Opinion

The end of nuclear deterrence

There was a time when nuclear weapons were seen as the best way to prevent world war. Not anymore.

Since the end of the Cold War, the public mind has pretty much forgotten about the existence of nuclear weapons, except in the Middle East. And yet, they still exist — thousands and thousands of them, ready to destroy all of human civilization several times over. In response, a new nuclear disarmament movement is getting underway.

This week, I attended the Vienna conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons. (Full disclosure: one of the sponsoring organizations, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, invited me all expenses paid.) The conference was striking in describing the utter, absolute destruction that can be caused by nuclear weapons.

I came in as a supporter of the doctrine of nuclear deterrence, which says that the world's major power-brokers should have nuclear weapons as a way of preventing a new world war. Advocates of this doctrine point to the Cold War, which never went hot, as a success for deterrence.

But supporters of disarmament — including the Red Cross, Pope Francis, and, believe it or not, Henry Kissinger — say that's wrong. These are serious, sober-minded people, not just pie-in-the-sky activists, and they say that deterrence doesn't work in a multipolar world. Instead, the presence of nuclear weapons just creates an incentive for more proliferation, as small countries try to one-up their regional adversaries.

What's more — and this was the most striking thing at the conference — they point to the risks inherent in the existence of nuclear weapons. History has recorded many close calls in which nuclear weapons were almost fired. (This, in turn, could have led to a nightmare scenario where an accidental strike is met with a riposte, triggering Armageddon.) For example, in 2007, six U.S. nuclear warheads went missing because of a bureaucratic mistake. Then there's the story of the U.S. nuclear missile launch officer with the drug problem.

If this stuff can happen in the U.S., which has the oldest, best-funded, and most sophisticated nuclear force, one shudders to think about what might be going on in Russia or Pakistan. Given the way human nature and technology works, advocates warn, it is not a matter of if, but when a catastrophic accicent will occur. The only solution is simply to ban nuclear weapons for good.

This is where I started rethinking my position. A lot of research has shown that human brains are wired in such a way that it is very difficult for us to rationally process risks that have a very low probability but a very high cost. This is essentially what caused the 2008 financial crisis: a very low risk was treated as non-existent, so that when the event occurred, the system collapsed. This is exactly the kind of risk we are talking about with nuclear weapons.

The problem with getting rid of nuclear weapons, of course, is that it seems impossible. Almost no country seems to want to voluntarily give them up — at least as long as anyone else has any. But a former U.S. national security official told me that "within your lifetime" it could happen: countries don't need hundreds (let alone thousands) of nukes to deter adversaries. But if the global stockpile is in the hundreds, then full disarmament starts to become conceivable.

Maybe. But in the meantime, the long-tail risks inherent in nuclear weapons seem significant enough that we should all get behind an agenda for very significantly reducing their number — or at the very least pay more attention to nuclear issues. The Cold War may be over, but the nukes, unfortunately, are still with us.

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