31 August 2008

Yes ... that would make a difference.

I regularly say ( for example, here) that the question of who will be the next US president has very little relevance to the rest of the world – because the USA is such a large juggernaut that it will continue to plough its furrow through the rest of the world whoever is fiddling with the White House controls.

In a comment to my last post, however, Dr C gives me pause for thought.

"The possibility that a person who as testy and hot headed as McCain or is as inexperienced and naive as Ms. Palin might have ready access to the nuclear codes must surely strike a quivering note in our collective brain." (Dr C)

My position implicitly assumes, of course, a world politics which continues the status quo of the past sixty years. To be, that is, on the macro scale "a sordid business of routine betrayal and bad faith"[1], leavened on the micro scale by heroic flashes of love and altruism, but at all times on the sane side of the nuclear theshold.

I don't feel that it is my place, nor that I have the knowledge and insight, to speculate on which individuals are more or less likely to "push the button" if they were in power. I do, however, concede Dr C's point that a president who pushed it would make the mother of all differences to the rest of the world ... and, for that matter, to the US itself.

1. Isaac Asimov, Foundation and empire. 2004, New York: Bantam Books. 0553803727 (originally 1952, New York,: Gnome Press) Ch.12.


Poor Pothecary said...

which individuals are more or less likely to "push the button" if they were in power

Even assuming that's how it works: neither do I know enough to speculate, but it seems moderately likely that the President is, to some extent, fronting collective decision-making where there's far more going on than what the President is seen to do/say individually.

The mining of Hai Phong harbour during the Vietnam War is a case in point. Publicly, if judged as it was at the time solely on what Presidents were saying, it was a confrontation that came close to button-pushing. But, as revealed much later, there were strong elements of "theatre" for mutually saving face while behind the scenes a deal to sell the Soviet Union cheap US grain was already being brokered.

Felix Grant said...

Agreed; and, of course, "pushing the button" for a full first strike is actually a fairly complex system of staged simultaneous multiple code entries (even if it does deteriorate to a bizarre set of suck and see front line decisions thereafter). Tactical deployment in theatre is a fuzzier matter, but still unlikely to be done on a whim.

Which is why my assumption is, "pretty much more of the same old low intensity shit" - and my position that the choice of president makes little practical difference to the rest of the world. For USAmericans to blame GWB for US policy and action over the past eight years is a bit like a murderer putting his hand on trial.

Having said that, though ... if there is one point at which the pyramid of corporate decision making is most attenuated, and the scope for individual eccentric impulse strongest, it is in the declaration of war. The president is both civilian chief executive officer and military commander in chief. In law, the decision to declare war is the president's alone; so are decisions on how to prosecute that war, including whether and when to deploy nuclear weapons.

In the normal way of things, even that decision to go to war would be made in discussion. And initial decisions on levels of forces would be debated as part of the decision to go to war, subsequent revisions being made corporately. The circumstances which led to a nuclear exchange, however, would almost by definition not be in the normal way of things. Decision making time scales would be greatly compressed (down to seconds in the worst case), consequences of a wrong decision in either direction cataclysmic.

If the president issued an order to enter nuclear launch codes, those in receipt of that order would have to obey, mutiny, or relieve him of command. In practice, the distinction between mutiny and relief from command is made after the event and depends partly on whether or not it succeeded. The decision to obey or not obey, by people highly conditioned to obedience, would be just as compressed and pressured as the decision to issue the order. It would probably, at that point, come down to personalities.

I still, despite all the above, don't think it likely to happen. But if the personality of the individual president is ever going to decide events which crucially impact the rest of the world, this seems the most likely candidate.

Poor Pothecary said...

For USAmericans to blame GWB for US policy and action over the past eight years is a bit like a murderer putting his hand on trial.

Yep. I don't see GWB as any more than a prominent symptom of a deeper problem in US worldview that revolves around a Whig-style historiography and a cultural iconography that says armed confrontation (or threat of it) is an appropriate way to solve internal and external problems.

You reminded me also (via your comment about a further element that "all problems are solved by a strong and righteous individual - Superman, for instance") that this view has been explicitly crystallised in Jewett & Lawrence's theory of the "American Monomyth".

They argue, along with a handful of other revisionist historians such as Ray Raphael, that the whole concept is quite at odds with the USA's constitutional ideals and even with its documented history (where there were genuine grass-roots collective actions - which have been retrofitted as organised by individual heroes such as Paul Revere). Despite its nominal constitutional emphasis on "the people" collectively, the USA appears to have a cultural core belief in the power of great individuals.