Magazine | December 20, 2010, Issue

Trust but Terrify

As a lucky guest on the recent NR cruise, I had two options for keeping up on events: pay for Internet, which at sea often seems to be handed down from the satellite one byte at a time, perhaps by gulls running a relay; or just ignore the world entirely. The latter seemed attractive. You don’t want to be walking on a pristine beach, waves caressing the sand like a TSA employee’s green-gloved hand, and find yourself bothered by Events in Nagorno-Karabakh, or troubled by the Situation in some faraway country where everything was fine the last time The Economist gave it seven inches. But there’s no escape. Every day the staff delivered an eight-page digest of the New York Times, and one sunny afternoon the entire ship was slapped with the news that the START treaty was in danger.

One might have also wondered if contract negotiations were holding up the next series of The Dukes of Hazzard, or if Skylab was due to fall soon. The revelation that START is still starting isn’t just a peculiar reminder of the bad old bipolar world, it makes you realize that they still haven’t gotten past START to MIDDLE. (Massive Intellectual Diplomatic Diversion Loved by Editorialists, if you’re curious.) There are no END talks because no one ever believes there will be an END treaty. The U.S. and the Russians will never get together and promise to forgo nukes forever, pinky swear. We’ll always have enough to make the rubble dance, so what’s the point of these treaties?

Well, if you’re inclined to believe in the goodness of men and the perfectibility of our institutions, nukes are an impediment to peace. Our nukes, that is. If you’re in the bomb biz, you want to use the process to squeeze out a few bucks for modernization and simulated testing so we can launch the things without strapping Slim Pickens to the rockets in case someone has to get out and push. If you’ve been watching the arms-control gavotte all your life, though, this does seem to carry the whiff of Carteresque delusions: We will be safe only if we talk to our adversaries and work out a deal where we halve our forces and Brezhnev promises to pluck some of those eyebrow hairs. Thus the world is safer and prettier. Now let’s have a signing ceremony, and everyone takes home a ceremonial pen.

#page#It all comes down to trust. If you didn’t trust them when they were Commies, you probably don’t trust them now when they’re mobsters. As Lenin said: Treaties are like pie crusts: golden delicious, better when homemade, but really sometimes store-bought is fine if you don’t have the time to crimp the edges by hand. No, that was my mom. Lenin said crusts and treaties were made to be broken, and conservatives, being the suspicious blackguards they are, tend to think he was telling the truth. You may point out that the inspection-and-verification regime has worked out nicely, and the two signatories have refrained thus far from converting each other’s countries into glistening sheets of glass inhabited by shambling mutants. True. But as President Obama might say, post hoc ergo teleprompter hoc. The treaties did not keep us from the dreaded nuclear swap meet. When it comes to stopping nuclear war, they’re like restraining orders. Except you can actually give someone a paper cut with a restraining order, so the latter are more useful.

Let’s say we wake up tomorrow and discover that Monaco has the bomb — a slim, elegant, stylish bomb, of course. No one would worry, because Monaco is not run by suicidal lunatics. No one worries about the French nuclear force, except for Mayor Bloomberg, who worries they will convert the ICBMs to deliver foie gras to multiple boroughs. No one is worried about Iran getting 1,000 nuclear weapons. One is enough for the Revolutionary Committee for Doing Something Really Stupid. Would anyone be happy if Iran promised to make only 250 warheads, and promised to fit the missiles with bells so they’d make a clanging sound en route and give us time to take shelter? Some would; some would see endless employment hammering out the details about the bell. Gold? Silver? A real clapper, or a microchip that emits the sound of a bell? Then Russia outfits its missiles with air horns, and it’s back to the negotiation table. Afterwards the diplomats sit stiffly in chairs and say, “It was a frank and open exchange of blows. I mean views.” They call it off for six months and pick it up a year later. “Where were we, lads? Oh, right, replacing the bulbs in the control room with compact fluorescents. Let’s get that done this year.”

There’s nothing wrong with talking; as Churchill said, jaw-jaw is better than war-war, but one might recall he made war-war when required, and won-won. Agreements are nice, if everyone’s honest and still can destroy the other 47 times over. Trust but terrify, as they say. But the optics in the modern world are rather stark: bare-chested Putin with a gun and a dead moose over his shoulders vs. the president in mom-jeans on a bicycle that lacks only streamers and a My Little Pony decal. It’s not even strong horse–weak horse anymore. It’s strong horse–weak bike.

James Lileks — James Lileks writes the Athwart column for National Review magazine and is a frequent contributor to the National Review website. He is a prominent voice on Ricochet podcasts.

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