Gwynne Dyer: Applying Parkinson’s Law to the North Korean nuclear threat

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      “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion,” wrote Cyril Northcote Parkinson in 1955, and instantly created a whole new domain in the study of human affairs. “Parkinson’s Law” was one of the most profound insights of the past century, but he didn’t go far enough. There is a media corollary that doesn’t get nearly enough attention.

      It is this: “International confrontations expand to fill the media space available.” There is a lot of media space available nowadays, and a striking shortage of truly terrifying international threats, so the few modest ones that do exist are magnified to fill the scary news quota.

      That’s why you hear so much about the North Korean nuclear threat, the Iranian nuclear threat, and the international terrorist threat. Unless you live in South Korea, or Israel, or lower Manhattan, none of these “threats” will ever disturb the even tenor of your lifeand even if you do live in one of those places, it is still very unlikely.

      The very unlikely did happen in lower Manhattan once, 12 years ago, but it is very, very unlikely to happen there again. Nevertheless, 9/11 is used to justify an ongoing “war on terror” that has provided long-term employment for several million people and justified well over a trillion dollars in “defence” spending over the past decade.

      Which brings us to another law, the Shirky Principle: "Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution." In other words, armed forces, intelligence services, and those parts of the foreign policy establishment that have prospered from “fighting terror” will instinctively preserve that threat. They hunt down and kill individual terrorists, of course, but they also keep coming up with new terrorist threats.

      Moreover, fighting terrorists does not justify aircraft carriers, armoured divisions, and planes like the F-35. Those branches of the armed forces need the threat of wars in which weapons like those might be at least marginally relevant.

      Credible threats of high-intensity warfare are scarce these days, so you have to be creative. There is, for example, a remote possibility that the inexperienced young man who now leads North Korea might be paranoid enough, and the generals who supervise him stupid enough, to attack South Korean forces somewhere. That might lead to a major war in the peninsula.

      The probability that this would lead to the use of nuclear weapons in the Korean peninsula is vanishingly small. The likelihood that it could lead to the use of nuclear weapons elsewhere is zero. Yet this confrontation is getting as much coverage in the Western mass media as the Berlin crisis did in 1961and the Asian media generally follow suit.

      The same is true for the alleged Iranian nuclear threat. Iran is probably not planning to build nuclear weapons, and there is no chance that it would launch a nuclear attack on Israel even if it did build a few. Israel has hundreds of the things, and its response would destroy Iran. Yet the Israelis insist that it might happen anyway because Iranians are crazyand both Western and Arab media swallow this nonsense.

      Fifty years ago, during the Berlin crisis, a single misstep could have led to ten thousand nuclear weapons falling on the world’s cities. Bad things can still happen when politicians miscalculate, but the scale of the potential damage is minuscule by comparison. Yet our credulous media give these mini-crises the same coverage that they gave to the apocalyptic crises of the Cold War.

      Hence Dyer’s Corollary to Parkinson’s Law: International confrontations expand to fill the media space available. Little ones will be inflated to fill the hole left by the disappearance of big ones. The 24-hour news cycle will be fed, and military budgets will stay big. You just have to keep the general public permanently frightened.

      That’s easy to do, because people in most countries know very little about the world beyond their immediate neighbours. They’ll believe almost anything the media tell themand most of the media go along with the official sources because scare stories sell a lot better than headlines about the remarkably peaceful state of the world.

      How ignorant is the general public? Well, Hollywood recently remade a paranoid film of the 1980s called Red Dawn, in which Russian troops occupied the United States and gallant American high school students launched a guerilla war to expel them. Now the Russians aren’t the enemy any more, so this time the invaders are North Korean paratroopers.

      The film doesn’t explain where a country like North Korea, with 25 million people, is going to find the troops to occupy the United States, which has 330 million. It doesn’t go into awkward details like how huge North Korean transport planes could, if they existed, make a 20,000 kilometre (13,000 mile) round trip to drop those paratroopers on American cities. Why bother? Few Americans know how big North Korea is, or how far away it is.

      Okay, that’s Hollywood, not CNN. But the difference between them is smaller that most journalists would like to believe.

      Humbert Wolfe’s judgement almost a century ago still applies everywhere: You cannot hope to bribe or twist (thank God!) the British journalist/ But given what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to.




      Apr 15, 2013 at 1:33pm

      Unfortunately we don't have to go as far back as fifty years for "a single misstep (that)could have led to ten thousand nuclear weapons falling on the world’s cities." Thirty years ago in the case of Stanislav Petrov there was another close call:

      Mark Mosby

      Apr 15, 2013 at 6:39pm

      I see that Dyer is dutifully following the same "law" that he attempts to deride; this is his third article on North Korea in the past month.

      Mark Mosby

      Apr 15, 2013 at 9:58pm

      Dyer is correct in saying the Western media is trying to keep the public permanently frightened but they seem to be failing to do that in North America because the great majority of taxpayers can see through it.

      After the total mess that was made of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and now Syria, we understand that war is just a profit-making exercise for the military-industrial complex.

      If only we taxpayers could give our money directly to The Powers That Be and say, "Here, use this to do anything EXCEPT KILL PEOPLE" I'd personally feel better, and the folks whose lives were saved might develop a spring in their step.

      Russ Hunt

      Apr 16, 2013 at 6:20am

      Amazingly prescient, given today's media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. Just watch the security establishment make this into a purchase order.

      Tyler Thornberg

      Apr 16, 2013 at 8:56am

      I am in full agreement that the 24 hour news cycle is in large part responsible for the persistent fear-mongering in our culture.

      An interesting note about the "Red Dawn" remake is that it was originally meant to be the Chinese government invading the United States, but the studio was concerned about audience loss in China ... so they fixed it in post.

      I. Chandler

      Apr 16, 2013 at 4:42pm

      "Fifty years ago, during the Berlin crisis, a single misstep could have led to ten thousand...they also keep coming up with new terrorist threats."

      The Power of Nightmares, The Politics of Fear, is a BBC documentary that describes how American governments use terrorism to unite and inspire their people. It also describes how the CIA created "Team B" during the cold war to exaggerate the threat of the Soviet Union:

      "The very unlikely did happen in lower Manhattan once, 12 years ago, but it is very, very unlikely to happen there again...but they keep coming up with new terrorist threats."

      American author and historian, William Blum doesnt think it'll happen again eithet. A documentary about an Unreasonable Man (Ralph Nader) and how American democracy was hyjacked well before 911.

      Carl Bernstein describes how the CIA used the media during the cold war:


      Apr 24, 2013 at 5:57pm

      Well, the North Koreans are better off than those other boogie men, the Iranians. No one would ever accuse Kim Jong-un and his comrades of harbouring Al Quaida, or as the Canuck media insinuates these days "Iran-based Al Quaida."

      S. Hubert

      Apr 29, 2013 at 7:42am

      A good article on the importance of clear thinking.

      On Iran using the bomb:
      "Israelis insist that it might happen anyway because Iranians are crazy"

      I think the real strategic reasoning is about the practical/pragmatic difference between the Qod's Force and the Supreme Council, and the former's bloodthirsty willingness to engage in proxy warfare.

      The Ayatollah can issue fatwas against nuclear bombs all he wants, but that's not apparently enough to stop the Iranian military elite/eccentric from arming Hizbollah, or using formed charges against US military personnel in Iraq.

      What about acquiring miniaturized bombs and deploying them in a dozen US cities. Sure, it's Iranian suicide, but some folks ARE crazy, especially underdogs with a valid grudge.

      I agree it needs to stop, and I agree it probably won't.