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A Yale Professor Explains: Paul Bracken GRD ’82 Talks Defense

Welcome to a new video-interview series by The Politic in which staff members conduct, record, and transcribe short interviews with Yale professors who have substantial expertise on relevant current issues. In our first episode, Rahul Nagvekar speaks with Paul Bracken GRD ’82 about cybersecurity, defense, and North Korea. For suggestions on interviewees or interview topics, please contact rahul.nagvekar@yale.edu.

A Yale Professor Explains:

Paul Bracken GRD ’82 Talks Defense with The Politic


Management and political science

Expert on…

Strategic competition and defense

Affiliated with…

Yale Council on Foreign Relations


North Korea, nuclear posture, and cybersecurity


“I’m probably one the few professors, authors in the country who’s pointing out [that] there’s going to be a convergence of cyber weapons and nuclear weapons.”



The Politic: Winter Olympics are going on right now in Pyeongchang, South Korea, not too far from the North Korean border. North Korea was originally not planning to participate in these Games, but after negotiations, they did send athletes, and as many people saw, they marched together with the South Korean team in the Opening Ceremony.

So, briefly, how did we get here, and what does this mean for efforts to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula?

Paul Bracken: I think the big driver here is South Korea’s fear of getting into a war with North Korea, which would be caused by inadvertent actions by the United States, or even by direct attack by the United States on North Korea. And one thing you can say about the history of the Cold War and nuclear politics is that it’s not good—no country wants to have a nuclear war fought on its territory.

So one fascinating thing going on is this idea that South Korea, Japan, and the United States are all united. Well, it’s not quite true. South Korea’s number one priority would be to prevent a war on the Korean Peninsula, which could kill, potentially, millions of their citizens. And I think the United States has to recognize the impact that nuclear weapons have on the context of diplomacy in that regard.

So, thinking of this from a defense and strategic perspective, there are concerns of a growing rift between the U.S. and South Korea over the question of improving relations with the North. Vice President Pence, for example, attracted some criticism when he didn’t stand for the joint Korean delegation at the Olympic Opening Ceremony. Perhaps that reflects, as you said, a difference in priorities for the U.S. and South Korea.

Once the Olympic festivities die down, where do you see the North Korea situation going?

I think the relations will worsen, because they’re at an all-time high now, [at least for] recent years, because of the Olympics. But I don’t think this is going to lead to war. I don’t think it’s going to lead to a U.S. attack on North Korea.

I think the South Koreans have played a very deft hand in re-establishing relationships with the North to prevent all of those things from happening. The United States is not about to start a big military front with shooting right on the border of China and Russia, because the results are simply too unpredictable.

Where I think all of this is going is, I think, a more intense arms race—between the United States and China, between the United States and North Korea—which has unsettling consequences. But one thing about an arms race is that most of it occurs in the future. What’s going on now is what I would call trying to change this from a crisis into a non-crisis.

The key idea about a crisis is not merely that it’s a serious problem, but that it’s a serious problem with a very short-term turning point where things could break either way. And what South Korea is trying to do is to stretch out this crisis so it becomes a longer-term rivalry, because it’s safer, it’s a better way to avoid war, and it puts constraints on the United States. And it also puts constraints on China. So it’s a very interesting time.

It looks like, under the Trump administration, the U.S. has also become more assertive regarding nuclear weapons. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis seems to have previously had reservations about expanding our nuclear arsenal, but we’re now seeing the DoD’s Nuclear Posture Review in fact calling for modernization and new types of U.S. nuclear weapons. We also have a two-year budget agreement that’s been endorsed by defense hawks.

What does this all mean for U.S. nuclear posture, and how is that going to affect our defense challenges with regard to North Korea and elsewhere?

U.S. nuclear posture has been inert for the past ten years. There’s been some talk of establishing programs, but the previous administration refused to fund them and did everything it could to sort of run down our U.S. nuclear forces. At the same time, the nuclear weapons in Russia, China, North Korea, India, Pakistan, Israel, and France and Britain have been improved and modernized.

This current posture review takes the position that if we don’t do anything about this, if we let other countries go ahead of us and have more capability, this is going to lead to dangerous scenarios of instability in all kinds of ways—which we may not appreciate, but the authors of this report think are real.

So I think this is a very significant document—the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review—because it, for the first time, pivots the United States into the geopolitical realities of the 21st century, which are that nine countries have nuclear weapons today. There’s little prospect that Pakistan, North Korea, India—let alone China—are going to disarm. And so it’s more dangerous for the United States not to modernize than for it to do so.

And how about cybersecurity? That seems to be a less appreciated aspect of defense and security policy, even if it attracted some attention during the 2016 election campaign. What kinds of cyber threats is the U.S. facing, and are we prepared to defend ourselves against them?

Cyber threats are one part of a broader spectrum of new technologies. Think of it this way: there’s more new technologies coming into the arsenals of the world than at any time since the early 1950s and the start of the Cold War.

We have today artificial intelligence, hypersonic missiles, anti-satellite weapons, in addition to cyber weapons and drones, and I could go on and on. So we’re in a fascinating time where nobody really understands the implications of the new technologies, but at the same time, you don’t want to fall behind.

What I think is likely to happen is that cyber weapons are going to be used by the major powers, and by some others, to target the biggest threats that they face, which are nuclear weapons. So I’m probably one the few professors, authors in the country who’s pointing out [that] there’s going to be a convergence of cyber weapons and nuclear weapons. And that’s the most sensitive thing going on in international security today. So sensitive that people don’t really want to talk about it. But we need to have a much broader public policy debate about what it means for strategy and arms control.

I see. And to conclude, are there any other less-discussed areas of defense and security policy we should be keeping our eyes on over the next few months?

Yes. I think a very under-addressed topic is arms races—the long-term impact of arms races. See, it’s very unlikely that the current crises, for example in North Korea, are going to lead to nuclear war. At the same time it’s very likely, and we’re seeing it already, that it will lead to arms races.

The U.S. is totally refurbishing its defense strategy in East Asia because of Chinese developments and because of the nuclear context that North Korea has added to security in East Asia. So we are investing huge amounts of money—as are the Chinese, as are the North Koreans in their own way, smaller amounts than the major powers—and how we conduct this arms race is going to have a lot to do with security in the 21st century.

So we could underdo it, and not do enough, and then we would fall behind. At the same time, you don’t want to overload the international relations with new crises, new technologies that unnecessarily fuel counter-reactions in other countries. And we have—United States scholars haven’t really thought about the arms race since the Cold War. And that was a long time ago.