Fiction can be a powerful tool to warn about what dangers the future might hold. In 1998, Richard Preston (best known for his Ebola book The Hot Zone), released a fictional thriller called The Cobra Event, about a terrorist who developed a genetically engineered virus. Reading the book prompted then-President Bill Clinton to ask his aides and members of the FBI to look into the veracity of the science that Preston put down to paper.
More recently, Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War by P.W. Singer and August Cole bundled together technological advancements and political incidents, and spun out a tale of a fictional future scenario in which the United States, China, and Russia go to war. The book was passed around the Pentagon as a way to look at what the military could face in the coming decades. Books like these go beyond your typical science fiction novel. More than just entertainment, they attempt to interpret the technological and political future in an accessible way that’s heavily grounded in the present and real-world events.
Jeffrey Lewis’ new novel The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States is the latest in this trend. It looks at the immediate aftermath of a fictional nuclear war between the United States and North Korea, and the past (aka our present) that led up to the attack. Written by an expert in nuclear nonproliferation, it’s a book that’s less Man in the High Castle alternative history and more a terrifying prediction of what could happen if tensions between the United States and North Korea sour catastrophically.
The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States is out now in stores. I spoke with Lewis about the book and what prompted him to write it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What was the thinking behind this book? Obviously, you specialize in arms control. How did you turn this nuclear situation into a fictional story?
For a long time, I have written nonfiction pieces talking about North Korean nuclear strategy, but also ways in which I think US nuclear strategy could break down. And in a nonfiction context, it’s very hard to get people to see how that might happen because the natural impulse is to say, “It would be crazy to have war.” Which, of course, it would be crazy to have a nuclear war. I’ve found it increasingly hard to persuade people with logic that human beings might do something illogical; it’s much easier to show it.
I actually got asked to write a piece for The Washington Post that was a kind of explanation for how a nuclear war might start and to explain my view and criticism of US and North Korean nuclear strategy. I just thought it would be easier to do as fiction. So I did that, and the piece was received pretty well. And Alex Littlefield, the editor at Houghton Mifflin called and asked, “Do you think that there’s a book-length version there?”
So when you set out to write this scenario both in The Washington Post and the novel, what did you hope to accomplish?
Two things. I want to explain North Korean nuclear strategy. I find that the US officials who are responsible for the issue have what I would consider an inaccurate view of how North Koreans think about nuclear weapons. I’ve actually seen this problem recur a lot. I used to do a lot of work on China’s nuclear arsenal, and saw the same problem when other countries don’t think the same way we do. We decide that they’re either confused or they’re not as smart as we are. We don’t take seriously the idea that our beliefs, like their beliefs, may be imperfect and that we should sort of respect that people reach different conclusions. I want to show what I thought North Korea planned to do with its nuclear weapons.
Secondarily, I have quite a number of criticisms of how we approach deterrence and nuclear strategy in the United States. I lived in Washington for 15 years, so I have a few observations about politics and bureaucracy. So I was eager to put those down, too. So really being able to watch my ideas about how things work between the US and North Korea and the US playing out in tandem was pretty exciting for me.
When you started writing this book back in December, tensions between the US and North Korea were still pretty frosty. Then, while you were midway through, Trump actually met with Kim Jong-un. How was it to write this as that was happening?
It was pretty easy because the concept of the book was that there was a diplomatic approach that failed because, at the end of the day, North Korea wouldn’t give up the weapons, and the US would insist on that. Unfortunately for real life but fortunately for the book, that’s exactly what happened. I had to remove chapter 2, which, more or less, looks like the last three months. But it’s playing out precisely how I thought it would. I just kept writing the book in the same way. The publicity people for the book actually got nervous. I told them how the next few months would play out, and when things started to get worse again, they were like, “Oooooh.” And they put the publication date put back on track, and here we are.
One of the things that really struck me was how very personality-driven these policies seemed to be. So with North Korea, we only have three leaders, while in the US, that changes every four years. How do these shifts figure in on both sides?
I spent 15 years in DC, and I was really struck as I learned how things work, how different that was from how things are presented in textbooks or academic papers. When I started doing academic research on both the spread of nuclear weapons and nuclear doctrines in different countries, I really came to view that the way we talk about international relations is really unsatisfying. There are millions of people in North Korea, and governments are similar in an important way all around the world. They’re groups of human beings making decisions together, and they are all driven by politics and animosity. And so in my academic work, I think those things are really important and that we understand the spread of nuclear weapons are better when we take those things into account. So, for me, it was pretty natural that when I wrote a story, those concerns were in the foreground.
The other thing that really struck me is that this isn’t just a Kim Jong-un or a President Trump problem. It seems like there is a lot of history preceding this story, at least when you’re drawing on history to inform the novel.
When I wrote the book, I didn’t want there to be any villains. I suppose Trump comes the closest, but he’s in the book more as a force of nature. What interested me is how everyone around them is reacting. So I wanted individuals in the book — even individuals who make terrible decisions — to be in some important sense sympathetic, where we could almost talk ourselves into making the same decisions. The broader concerns are that the history and reality of our world constrains the people who are acting out the story.
The way that I treated that historical and structural baggage kind of pins down the people who have to make the decisions, and they’re not really free in an important sense to make any decisions. They’re stuck in a really specific circumstance that puts them in a particular direction. What I care about is how these factors constrained someone like a chief of staff, who can see that this is going a bad way. But because of those structural factors, they can’t figure out how to get out of the rut.
There are a couple of points where people you depict are like, “We’re crazy to be doing this, but we’re going to do it anyway.”
Yeah. One of my favorite things early on is there is a regrettable decision to ratchet up the pressure on Kim Jong-un with a series of bomber flights. Instead of presenting that as a suicidal death wish, it struck me that it was much more likely to come about as an alternative to something worse. If there was a really crazy idea on the table, the decision-makers will decide to do something marginally less crazy because they’re focused on the crazier thing they didn’t do. But, unfortunately, when they then go ahead and do it, it’ll be the crazy thing they went and did. That’s a real dysfunction in decision-making that I see all the time, and I definitely wanted to explore it because you can really talk yourself into some bad ideas.
Much of this book is not the actual nuclear attack. It’s the buildup to it. What surprised me was just how many opportunities there were for people to make a different decision.
I teach a class on the making of nuclear weapons from 1945 on. Most of the decisions, when you look at them with hindsight, are pretty terrible, even the ones that work out okay. That’s because people don’t have access to perfect information, but also people are worried about smaller things in the moment. They have meetings, and they’re worried about other fights or petty jealousies at the same time. So when I go back and reconstruct real decisions about nuclear weapons over the last 70 years, to me, they look like decisions you could talk yourself into. But when you’re the reader and step back and look at the grand scheme of things, you’re like, “Oh, please don’t do that!”
You’re dealing with two leaders who are living in these pretty durable bubbles of misinformation: Kim Jong-un is working off of a lot of vague impressions of the US and isn’t getting a lot of good information from his people when the attacks occur. And then you also have Trump, who is living in his own special bubble. There’s a moment in the book when the bombs are falling, and he keeps repeating, “They’re just going to crash.”
Yeah. It’s a real problem we see with all decision-makers. LBJ made the decision to escalate the war in Vietnam based on a torpedo attack that never happened. That was the kind of information bubble where the Navy reported that this thing happened, and he’s in Washington. How does he know what happened or didn’t happen? He just has the report on the problem. I think over and over again, we see decision-makers are sitting atop this vast human enterprise, and they are so far from the truth that they’re making these very abstract decisions that are based on information that is really quite imperfect.
Even in the aftermath of this attack, you make the point that there are a lot of conspiracy theories and doctored information that circulates. You tie it back over to the 2016 election where Russia was spreading a lot of misinformation to confuse American voters. How do you plan on positioning this book as a way to cut through that idea that there’s a significant part of the population that’s willing to close their eyes to the problem?
The reason that I emphasize with that is I sometimes run into an argument where people get so frustrated with that our nuclear policy doesn’t seem to change, and they say something like, “Well, you know it’ll need to be a nuclear crisis that wakes us up.”
I don’t think that’s how human beings work because we are all in our own little information bubbles. And we have had a nuclear use. We’ve had two of them. So it’s not so automatic to me that we would learn the correct lessons from coming nuclear use. That’s a thing we have to actively do. So the emphasis on conspiracy theories is that it’s not a great idea to wait for a use to expect people to learn the right lesson. We could learn that lesson now, and we should probably do that.
One of the things that I’ve heard about Ghost Fleet by August Cole and P.W. Singer was that it was passed around the Pentagon quite a bit, and people sort of sat up and took notice of it. What do you hope people in higher levels of government, or even Trump, might get out of your book?
There are three big things. One is what I think the North Koreans believe nuclear weapons are for. I want the logic of North Korea’s nuclear strategy, which seems crazy to us, to at least be plausible enough that people will accept it even if they don’t agree with it. So, figuring out how they plan to use nuclear weapons. The second piece is seeing how their strategy and our strategy could interact in bad ways, and we could stumble into a war that neither party wants. Again, I think it’s very easy to say that there’s no risk because no one wants one. I think that’s too simple. You can stumble, particularly given some of the mistakes we’ve seen both parties make over the past few years.
And the last thing is a meditation there on how hard it is for the US government to make good decisions because we have so many other things that interfere like politics or personal ambition. And I think, particularly for people who are serving in the Trump administration right now — many of whom I think are really quite patriotic — there’s a really hard question about when are you holding things together and when are you enabling bad decisions. I don’t think that there is an obvious or easy or simple answer. I think it’s the kind of thing that people who are working in government are probably struggling with every day. If I’d written this as a sermon, it would be preachy and aggravating and not much help anyone else. As fiction, I think it opens up the possibility that that conversation.
So after writing it, how optimistic or pessimistic are you for the next two years?
I’m moderately pessimistic. A friend asked me what did I think the chances of this scenario actually happening were, and I think he said something like “10 percent?” I said something like 1 percent, but that’s still a hundred times higher than it should be. I think that the good news is that no one wants to use nuclear weapons. Everyone wants to resolve this problem. The bad news is, the parties are still really far apart. I don’t think there’s any chance North Korea is going to give up their weapons, and I just don’t know how the Trump administration is going to react when that finally becomes be clear.
There’s a way forward. It just requires us to be a little more courageous than we’ve been in the past and make some different choices. But that kind of change usually doesn’t happen, and it’s much more common to just muddle through. But the good news is, at least so far, we always have.