Nuclear Clouds on the Horizon
A series of ominous signs point to the reality that President Reagan’s warning—“a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”—has not sunk into the thinking of the military establishments of the nine nuclear powers. The U.S. is signaling its abandonment of arms control left and right, most recently the Open Skies Treaty, a stabilizing agreement that allowed Russian and American planes to do flyovers of each other’s territories. The U.S. and others continue research on both hypersonic missiles that will reduce the time for sensible decision-making in a crisis. We are also developing smaller-yield warheads that make the transition from conventional to nuclear war more likely. Mr. Trump and friends are thinking again about more nuclear tests and the weaponization of space.
We knew very well a worldwide plague could occur but we didn’t think it would. We were taken by surprise and unprepared. The pandemic struck impersonally at obsolete conceptions of nationalist autonomy, reminding the international community of all the other challenges we can only solve together.
Nuclear weapons remain one of those challenges. There is only one way out of the corner we have painted ourselves into: mutual, verifiable agreements to get rid of the weapons and control the materials that go into them. So what do we need to know that will have the momentum to carry the world through to this end, the momentum of truth? A few fundamental realities:
The first is the unreliability of deterrence. Deterrence works—until it doesn’t. It didn’t deter 9/11. It didn’t deter Russia’s stealth invasion of Crimea. Realists embrace deterrence, Mutual Assured Destruction, as a tragic necessity. The reality is that it purports to prevent a third World War when in fact it only postpones one. Why? Because the mother of all paradoxes is built into the system: in order to never be used, the weapons must be kept ready for instant use. With no mistakes. Forever.
Which brings us to a related reality—the inevitability of error. I participated back in the 1980s in a citizen initiative to bring together Russian and American scientists to write papers on the technical background of accidental nuclear war. The papers became a book, Breakthrough: Emerging New Thinking, the first book published simultaneously in the U.S. and the then rapidly changing Soviet Union. Gorbachev read it. Even today more than thirty years later, the book retains the capacity to make one’s hair stand on end. All the problems that the scientists agreed in 1986 were dire are even more dire today.
The layered systems of computers and missiles, some of the equipment modern and some frighteningly worn and obsolete, are coupled with the familiar human error that we have seen unfold in technical failures like the Challenger, Chernobyl, and the Max-8s. There are too many stories of early warning systems mistaking the rising moon or a flock of geese for incoming missiles, nearly initiating a retaliatory launch. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the equivalent of our playing pistol roulette with the world. There was a bullet in the chamber and we pulled the trigger, but miraculously the gun misfired. As Robert McNamara said, only luck, not expertise, has saved us. How far can we afford to push our luck?
Another piece is what we have learned about the possibility of nuclear winter. Scientists have modelled more and more precisely how few nuclear detonations on cities would be required to raise enough dust and ash into the upper atmosphere to change the planetary climate, making fatal changes in agriculture and our ability to feed ourselves. Thus even a so-called “limited” nuclear war contains no possible victory, and very possibly would lead to the suicide of the nation that initiated it. It is startling to admit that, much as we reserve our deepest fear and disgust for suicide bombers, our taxes and investments subsidize just such a system on a world-ending scale.
We cannot fool ourselves that our weapons are good because we are good and North Korea’s weapons are evil because they are evil. A Hindu bomb or a Muslim bomb or a democratic bomb or a totalitarian bomb are all equally adequate to cause nuclear winter.
Unless we change direction, the ultimate tragedy of nuclear war will emerge from the status quo. Experts know this, and yet the drift toward the waterfall continues. Not one of the nine nuclear powers has signed the 2017 United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which so far 81 nations have already signed and 37 ratified—an international expression of the democratic spirit we value in our own country.
The only way out—the only way—is a permanent conference, sponsored by the U.N., where the stakeholders pledge no-first-use, take their weapons off hair-trigger, and work out protocols of mutual, verifiable reductions of all weapons. Even if it takes a decade or more, positive incremental steps along the way will build confidence that the job can be completed.
An extraordinarily hopeful precedent was provided by the Nunn-Lugar Threat Reduction Initiative in the 1980s and 90s— a bipartisan achievement. The project resulted in the disassembly of 7000 nuclear warheads in the territories of the now former Soviet Union. That is nearly half of all the nuclear weapons deployed worldwide today. In one crucial sense these weapons are not like a virus: we built them, and if we can truly see their surreal dysfunction, we can, and we will, unbuild them.