Believing Our Own BS

In business, a company gets into trouble when it starts believing its own BS. The same is true for a nation, except there “bankruptcy” can mean war, possibly nuclear. To prevent needless wars and ultimately to save the planet, we as a nation need to stop believing our own BS. The seven international case studies in our book provide many examples (click for free PDF and see pages 169-223), and recent articles in TIME and the New York Times highlight the problem, unfortunately by example, not by correcting the problem.

In a TEDx talk last month (click here to learn when it becomes available online), we identified one of the reasons our nation’s efforts to negotiate with North Korea have gone nowhere:

We say that North Korea isn’t willing to negotiate with us. It’s true that they’re not willing to negotiate on our terms since we insist that the talks have to be about their getting rid of their nuclear weapons. Imagine how we’d respond if they offered to negotiate, but only about our getting rid of our nuclear weapons?

Page 197 of our book explains why North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons in the current environment:

If we were to consider their perspective, we would recognize that, as distasteful as the North Korean government is, encouraging regime change is not in our best interests, because it will lead to the North maintaining, and probably increasing, its nuclear arsenal.

An article in this week’s issue of TIME says roughly the same things, but in ways that make those realities sound ridiculous. It starts off (emphasis added):

When David Pressman would sit down with his counterparts from China or Russia to discuss the provocations of North Korea, he often heard the same message coming across the tables: “You need to talk. You need to talk.”

It was maddening to Pressman, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. for special political affairs. Talking works only if both parties agree to an agenda, and the U.S. and North Korea could not even get that far. “The United States is prepared to talk. We’re prepared to talk about denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” says Pressman, now a partner at Boies Schiller Flexner. “But the North Koreans are not willing to have that conversation. The North Koreans want to have a conversation that accepts their status as a nuclear power.” That, many argue, is not a difference the U.S. can overlook.

The article then dismisses past diplomatic efforts as “transient and flawed” without explaining that Pres. Bush, not Kim Jong-il, tore up our nuclear agreement with North Korea. Pres. Bush did so because North Korea was caught enriching uranium, which he regarded as a violation even though neither the word uraniumnor the word enrichment appears anywhere in the agreement. Uranium enrichment violated the spirit, but not the letter, of the agreement, and we also had been guilty of that. Dr. Siegfried Hecker, who was Director of Los Alamos and visited North Korea seven times on Track II diplomatic missions summarized what happened:

[In 2002,] the Bush administration killed the Agreed Framework for domestic political reasons and because it suspected Pyongyang of cheating by covertly pursuing uranium enrichment. Doing so traded a potential threat that would have taken years to turn into bombs for one that took months, dramatically changing the diplomatic landscape in Pyongyang’s favor.

The TIME article reinforces some of our other erroneous beliefs by referring to North Korea’s “nuclear obsession” and those who want to resume talks as “idealists.”

Today’s New York Times has an article on North Korea that was somewhat less biased because its similar ridiculous statements came from Pres. Trump’s National Security Council, not direct statements by the paper. But nowhere did the Times point out the problem (emphasis added):

South Korea on Monday proposed holding military and humanitarian talks with North Korea, its first visible split with the Trump administration, which has said it will deal with North Korea’s continued missile tests by stepping up sanctions and military pressure on the country. … In a statement, the National Security Council said … “The United States remains open to credible talks on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. However, conditions must change before there is any scope for talks to resume.”

Another article in today’s Times describes how Pres. Trump is hell-bent on tearing up our nuclear agreement with Iran, also over issues not covered by the agreement. Based on our history with North Korea, that seems like the surest way to create a nuclear-armed Iran. Isn’t it time we stopped believing our own BS?

What can you, an ordinary citizen, do to help make our nation’s policies consistent with reality? First and foremost, you can diligently search for errors in your perceptions of others with whom you have personal conflicts. As we explain in our book, we made that error with one another time and again earlier in our marriage, almost leading to divorce. Learning to take in the bigger picture not only saved our marriage, but also allowed us to recapture the love we felt when we first met fifty-one years ago. “Creating true love at home & peace on the planet” is the subtitle of our book for a good reason. Working on both at the same time actually accelerates progress on each of them.

Secondly, telling your Congressional representatives where you stand is surprisingly effective because the people we call our leaders actually follow our lead. They have to if they want to stay in office. Endnote 149 in our book (page 303) describes how just 600 ordinary citizens played a key role in the ratification of the New START Treaty. We have much more power than we realize, but only if we exercise it.

Dorothie & Marty

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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