Addressing members of the Russian parliament, Vladimir Putin said last week: “The missile's test launch and ground trials make it possible to create a brand new weapon, a strategic nuclear missile powered by a nuclear engine. The range is unlimited. It can manoeuvre for an unlimited period of time.
“No one in the world has anything similar,” he said to applause and concluded: “Russia still has the greatest nuclear potential in the world, but nobody listened to us. Listen to us now.”
Yes, we should listen to these words, but we should listen to them as to the words of a madman joining the duet of two other madmen.
Remember how, a little while ago, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump competed about buttons to trigger nuclear missiles that they have at their disposal, with Trump claiming his button is bigger than Kim’s? Now we got Putin joining this obscene competition – which is, we should never forget it, a competition about who can destroy us all more quickly and efficiently – with the claim that his is the biggest in turn.
Lately our media reports on the more and more ridiculous exchange of insults between Kim and Trump. The irony of the situation is that, when we get (what appears to be) two immature men hurling insults at each other, our only hope is that there is some anonymous and invisible institutional constraint preventing their rage from exploding into all-out war. Usually, of course, we tend to complain that in today’s alienated and bureaucratised politics, institutional pressures and constraints prevent politicians from expressing their personal visions – now we hope such constraints will prevent the expression of all too crazy personal visions.
But does the danger really reside in personal pathologies? Each side can, of course, claim that it wants only peace and is only reacting to the threat posed by others – true, but what this means is that the madness is in the whole system itself, in the vicious cycle we are caught in once we participate in the system.
Although the differences between North Korea and the US are obvious, one should nonetheless insist that they both cling to the extreme version of state sovereignty (“North Korea first!” versus “America first!”), plus that the obvious madness of North Korea (a small country ready to risk it all and bomb the US) has its counterpart in the US still pretending to play the role of the global policeman, a single state assuming the right to decide which other state should be allowed to possess nuclear weapons.
This global madness becomes visible the moment we ask a simple question: how do the protagonists of nuclear threats (Kim, Trump, Putin) imagine pressing the button? Are they not aware of the almost 100 per cent certainty that their own country will also be destroyed by retaliatory strikes? Well, they are aware and not aware at the same time: although they know they will also perish, they talk as if they somehow stand out of the danger and can strike at the enemy from a safe place.
This schizophrenic position combines the two axioms of nuclear warfare. If the basic underlying axiom of the Cold War was MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), today this axiom is combined with the opposite one, that of NUTS (Nuclear Utilization Target Selection), i.e. the idea that, by means of a surgical strike, one can destroy the enemy's nuclear capacities while the anti-missile shield is protecting us from a counterstrike. The very fact that two directly contradictory strategies are mobilised simultaneously by the same superpower bears witness to the fantastical character of this entire reasoning.
In December 2016, this inconsistency reached an almost unimaginable ridiculous peak: both Trump and Putin emphasised the chance for new more friendly relations between Russia and the US, and simultaneously asserted their full commitment to the arms race – as if peace among the superpowers can only be provided by a new Cold War. Alain Badiou wrote that the contours of the future war are already drawn: “The United States and their Western-Japanese clique on the one side, China and Russia on the other side, atomic arms everywhere. We cannot but recall Lenin’s statement: ‘Either revolution will prevent the war or the war will trigger revolution.’”
There is no way to avoid the conclusion that a radical social change – a revolution – is needed to civilise our civilisations. We cannot afford the hope that a new war will lead to a new revolution: a new war would much more probably mean the end of civilisation as we know it, with the survivors (of any) organized in small authoritarian groups. North Korea is not a crazy exception in a sane world but a pure expression of the madness that drives our world.