Sunday, December 11, 2016

Deterrence Has Become a Threat to All Life

Many have felt a prolonged shiver of anxiety about a foreign policy neophyte having access to the nuclear codes. Secretary Clinton referred in the third debate to the four minutes a leader would be allowed before having to decide how to respond to information that a nuclear attack might be under way. But the really haunting question is what it might mean for any leader, even the most disciplined and experienced, to have to undergo the stress and consequence of those four minutes.

The system of deterrence that has evolved among the nine existing nuclear powers, the system everyone on the planet is now reliant upon to prevent a cataclysmic third world war, is becoming ever more unworkable.

This may sound like a strange or even outrageous assertion to many. Hasn’t deterrence helped to prevent global war over the past half century? But a more relevant question is: can deterrence keep on working forever? Can we depend on a highly technological and complex system that must never make a mistake, when common sense reminds us that, however rarely, planes crash, trains collide, and nuclear reactors melt down?

There are many levels of unworkability that undermine the deterrence system. One layer is the paradox that in order that the weapons never be used, they must be kept ready for credible and instant use. Credibility requires that nuclear adversaries fear one another. Even taking into account the U.S.’s proposed efforts to refine our weapons systems to both increase their "flexibility" and render them more immune to failure or misuse, the inherent nature of a “balance of terror” can only increase paranoia among all nations. In the missile crisis of 1962 the world dodged a bullet. Add the increasing complexity of the command and control electronics attached to the weapons and the increasing possibility of infection of such electronics from without.

A further looming possibility that makes deterrence obsolete is nuclear winter. As computer models of nuclear exchanges become more refined, the number of detonations in these models sufficient to cause a decade of serious change in the total planetary atmosphere keeps dropping.  Even in a limited nuclear exchange, “victory” becomes a phantasm as the consequences of an attack rebound upon the attackers. Our species has come up against a level of destructiveness that cancels out any useful function for these weapons.

And yet the nuclear deterrence system continues to have an immense momentum of its own, irrespective of whether it makes us more secure. The three major drivers of this momentum are economic, political and psychological. Economically the nuclear arms industry is vast and profitable. Politically nuclear abolition is a third rail—because it supposedly suggests weakness to admit to constituents, of whatever nation, the truth about the actual insecurity of systems of deterrence. A senator with presidential ambitions might harbor doubts similar to mine and millions of other ordinary citizens, but he or she cannot afford to voice them. And of course we know that psychologically, deterrence assures an endless cycle of paranoia that pressures each nuclear nation to feel it has to keep up with the others technologically. Deterrence is meant to be stabilizing, but instead it is a dynamic, constantly changing system, and therefore inherently unstable. We build; they build. They build; we build.

Mr. Putin may be a bad hombre, but he is subject to the same irrefutable logic inherent in nuclear winter, as are the heads of India or Pakistan or China, Israel, or even North Korea, or anyone else with command responsibility for these world-destroying weapons. However, it is China, Russia and the U.S. who are the primary potential game-changers. These three powers are strong enough in conventional military forces to agree to mutually, gradually and reciprocally completely eliminate their nuclear arsenals without compromising their own security.  Even beginning this process could diminish the extreme paranoia of governments like Iran and North Korea. At present tensions are high between Pakistan and India over Kashmir, but a change of direction among the superpowers might help them avoid a repeat of the Cuban missile crisis or worse.  No doubt Israel would be the last to realize that the Middle East, like the planet as a whole, would be safer as a nuclear-free zone. It could take a generation, but mere commitment to the process would ease tensions and lessen the anxiety of billions around the world waiting breathlessly for someone to take the lead on the issue.

Initially our leaders would have to risk a huge amount of political capital educating not just our own nation but the world to the need for Gorbachev-type new thinking, and for sponsoring an ongoing international nuclear disarmament conference, first involving the three superpowers and eventually the six remaining nuclear powers, along with increased regulation and sequestration of nuclear materials. Experienced hands such as Dr. Kissinger (like him or not), William Perry, Sam Nunn and George Shultz have been actively advocating for this goal for almost a decade.

In terms of sticks and carrots, the biggest stick is that disaster down the road is inevitable unless there is a fundamental change of direction—to repeat, no complex technological system developed by fallible humans has been completely error-free. The biggest carrots are increased security and the blessings of freeing up trillions to apply to global issues like ensuring the food supply and mitigating climate change.

One key to success is surely education, building worldwide agreement around such issues as the dangers of human or computer misinterpretation of electronic information, the futility and madness of launch-on-warning, especially in the context of nuclear winter, and the reality that a nuclear war would not only do nothing to resolve any conflict that began it, but also could extinguish our species altogether, setting aside the unimaginable human suffering.

It seems extraordinary that we can outlaw certain weapons like land mines or chemical weapons, but we contentedly tolerate weapons that can destroy us utterly. Deterrence is a bargain with the devil. Despite our sleepy acceptance of its flawed premises, it is also an emperor with no clothes. Who among our leaders will be the first to have the courage to admit this out loud?