The great Ursula Franklin, scientist and pacificist, gave an interview in 2001 that encapsulates our difficulty coming to terms with existential challenges. “It’s how human imagination works,” she told the CBC. “When I talk in times of peace about nuclear weapons, in times of tranquility about biological warfare, people go off to the movies. It’s only in times of crisis that you might get people to think.”
We’re cursed – or fortunate – to be living in one of those times, with global attention focused on something both ludicrous and terrifying: two unpredictable world leaders, each in possession of an arsenal of nuclear weapons, who like to play chicken on Twitter. What would happen if their erratic behaviour escalated to the point of no return?
That’s the question that nuclear-arms scholar Jeffrey Lewis wanted to explore, and the result is a work of speculative fiction called The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States. It’s pretty much the opposite of a glass of warm milk; you might think twice about keeping this novel on your bedside table, if you’re prone to night sweats.
As its title suggests, the novel takes the form of a government report written three years after North Korea has launched a nuclear attack that levels much of Tokyo, Manhattan and Washington. Mr. Lewis, relying on his own research and that of other academics, outlines how it happened: the terrible decisions taken by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump, the failures of courage and insight on the part of their advisers, the accidents of fate that ignited an inferno.
Fiction was the only way to explore the unthinkable, Mr. Lewis says when I reach him on the phone. “I really struggled to explain in non-fiction what North Korea’s nuclear strategy was and how the two countries might stumble into war. Any time I would explain my concerns, people shut down because the North Korean strategy seems like madness, and the idea that we would have a nuclear war seems like madness, which of course it is.”
In the book, the conflict takes place after diplomacy between the two countries breaks down (and the rhetoric on Twitter heats up.) Mr. Lewis didn’t place much hope in the June summit between North Korea and the United States, which led to a brief and vague agreement about denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. Since the summit, there have been reports that North Korea is continuing both with its uranium-enrichment and ICBM missile production.
“This diplomacy is based on some dangerous ideas,” says Mr. Lewis, who is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif., and runs the blog Arms Control Wonk. "One of those ideas is that by threatening North Korea repeatedly, the President has created a situation where North Korea will give up its weapons, which strikes me as insane. And that’s really an indictment of President Trump.”
Diplomacy based on the idea that only one side gains is no diplomacy at all, in other words. I mention Ms. Franklin’s idea of an “indivisible peace,” which is the idea – untenable for some deal makers – that a peace contract means your enemy gets to win, too.
’’Yes, that’s what happened with the Iran deal,” Mr. Lewis says. “The criticism was that there was something in it for the Iranians, as though that’s a criticism. Of course, an agreement is between two parties, and it’s only sustainable if it’s in the interests of both parties.”
In his vision of the future, the breakdown in talks is exacerbated by the erratic, paranoid leadership style of two men who are coddled, fatally, by their advisers. Mr. Lewis says Mr. Trump is probably suffering from some form of cognitive decline in real life, which is reflected in the novel. However, that’s less dangerous than his dysfunctional relationship with senior staff (although this also provides a few moments of black comedy that evoke the famous line from Dr. Strangelove: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the war room!”) “I tried not to have any villains,” Mr. Lewis says, although as a reader it’s hard not to hold a grudge against the men who are responsible, between them, for millions of deaths.
Those deaths are described sparingly, but powerfully. Mr. Lewis sits on Hiroshima’s roundtable on disarmament, and visits the city every August for the anniversary of the atomic bombing in 1945. Many of the eyewitness reports in The 2020 Commission – survivors’ skin sloughing off, piles of bodies on fire – were drawn from the actual testimony of hibakusha, survivors of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“It’s meant to have a moral point, though, it’s not just disaster pornography,” Mr. Lewis says. He wanted to explore a worst-case scenario to explain this particular, anxiety-inducing moment in history: What are the consequences of having thousands of weapons in the hands of a single person? (The decision to launch a nuclear strike lies solely in the hands of an U.S. President, with no second vote. The same would certainly be true in North Korea.) How did the world not learn the 70-year-old lessons about the devastation caused by atomic bombs? And, finally, how can people channel their paralyzing anxiety into productive action?
As Mr. Lewis says, “Nuclear weapons are terrible, and yet we have made a decision to base our security on nuclear weapons, which has some short-term benefit. They do provide deterrent. But we are planning to do this forever, and eventually our luck will run out. … There is a ticking clock, and we don’t know how much time is left on that clock. It is time to start making some different decisions.”
As for the possibility that Mr. Trump will take umbrage on Twitter, and come up with a nickname to rival Mr. Kim’s “little Rocket Man,” well – bring it on: ‘’Donald Trump is a one-man campaign for nuclear disarmament,” says Mr. Lewis, with a laugh that is probably only half cheery. “He demonstrates everything that is insane about our nuclear posture. If he hates my book, that will do wonders to illustrate what I think is fundamentally true about it.”