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Alumnus returns to speak on international nuclear threats

Grieg Thielmann ’72 delineates ways to subdue nuclear threats during his talk in JRC 101. Photo by Helena Gruensteidl.


Greg Thielmann ’72 spent 30 years in foreign service for both the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Arms Control Association, serving in Brazil, Germany and Russia. His career gave him decades worth of experience in understanding and analyzing nuclear arms issues from the perspective of multiple branches of the U.S. government. On Monday, Thielmann returned to Grinnell to share his expertise, giving a talk called “Unleashing the Dogs of War: U.S. Policy Toward Iran and North Korea,” in which he explored U.S. policy in response to countries with nuclear weapons.

Professor Barb Trish, director of the Rosenfield Program in Public Affairs, International Relations and Human Rights, brought Thielmann to Grinnell, coordinating his visit to Grinnell with his visit to Newton, his hometown.

“He has the kind of deep knowledge and intelligence and security from a career of working in government that even analysts from the outside don’t have,” Trish said. “The North Korea angle on [the nuclear threat] has been so present on peoples’ minds that we thought it was particularly timely.”

Before addressing the imminent threat of North Korea, Thielmann explained how he observed the Bush administration’s mishandling of information that lead to the Iraq war. The Bush administration had been misinformed on the state of nuclear weapons in Iraq, while the State Department, where Thielmann worked, had the correct information. He noted Congress’s failure to acknowledge evidence that Iraq did not, at that time, have a nuclear weapons program.

He juxtaposed the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq’s nuclear threat by praising the Obama administration’s implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, calling it an “extraordinary multilateral diplomatic effort.” The deal allows the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor Iran and ensure that they reduce nuclear capabilities. It has thus far proven successful.

Grieg Thielmann ’72 delineates ways to subdue nuclear threats during his talk in JRC 101. Photo by Helena Gruensteidl.

Thielmann drew from his knowledge of both the Bush and Obama administrations to offer recommendations for dealing with North Korea. He suggested that negotiations with Iran should set an example for the North Korea dealings in that the goal should not be a perfect deal, but a safe one.

Thielmann outlined five possible solutions to avoid a potential nuclear war. First, the U.S. should cease threatening destruction to North Korea, which are actions he argues have been promoted by the Trump administration. Any threats by the U.S. against North Korea only bolster Kim Jong-un’s claims that North Korea must continue its nuclear weapons program in order to protect itself from the U.S.

Second, the U.S. should subtly remind Kim Jong-un that if North Korea attacks the U.S., there will be retaliation, which will mark the end of the Kim dynasty.

Third, the U.S. should tighten international sanctions on North Korea.

Fourth, the U.S. should make a public agreement that they will not strike North Korea first, a goal which Thielmann claims has been compromised by the “incoherence of the Trump administration.”

Lastly, the U.S. negotiate with North Korea for a freeze of North Korean nuclear testing in exchange for an easing of sanctions and a lessening of South Korean and American military presence in South Korea.

Thielmann addressed the moral dimension of using nuclear weapons by highlighting the unnecessary destruction caused by the Iraq war, a war caused by the threat of nuclear war. There is no “winnable nuclear war,” and due to the extreme implications of nuclear weapons, Thielmann argued that U.S. policymakers should completely stop the potential use of nuclear weapons, as it would alter the state of the world as we know it.

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