I’ve resisted the urge to post my various recent musings in an effort not to increase planetary anxiety, or my own. I’ve also had to work my way through some health issues that took up a lot of bandwidth. Sorry about that, and about this.
Spring has been arriving in Raleigh in fits and starts, but the early blooms are out now. I was happy to see the new tulips at Fletcher Park and daffodils at Raulston, and wanted to share a few pictures. May they give a little peace.
I also wanted to share a few thoughts on the possibility of nuclear war starting in Ukraine. As dreadful as that prospect is, there could be a silver lining: it may help us understand the nuclear peril we face and inspire us to work for a peaceful solution.
This week there was an op ed piece in the NY Times by Steven Simon and Jonathan Stephenson (S&S) titled Why Putin Went Straight for the Nuclear Threat. I ended up responding to the piece with a comment in the Times’ electronic edition. Afterwards, when I then started skimming the hundreds of other comments on the piece, I assumed my views were shared by plenty of others.
But no. It’s nice, in a way, to get some proof that your thinking is not entirely conventional. It was deeply disturbing, though, to find that there were a great many Times commenters who accepted and even welcomed the prospect of nuclear war with Russia. I decided it might be worthwhile to explain a little more what I was trying to say.
S&S’s premise is that nuclear weapons are generally a good thing, in that they provide a “delicate balance of deterrence.” That is, S&S posit an underlying rationality to the existing nuclear power arrangement in which a small group of leaders may at any time for any reason launch nuclear weapons powerful enough to end civilization.
In the recent Times piece, S&S are concerned that this “delicate balance” may be disturbed by the U.S. announcing that it does not intend to enter into a nuclear war. They appear to believe that Putin is bluffing with his nuclear cards, and that we should call the bluff.
Nuclear war, however, is different from poker. In poker, an erroneous guess about a bluff may, depending on the stakes, cost a lot of money. In nuclear war, it may mean the end of millions or billions of human lives, if not outright extinction, as well as the end of most other life on Earth.
This catastrophic risk has been with us in varying degrees since the enormous build up of nuclear forces in the 1960s. There have been periodic discussions of the risks of nuclear accidents, unintentional nuclear escalations, or planned attacks. At times, thinkers have noted the peril of keeping nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert, with one head of state entitled at any moment and with no explanation to unleash their devastating power.
But these short spells of sanity are mostly quickly forgotten, as other policy matters seem more pressing. The conventional narrative of “nuclear deterrence” is seldom called on to explain and defend itself. But it should be. In spite of its shadowy but powerful supporters – the arms manufacturers, politicians, generals, think tank scholars, and multiple layers of bureaucracy – there is no reason to think it is at all rational. In fact, it is both irrational and deeply immoral.
Part of the foundational idea for nuclear forces is that they deter other nuclear powers from attacking with their nuclear weapons. This is, of course, circular reasoning, in that it relies on the premise that nuclear weapons must exist and cannot be eliminated. If we reduce and eventually eliminate all nuclear weapons through verifiable treaties, there would be no need for this sort of deterrence.
Moreover, there’s no reason to think that this deterrence notion is what really accounts for the lack, so far (except for the U.S. atomic bombing of Japan), of nuclear aggression. It seems at least as likely that nuclear nations avoid nuclear attacks from a combination of various feelings and ideas, such as compassion, horror at the prospect of mass slaughter, and fear that any nuclear attack will escalate and cause a nuclear winter that will kill almost everything.
Here, as in most human problems, it’s impossible to know exactly why people do what they do, or what they may eventually decide to do. Rationality seldom guides our behavior. This lack of predictability is another reason to work diligently to find a way to back off the nuclear precipice.
The other foundational idea at the heart of nuclear strategy is that having the most powerful weapons will deter non-nuclear fighting. This deterrence idea has been repeatedly debunked by history.
The US superiority in nuclear weapons did not deter Soviet aggression in eastern Europe or prevent national liberation movements in former colonial lands. It did not deter Korea or Vietnam. It did not deter Iraq or Afghanistan, or ISIS. These and other movements won their gamble that the US was unwilling to conduct wholesale nuclear slaughter even when fiercely opposed.
The same, of course, was true for the Soviet Union as its empire fell to pieces: its nuclear arsenal, purchased at great cost, was useless. Now we are seeing that this is true of Ukraine. As the Ukrainians attack seemingly mighty Russian armored columns with small drones and shoulder-fired antitank weapons, they are betting that Putin will not respond with a devastating nuclear attack.
It may be that Putin believes he could intimidate Ukraine and its supporters with a small nuclear weapon that does only limited damage. He may believe that such a smaller weapon would not be viewed as a nuclear attack requiring a response, and therefore be less likely to trigger a nuclear escalation that ends all civilization.
Of course, to the extent Putin thinks rationally, he would recognize that he cannot positively know what either Ukrainians or the nuclear-armed western powers would do, just as they cannot know what he would do. Heck, none of these players know what they themselves would do!
All the actors in the nuclear drama are humans, prone to confusion, fear, and panic. Faced with a nuclear onslaught, it is most likely they would act irrationally. A head of state with a nuclear button could easily be as irrational as the rest of us. Meanwhile, in a crisis, a field commander with a tactical nuclear weapon is all too likely to fire it, starting the final conflagration.
Assuming we avoid nuclear catastrophe over Ukraine, this crisis may help us understand the urgency of resolving our perilous situation. Policies that reduce the risk of accidental nuclear war and arms control treaties that over time eliminate nuclear weapons should be back at the top of our domestic and international agenda.
I learned this week of Back from the Brink, a group that advocates for these and related measures, and made a donation to support their work. Their website is preventnuclearwar.org.