Believing in Nuclear Deterrence and Angels

By David Swanson, World BEYOND War, July 4, 2024

“Despite the fact that deterrence remains an article of faith among the ‘realists’ who have orchestrated U.S. strategic policy and who continue to do so, despite its incoherence and instability, much of this faith is lip service only, analogous to deeply religious individuals who profess belief in heaven, yet rarely rejoice when a loved one dies. Thus, if the U.S. government really believed in nuclear deterrence — or in the billions of dollars spent on Ballistic Missile Defense — there wouldn’t be such hyperventilating about the threat posed by a nuclear armed North Korea or possibly by Iran in the future.” —David Barash

There’s a webinar coming up on July 9 about nuclear deterrence. I imagine it will be excellent. I’ve also just been reading a fantastic book on the topic called Threats: Intimidation and Its Discontents by David P. Barash. There’s an online book club with the author and free copy of the book coming up for that. Barash’s central thesis is that the idea of nuclear deterrence makes no sense. It’s kind of hard to see why anyone would argue with him.

MSNBC recently aired this old comment by U.S. nuclear scientist Leo Szilard: “Here, I have made a little calculation. Assuming that we make a radioactive element that will live for five years and we just let it go into the air… forming a dust layer on the surface of the Earth, everybody would be killed. . . . And you may, of course, ask, ‘what is the practical importance of this? Who would want to kill everybody on Earth?’ I do not know whether we would be willing to do it, and I do not know whether the Russians would be willing to do it. But I think that we may threaten to do it. And I think that the Russians might threaten to do it. And who will take the risk, then, not to take that threat seriously?”

It’s unclear whether anyone has followed through on developing a single bomb to end all life on Earth, but each and every one of the tens of thousands of nuclear bombs in existence is, in a sense, that bomb. Most experts agree that any use of a nuclear bomb, even a so-called small or usable or tactical or limited bomb will almost certainly result in the use of others, with nobody able to control the escalation, and with even a “small” nuclear war a threat to all life on Earth via nuclear winter.  Of course, I wouldn’t care if anyone were to threaten to use such things, as long as they never did, but the threats are not credible in a way that deters or coerces anything, while the risk of accidental or intentional use is nonetheless disastrously real.

How can that be? Barash’s analysis of threats made by humans and other animals is enlightening. In the 1920s the U.S. government effectively poisoned alcohol as a deterrent to drinking it. Surely nobody would risk death for a drink. But an estimated 10,000 people died as a result. In the 1970s the same geniuses tried poisoning marijuana, and if the aim was deterrence it largely failed. Lagging shamefully behind most of the world, the United States still uses capital punishment, claiming it is a deterrent. But, unlike nuclear war, capital punishment is something that can be tested in a wide variety of ways while still leaving most of humanity alive. There is overwhelming evidence that capital punishment is not an effective deterrent. It may deter someone from committing some crime, but does not deter most people. Failure to deter nuclear war is not something we can afford to fail at most of the time or even a single time. We have to come to terms with the fact that the people being threatened are no more rational than the people doing the threatening.

Seriously. Read some game-theory books and then watch some reality television, and then ask yourself what one can possibly have to do with the other. Humans are not robot economists.

The notion that nuclear weapons have prevented nuclear war through deterrence is an empty correlation atop an absurdity. The absurdity is the idea of needing nuclear weapons in order to avoid nuclear war, which could be avoided very well by abolishing nuclear weapons. The empty correlation is the idea that because we haven’t yet had a nuclear apocalypse, nuclear deterrence has worked. This is not merely a correlation rather than a causal proof, but one with a lot of evidence against it.

For example, it is well established that nuclear weapons do not deter non-nuclear attacks, not by terrorists, not by non-nuclear nations, and not by nuclear nations. Nations’ possession of nuclear weapons does not make them more likely to win wars. In a study of 348 territorial disputes cited by Barash, nations with nuclear weapons were less, not more, successful than nations without nukes, and were no more successful than they had been prior to obtaining nukes. It’s a leap to conclude that nuclear weapons, which fail to deter all other types of attacks, have deterred nuclear attacks.

Of course, Daniel Ellsberg told us how frequently U.S. presidents have publicly or privately threatened to use nuclear weapons, but not that doing so has deterred anything.

Against terrorists who lack a territorial nation, the threat cannot even be attempted. But against nations, the threat is difficult to attempt because of the horrific shame that the world — to its infinite credit — will heap on the person publicly threatening to use nuclear weapons (Trump, Putin). And the attempt is difficult to make effective, because threats usually require examples, demonstrations. This is why you can read columns in newspapers suggesting that using one “small” nuclear weapons would teach everyone what they are. But if the whole purpose of using the one nuclear weapon were to prevent anyone ever using more of them, and if you could live with the shame of having used that one, and if –contrary to everyone’s predictions — using one didn’t result in using lots more, would anyone even then believe the threat to use them all or to use more of them?

What is perfectly believable, after reading through all the near misses, in Barash’s and many others’ books, is that we’ve been incredibly lucky. Incredible luck is, by definition, unlikely to continue for long. Many of the near misses involve individual saviors. But what happens when the person put in the position to prevent a nuclear war isn’t wise or heroic, as most people are not? One could never count on everyone to disobey illegal orders. Obeying illegal orders is standard practice in militaries. And now the U.S. Supreme Court has declared all presidential orders to be legal. I’d trust with nukes neither Biden nor Trump nor any of the military commanders who’ve been given the power to initiate the ending of the world — nor any other human being — any further than I could throw them. Would you? There is no other enterprise free of disaster. Why should nuclear weapons be unique?

How comforting is it that the same people who deny Biden’s dementia until it’s made painfully and disastrously obvious to all are in charge of preventing nuclear war — that is, with addressing nuclear war wisely BEFORE it happens?

How reassuring is it that during all the many near-misses of the past there was a buffer between the East and the West, there was communication between the East and the West, and there were fewer nations with nuclear weapons? Now how lucky do we need to be?

Did you see an anti-apocalypse candidate in the Trump-Biden debate, or did you see two mentally unstable old men arguing about who would best get Europe to pay for Armageddon and who had a better golf game?

The fantasy of shooting down missiles with missiles as a protection against nuclear war has fueled the arms race, created weapons that one side can call defensive and the other suspect are offensive, threatened the danger of an attack by any nation that convinces itself it is protected from retaliation, and — most importantly — failed dramatically to provide anything more than the possibility of partial protection, which means no protection at all when you’re talking about nuclear bombs getting through.

Interestingly, Barash includes in his book a survey of the data on how people who suffer, including who suffer the violence of war, and including who suffer the uncertainty of safety tend to believe more in religion. The belief in heaven or hell can follow from trauma but doesn’t tend to directly fuel the trauma in a vicious cycle. The belief in nuclear deterrence, on the other hand, is nothing other than the belief that it is a good thing to threaten to annihilate all life. That thought creates the fear and horror that can, I suspect, make one more susceptible to believing in nuclear deterrence. How do we get out of that loop? Believing in angels might do less harm.

One way out would be to use democracy rather than building life-threatening weapons in its name.

Short of that we need activism. I encourage everyone to join in unwelcoming NATO to Washington this week. for a start:

2 Responses

  1. Do you seriously think that we would be just as safe from attack or threats from a nuclear armed nation, especially a well armed one like Russia, if we had no nuclear capacity to retaliate?

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