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Surviving Nuclear Knife Edge to 100 Pinpricks: The Next U.S. Foreign Policy

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Sunday in the Los Angeles Times, an excerpt ran of a new book that was partly sponsored by the New America Foundation/American Strategy Progam titled America and the World: Conversations on the Future of U.S. Foreign Policy with Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and David Ignatius.

On the same subject, I recently hosted former National Security Advisors Brzezinski and Scowcroft for a meeting which is watchable above.

And Michiko Kakutani gave the book an outstanding review in the New York Times.

I hope that folks buy it -- and read it. It's an excellent primer on the strategic choices facing the U.S. and how these challenges should be faced.

From the LA Times selection, I found this bit most compelling:

Ignatius: Brent, how would you lead off in assessing the nature of our problem? What's broken in our ability to respond?

Brent Scowcroft: I look at the world in much the same way Zbig does. But let me start from a more historical background. I think the end of the Cold War marked a historical discontinuity in the world environment.

The Cold War was an intense concentration on a single problem. It mobilized us. It mobilized our friends and allies against a single bloc. It affected our thought processes. It affected our institutions, everything we did. I don't know if there's ever been a time we were more concentrated.

And suddenly, historically in the blink of an eye, that world came to an end, and it was replaced by a world without the existential threat of the Cold War. If we made a mistake, we might blow up the planet -- that was gone. Instead, there were 100 pinprick problems. Instead of looking through one end of the telescope, at Moscow, we were looking through the other end at this myriad of little problems. And we were dealing with them with thought processes and institutions geared for that one end of the telescope.

Ignatius: What was it like to sit in the White House in a world where the great fear was nuclear annihilation?

Scowcroft: There was the ever-present thought that if either side made a serious mistake, it could be catastrophic for humanity. Did we spend all our waking moments thinking about that? No. But it was a combination of that and a struggle to understand what the Soviets were up to, and what was their capability of, for example, a technological development that could suddenly make us vulnerable, and change this standoff to an asymmetry.

Ignatius: Zbig, what did it feel like for you to be in the cockpit?

Brzezinski: Well, one of my jobs was to coordinate the president's response in the event of a nuclear attack. I'm not revealing any secrets, but it was something like this: We would have initial warning of an attack within one minute of a large-scale launch by the Soviet Union. Roughly by the second minute we'd have a pretty good notion of the scale and the likely targets. By the third minute, we would know more or less when to anticipate impact and so forth. By the third minute, the job of the national security advisor was to alert the president that this was ongoing, that we have this information. And the president then decides how to respond.

It begins to get complicated immediately. If it's an all-out attack, the response is presumably easier. You just react in total. But suppose it's a more selective attack. There are choices to be made. The president is supposed to weigh the options. How will he react? There's an element of uncertainty here. In any case, the process is to be completed roughly by the seventh minute. By which time -- I assume this was roughly the same with you guys, right?

Scowcroft: So far, uh-huh.

Brzezinski: By the seventh minute, the order to execute had to be transmitted and whatever we decided had to be carried out. Roughly by the 28th minute, there's impact. That is to say, you and your family are dead. Washington's gone. A lot of our military assets are destroyed. But presumably, the president has calmly made the decision how to respond. We're already firing back. Six hours later, 150 million Americans and Soviets are dead. That is the reality we lived with. And we did everything we could to make it as stable, as subject to rational control, as possible. To be nonprovocative but also to be very alert and determined so that no one on the other side could think they could pull it off and survive.

It's very different now. I think Brent has described it very well -- 100 pinpricks. The new reality is a kind of dispersed turbulence. And that requires, I think, a different mind-set, a more sophisticated understanding of the complexity of global change.

-- Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note