Event Horizon

February 27, 2007 Topics: Nuclear Proliferation

Event Horizon

Mini Teaser: We must prepare for the ultimate threat to nations. Thoughts from one of America’s leading grand strategists.

by Author(s): Robert S. Leiken

Fred Charles Iklé, Annihilation from Within (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 142 pp., $24.50.

FRED CHARLES Iklé has been called one of America's two or three remaining "strategic long-range thinkers." Undersecretary of defense for Political Affairs and chief of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency under President Ronald Reagan, the distinguished scholar from CSIS now has written a suggestive and disturbing book. Based on his practical experience and the futuristic thinking for which he has become known, his book calls attention to developing threats that receive little official attention or discussion in the media.

Though he is a "hardliner", Iklé's lifelong preoccupation has been preventing the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction, whether by the superpowers, rogue states or-what now draws more of his attention-homegrown terrorists. Iklé takes a measure of personal pride, quite rightly, for helping to prevent nuclear usage during the Cold War when temptations were high (nuclear-armed superpower antagonists squaring-off in Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and Europe), but states capable of delivering nuclear weapons were relatively few and easily identifiable. But ours is a brave new world where "the ineluctable dissemination of technological and scientific discoveries" may soon make nuclear and biological weapons available to insurgents, terrorists, anarchists and doomsday cults. More and more countries will import plutonium fuel adaptable for building weapons. The Internet offers the bomb-maker unprecedented access to data. And the contemporary nation-state often lacks the will or the means to prevent spectacular mass terrorism.

Iklé traces the source of these dangers to a "split in human culture" between two modes. The mode that values faith and tradition provides the "obedience, power, and pride that makes government function." But in the scientific-technical mode truth is sought "via empirical verification rather than tradition and faith." As Karl Marx put it memorably in his Manifesto, this newly independent mode "created more massive, more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together."

The turning point for Iklé was the mid-18 th century, when "science began to pull apart from other domains of human activity" in the West. Goethe's Sorcerer's Apprentice -a ballad about the liberation of a robot whose relentless energy spreads havoc-and his Faust were both inspired by what Iklé sees as the rift in a once-unitary moral culture. Leo Strauss called it a distinction between value and fact, philosophy and science. As he wrote:

Traditionally, philosophy and science were not distinguished; natural science was one of the most important parts of philosophy. The great intellectual revolution of the seventeenth century which brought to light modern natural science was a revolution of a new philosophy or science against traditional (chiefly Aristotelian) philosophy and science. . . . By virtue of its victory, the new natural science became more and more independent of philosophy.

But Iklé stresses this was not just a split between science and philosophy, but one that pitted the former against what Iklé calls "the societal political mode." The question for Iklé is whether and for how long the political foundations of the international order will remain unchanged while science and technology keep making the world over.

That the two realms obey different chronologies is plainly evident. Since the Sophists, philosophy has returned incessantly to the debate between idealism and materialism; Strindberg does not supplant Shakespeare, nor Boulez, Bach. While science moves at a breathtaking pace based on empirical verification-not faith or custom-culture moves in a ricorso, as Daniel Bell pointed out in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism . Islam will not envision rule superior to "the rightly guided caliphs." Christianity does not advance beyond the Gospel. America's political foundations, its "constitutional soul", in Harvey Mansfield's term, still rest on a document penned more than two centuries ago. Yet within that political framework technology has turned an assortment of colonies into an urban information society and a global superpower.

In particular, the nation-state, which achieved primacy under the Peace of Westphalia, is still with us. But it now encounters potent phenomena that it can no longer regulate: capital movements, communications revolutions, genetic breakthroughs, alien smugglers and international terrorist groups. These are the sorcerer's apprentices.

It is the future incarnation of that problem on which Iklé trains his deep and disturbing analysis. Iklé devotes considerable attention to the possibility of a group "annihilating from within" an advanced society. His typical agent of annihilation is an ambitious tyrant-madman. Resurrecting Trotsky's concept of "the initial dual power in every revolution", Iklé posits an aspiring dictator implanting "some of his political followers in the incumbent government." He then anonymously detonates two bombs, say one on Capitol Hill and another at Farragut West Station. The blasts would decapitate the government and spread the panic that would enable "more brawny followers" to seize power. Is this what our adversarial culture is breeding? Or does this scenario borrow too much from the Leninist playbook to be convincing as a concrete contemporary threat?

Essay Types: Book Review