclear weapons?


A: Well, I think about that because I have actually looked into the “nuclear abyss” a few times in my life, and I don’t like what I see. I really thought several times in my life we were about to go to a nuclear war. We were very close to it in the Cuban Missile Crisis, very close, closer than most people realize. We almost had an accidental launch. That is, we almost started a nuclear war by mistakenly believing that we were under attack. That’s called “the false alarm problem.” And I experienced personally one of those, and I’ve never forgotten it.

So, the prospect of a nuclear war does not seem far removed or academic to me, and the consequence of a nuclear war I’ve also studied very carefully, and they’re unimaginable. It is possible to imagine it, but you don’t want to imagine it. So that motivated me, along with my comrades, Shultz and Kissinger and (Sen. Sam) Nunn, to write an op-ed arguing that we ought to, ultimately, be seeking an end to nuclear weapons and in the meantime working to, doing the various things that could be done, to reduce the danger that they pose. And, for several years, that proposal had pretty good traction. The high point actually came when President Barack Obama, after being elected, made his famous speech in Prague.


Q: And, however, the reality is that Russia reportedly violates the Arms Control Treaty and as you know, the number of countries that possess nuclear weapons, such as India and Pakistan, is increasing, even though the NPT exists. How do we fill the gap between the ideal of “a nuclear-free world” and the real world?


A: For a few years after we wrote our first op-ed, if the ideal was out here and we were there we were moving toward it. Slowly, but moving toward it. The peak of that came, as I said, when President Obama made his famous speech in Prague, stating a serious conviction that the United States would seek a world without nuclear weapons, “peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” That was the high point of it. Since then, we’re going backward. And today we’re farther away from that goal than we were when we made the op-ed. So, from my point of view, the op-ed was a failure. We not only didn’t succeed in getting--we initially succeeded in getting closer to the goal, but where we stand today is even farther away from it.


And that happened for a number of reasons, but I think the primary reason was that during that period, for reasons unrelated to nuclear weapons, we, the United States and Russia, developed and went from a period of friendliness and cooperation to a period of hostility. It was already beginning at that time but it took a very dangerous turn about 2008-2009. So today, I would say, that we’re recreating many of the conditions of the Cold War. And those conditions don’t lend themselves to people wanting to dismantle their nuclear weapons. Between now and then, though, we actually--you know, we’ve gone from 75,000 nuclear weapons to 15,000 in the world. That’s the good news. The bad news we’re at 15,000. 15,000 is still enough weapons to destroy the planet several times over.


If the United States and Russia--let’s say Russia, with 6,000-7,000 nuclear weapons, used even a third of these to attack the United States, and if by some miracle that will never happen, we were able to shoot down half of them, our country’s still destroyed. There are more than enough nuclear weapons today to destroy our country several times over, and vice versa. So, we’re not only very far from that goal we were setting then, but we’re moving backward. Today, Russia and the United States are both engaged in rebuilding the Cold War nuclear arsenal. So, our effort was a failure, I have to say. It succeeded for a few years but ultimately it then failed.


Q: And my final question is Japan is the only country to have suffered an atomic bombing. However, the Japanese government did not sign the U.N. Nuclear Ban Treaty this summer because Japan accepts the nuclear umbrella provided by the United States. That angered the hibakusha. How do you see the Japanese government’s role on nuclear non-proliferation or a nuclear-free world?


A: Well, the nuclear powers did not sign that agreement or even attend the meetings. And it would have been hypocritical of them to have done so while their security still ultimately depends on nuclear weapons, and while they’re in the process of rebuilding their arsenals. So, they still believe that their security ultimately depends on the nuclear weapons. And so, if they were to sign the agreement, they would have to be prepared to take a different course of action than they’re now taking, and it’s quite clear they’re not. They still--it’s hard to believe they’re going to do that as long as the hostility that exists today continues to exist. And Japan is in sort of the same position. While you don’t have nuclear weapons, your security depends on nuclear weapons, as you see it. In this case, the U.S. nuclear weapons. But that’s what the extended deterrence is all about. So, it would have been hypocritical of Japan to have signed it, really.


Having said that, they might have done more than they did. They might have said some different things, indicating that, in principle, they supported the idea. I mean, there are many things they could have done other than just boycotting the thing. And Japan, of all nations, having suffered Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has some moral stand to take. Actually, the United States, having used the weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has a moral reason for taking the stand too, but we’re not doing it. Having said that, I’m still pleased that the U.N. resolution was passed. I do not expect any direct consequences from that, but it’s a statement of moral standing, it’s an ethical position, it’s saying, “This is what it should be. It’s not what is; it’s a statement of what should be.” And it’s worth saying that sometimes, even if you’re not able to make it true.


One of my colleagues told me that, back in the day when we were talking about the first op-ed we wrote, and he was saying this was sort of a--“Will be seen as a glorious gesture which has no consequences.” He said, “You can’t judge consequences by what happens this year or next year. Sometimes a strong position of saying ‘This is what is right’ will have a long-term effect.” And the example he used, which is particularly apt for an American, was a statement in an early document in America more than 200 years ago, that “all men are created equal.” At the time our founding fathers made that statement, “all men are created equal,” it was nonsense! We had slaves! They were not equal. Women were not allowed to vote, they were not equal. Even white men who did not own a house were not allowed to vote. So all men are not created equal.


But it was a principle they stated and they believed in the principle. And they’re not being hypocritical to state a principle. And over time, sometimes with great hardship, we moved closer and closer to that goal. But having the goal out there was important. It gives the impetus to moving toward the goal. We’re not there today yet, but we’re a lot closer today than we were in 1776.


And I don’t believe we’d be that much closer had our founding fathers not had the wisdom and the courage to make that statement, “All men are created equal.” So, no nation should have nuclear weapons. Well, that’s not true today. But it’s a principle. It’s what ought to be. And the more people that say that, the more people who talk about it, the more people who think about it, the sooner we’ll get to that position, the closer we’ll move to that position. That’s what I have to say about the U.N. resolution.


Q: Are you an idealist or a realist?


A: I’m a very practical person, a very practical person. I think it’s important to have ideals, it’s important to work toward those ideals. But it’s also important to know what you can “do” in the world today. When I was secretary of defense, I thought about what I could “do” in the world today. And when I looked at a North Korea crisis, I looked at practical steps we could take, both in terms of limiting North Korean nuclear weapons with threats we were prepared to carry out, and in terms of looking to North Korea as a way of understanding what problem they were trying to solve and see if you could help them solve that.


So when I looked at 1999 and negotiated, I was looking at their problem. I was trying to put myself in their shoes and say, “Why are they being so hard to get along with? It’s because they’re afraid that they’re going to be overthrown, the regime is going to be overthrown.” That’s what they’re trying to preserve. I might not share that belief with them, but I have to understand them if I’m going to negotiate with them, that’s their belief, and I’m not going to succeed in negotiations unless I can do something to help them, move them, toward what they want to do.


I was never trained as a diplomat. I don’t have the “golden tongue” of a diplomat. But I came to believe that the tongue is the least important aspect of the diplomat. What he needs are ears. He needs to listen to what the other side is saying, what they believe. That’s what he has to do.


Q: I realized you were a mathematician, I felt still closer to you because I majored in mathematics. How did it make any difference as defense secretary having a mathematics background?


A: Not many people do that. We are a rare breed. It’s hard to say. I don’t remember ever solving any equations when I was secretary of defense. But the training in mathematics, like some of the other secretaries who did physics, training in science, mathematics or physics gives a way of thinking about the problems, a logical way of thinking. And I think that’s valuable. The secretaries I know, who were physicists or scientists trained, at least did not have fuzzy thinking. And that doesn’t mean they were right, but they reasoned through step by step the problems.


Well, you know, I never considered myself a political figure, even though the secretary of defense has to be confirmed by the Senate. They consider it political but I never did; I considered that I was the secretary of defense for both Republicans and Democrats. That is, I thought of it as a nonpartisan position, from a political point of view.


(This article is based on an interview by Senior National Security Correspondent Taketsugu Sato and Yu Miyaji, correspondent in San Francisco.)






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