Defending Against Disaster

Fred C. Iklé spoke at The Nixon Center Monday night, discussing the macabre topic of the threat to America from modern technologies, the subject of his new book, Annihilation from Within.

New Yorkers awoke to a noisome scent Monday morning that led authorities to evacuate schools and businesses. The threat proved imaginary, but the fear it inspired was not. Fortunately, America did not have to confront a cataclysmic chemical, biological or nuclear attack yesterday; but one day it might.

Fred C. Iklé addresses the macabre topic of the threat to America from modern technologies, including weapons of mass destruction and advances in artificial intelligence in his new book, Annihilation from Within. In it, Goethe's Faust and his deal with the devil forms the foundation for modern society's relationship with the deadliest of weapons-most of which Iklé describes as cursed by dual use applications.

Iklé-undersecretary of defense for policy during the Reagan Administration, currently a distinguished scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a member of the Advisory Council of The National Interest-addressed a roundtable of scholars, policy experts and journalists on his new book Monday night at The Nixon Center.

Annihilation from Within paints a grim picture of our "Faustian bargain" and the destabilization it could engender. "Annihilation from within is not a temporary peril, but the end point and ultimate impact of this elemental historic force that has gained ever more strength over two centuries", Iklé writes.

Equally frightening, as one guest observed, was Monday night's participants' consensus that the dangers discussed over dinner were both clear and present. At the heart of the dilemma are the dissimilar historical trajectories of science and politics. While scientific progress is cumulative, Iklé said, with constant advances from ancient times to the present, the same cannot be said of politics. Countries vacillate between democracy and dictatorships, empires rise and fall and new internal and external threats to national security unexpectedly emerge.

"This divergence . . . is becoming wider", Iklé said. "It's important because the political order is constantly falling behind technological progress."

Any preparation for or response to a devastating terrorist attack that could bring a state to its knees from within-what Iklé calls, "the ultimate threat to nations"-requires retrospection and foresight. The Cold War offers lessons on how to (and how not to) approach the proliferation of dangerous technologies. In 1946, the United States presented the Baruch Plan to the United Nations Security Council, recommending placing nuclear materials and technology under the International Atomic Energy Authority's watch to prohibit proliferation. Stalin unsurprisingly rejected the plan and its punishments for cheating. Verifying the plan's terms was the Baruch Plan's Achilles heel, as has been the case for all succeeding attempts at international non-proliferation regimes. One only need look at America's current imbroglios with Iran and North Korea.

"Now we face not one or two challenges, but a broad range of them", he said. "The proliferation problem is out of the control of the nation-state system."

Defending against such threats is no easy task. One participant asked whether Iklé supported greater restriction on the flow of information, comparable to China's regulation of the internet, to limit the spread of potentially destructive knowledge. Iklé emphasized intelligence and detection in preventing a terrorist attack; in his view, free societies cannot easily impose many limits on the flow of information. New threats require new defense measures, in some cases starkly contrasting those relied on throughout the Cold War. Deterrence is not a reliable tool when confronting apocalyptic cults or religious terrorists with paradise on their minds, he argued.

In addition to casualties of a chemical, biological or nuclear terrorist attack, the psychological damage to the citizenry would also be substantial. Iklé cited the destruction of the World Trade Center towers on September 11. Images of the towers' collapse-more than the attack itself- psychologically impacted Americans, conditioning their response. Mitigating the psychological impact of a future attack would include safeguards to ensure the continuity of government to prevent the onset of anarchy and chaos. One of Iklé's most important recommendations focuses on establishing such safeguards and protocols now, so that initial intense emotional reactions to an attack do not dictate America's immediate response.

The issue demanding the attention of President Bush and so many Washingtonians-Iraq-is less significant than the threats discussed in Annihilation from Within, Iklé said. Defeat in Iraq-like in Vietnam before it-does not represent a threat to the nation. Iklé's book is a powerful wakeup call for coming to grips with this reality.

Sean R. Singer is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.