This week Trump has been threatening to start a nuclear war against North Korea, which got me rattled. So far, the sun has come up every morning, and with each additional day with no mushroom clouds it seems more likely that those threats are just bombast. His continuing along on his golfing vacation is also reassuring, if ridiculous. But how could anyone with the slightest clue as to what nuclear war would do even talk like that? And how could anyone think it a good idea to explore what happens when you provoke a nuclearized, paranoid dictator with threats of ultimate destruction?
Let’s keep our fingers crossed that Kim Jong-Un is only pretending to be crazy, Trump’s impulsivity is contained, and we survive. Even so, the threats will have done real damage. Markets have been roiled. In the community of nations, our government is viewed as even more irresponsible and unpredictable. At the personal level, my own mood has been darker than normal, tense and uncertain, and I’m surely not the only one. Our mental health is not good.
I usually try to find the bright side of dark situations, so I’ll take a swing at it here. If we’re lucky and avoid disaster, we might finally wake up, realize we’ve long been on the edge of the nuclear precipice, and carefully back away. Nuclear risks are not something anyone likes to think about, which in part accounts for why we are where we are. But we can’t not think about them now, with the threat so clear and close. We might take this as an opportunity to reconsider received ideas and correct some mistakes.
We thought initially that nuclear weapons could assure our safety by terrifying others into submission. When that didn’t work, we raced to build still more weapons, with ever more destructive force, until we could in a matter of hours destroy the world several times over. We put the weapons on hair-trigger alerts, and the risks of accidents and miscalculations increased.
In the past decades, there have been several nuclear accidents and close calls that could have killed thousands or sparked an all-out conflagration. In Command and Control, Eric Schlosser recounts a number of these, and there was a quick overview last week in the HuffPost . Our engineering is imperfect, and always will be. Maintaining large numbers of weapons on hair-trigger alert is incredibly dangerous.
In addition to the risk of system accidents, we live each day with the risk of human failure. People make mistakes in the use of violence for any number of reasons — lack of knowledge, lack of sleep, intoxication, mental illness, etc. And people’s reasoning powers are frequently overwhelmed by powerful emotions. It’s far from impossible that fear or anger could cause a nuclear attack that results in a counter attack and the end of the world as we know it.
The worst possible way to manage this risk is the one we’ve adopted: give one person with no training or qualifications complete power to launch the missiles. The dependence on the good judgment of a single individual with no constraints is inherently dangerous. Even the best of us from time to time make poor decisions when angered or confused. To put it mildly, Trump is not the best of us.
So is the situation hopeless? No. It’s not hard to imagine international agreements that greatly reduce nuclear forces and the risk of total annihilation. Indeed, the START treaties accomplished a lot. The new U.N. treaty banning nuclear weapons adopted by 120 countries shows that more is possible. It’s not hard to imagine doing away with the hair trigger and engineering in more time for analysis before launching. Likewise, we could put in place checks and balances on the executive, as we do in other areas.
But we need to start with adjusting our thinking, and recognizing that the nuclear risk is intolerable. We need to treat this problem as time-sensitive and high priority. If we do nothing . . . well, it’s unthinkable.