Michael KreponWilson and Barash on Abolition and Deterrence

Quote of the week:

“You’ve got to dream a little bit if you’re going to get somewhere.” – George P. Shultz

Note to readers: Ward Wilson and David Barash have written with depth and feeling about abolition and nuclear deterrence. We’re within visual range but don’t exactly see eye to eye. I’ve invited them to offer their responses to my last post. Ward’s latest critique of our collective addiction to nuclear weapons can be found on Inkstick. David is professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Washington. His most recent book — Threats: Intimidation and its Discontents — was published in 2020 by Oxford University Press. Ward is first up.

My friend Michael Krepon wrote here recently about the difficulties of eliminating nuclear weapons. I take a more optimistic view than he does, and at his invitation, would like to say a word or two why.

I’m optimistic because having examined the assumptions made about nuclear weapons in the early years of the Cold War, it’s clear that those early experts and strategists were influenced by the intense anxiety and fear of that era. No one does their best thinking when they’re afraid. Awe of nuclear weapons exaggerated their capabilities and influence. Those assumptions still shape policy today.

It’s absolutely true that it is difficult to eliminate nuclear weapons if you say, “These are admittedly the ultimate weapon. They buttress alliances, they uphold the world order, they make prosperity possible, and they confer great power status. But we should get rid of them anyway.” No one will answer, “Yeah, they’re the ultimate weapon, but, I agree, let’s get rid of them.”

You have to start by reexamining the assumptions that nuclear weapons advocates have been using to frame the debate.

 For example, technology doesn’t go away by disinvention. If you examine the history of how technology goes away (and almost every piece of technology eventually does go away), you’ll find that technology gets abandoned because people realize it’s not very useful. Either something better comes along, or they realize that their initial assessment (that it was a wonder weapon, for example) wasn’t quite in line with the facts. Technology that is hardly useful at all and is dangerous into the bargain gets abandoned pretty readily. That’s why when people realized that biological weapons were really impossible weapons to wage a war with (tough to aim, tough to limit to the target, liable to spread back to your own troops or people or innocent third parties), it didn’t take long to negotiate and implement a treaty to ban them.

The decisive move was not to talk about the horror of biological weapons (although that didn’t hurt.) The decisive move was to convince people that they 1) weren’t very useful weapons, and 2) were pretty dangerous. That’s how technology goes away. Utility is the pivotal issue. If it’s useful — it stays; if it’s not — it goes.

So the way to eliminate nuclear weapons is not to say they’re wonder weapons but we should get rid of them anyway. The way to eliminate nuclear weapons is to show that they’re not very useful. The biggest obstacles to elimination are not the weapons themselves (because their danger and lack of utility is pretty plain); it is the sense of awe and fascination that exists in the heads of handful of experts and government officials who make policy. 

There’s no question that deterrence works some of the time, but the fact that it will fail one day is plain to see. That’s why when the International Red Cross surveyed millennials in the US and asked if they thought a nuclear weapon would be used in the next ten years fifty-eight percent said yes. That’s forty-one million Americans. Think ordinary people believe in nuclear deterrence? They don’t talk about it, but at some level they know it’s a hustler’s con that’s bound to fail one day.

Eliminating nuclear weapons is difficult if you accept all the assumptions that nuclear weapons advocates bring to the table. But you don’t have to. In fact, you shouldn’t, because they’re not realistic. The way to eliminate nuclear weapons is to show that they’re clumsy, virtually useless weapons that are, at the same time, enormously dangerous.

And now David:

Relying on deterrence to save us in a nuclear-armed world is like relying on the novel coronavirus to save us from Covid-19. It is the cause of the problem, not the solution. 

Hasn’t deterrence prevented nuclear war? Granted, we haven’t had one yet, but the logic is worse than tortured, because if deterrence had failed, we wouldn’t be around to bemoan its failure. Similarly, the fact that you haven’t died yet is no reason to conclude that you won’t, someday. Bertrand Russell noted that a tightrope walker can remain balanced for two whole minutes, or maybe ten, but would you expect her to keep it up for, say, a hundred years? 

Which brings us to the “long peace” since 1945. Modern European history shows that there have been many decades-long stretches of non-war between major powers from the end of the Napoleonic Wars to the present day. But then, they ended.

Moreover, the “long peace” hasn’t been that peaceful (see Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Iraq, Afghanistan, and much more). Conventional wars were not deterred. Deterrence hasn’t even prevented non-nuclear states from attacking nuclear ones. China sent 300,000 “volunteers” south to fight MacArthur’s forces in 1950, even though it would be 14 years before Mao et al were nuclear armed, whereas at that time, the United States was. Deterrence didn’t keep Algerians from defeating France, nor did it inhibit non-nuclear Argentina in 1982 from attacking the Falklands/Malvinas, a territory of the nuclear-armed United Kingdom. During the first Iraq War, non-nuclear Iraq wasn’t deterred from lobbing thity-nine Scud missiles at nuclear-armed Israel. And yet, the myth persists that deterrence has not only prevented nuclear war, but has achieved something beyond Jesus’s reach: establishing peace on Earth without good will toward men (and women). 

True, the United States and the USSR (and now, Russia) haven’t engaged in a major war since 1945 (when they fought on the same side), but they didn’t before then, either. Most likely there has been no such war because there has been no issue sufficient to cause war, conventional or nuclear. Moreover, and despite the lack of a sufficient casus beli, we have come horrifyingly close, notably because of false alarms and high-tension events such as Operation Able Archer and the Cuban missile crisis. I submit that rather than US-Soviet war having been avoided because of deterrence, it is more likely that we have survived despite it. 

If deterrence was simply a waste of money, falsely credited with benefits it doesn’t provide, that would be bad enough. But it’s worse than that. Deterrence relies on several things that are inherently unreliable; e.g., that in the event of a nerve-wracking crisis and with survival on the line, leadership will ostensibly behave with utmost precise rationality. Yet everything we know about human behavior shows that the greater the anxiety, the less the cognitive clarity.

This is when people often act out of anger, spite, misperceptions, despair, insanity, stubbornness, revenge, pride, and/or dogmatic conviction. To get around this — and retain deterrence — one option is to “get people out of the loop”; i.e., to leave the decision entirely to satellites, radar, and computers. Would that make us safer?

This is just one example of how a perceived need to shore up deterrence generates its own self-defeating, world-endangering dynamic. Another, which also cries out to be “solved” by launch-on-warning, is the problem of credibility. Given that nuclear retaliation is inherently incredible, strategists have wrestled for decades with how to generate nuclear credibility, which has led to such extraordinarily destabilizing developments as scenarios and deployments intended for fighting “limited nuclear war,” even though numerous simulations have shown that ultimate escalation would likely be unavoidable.

Worse yet, efforts to make the threatened use of nuclear weapons (i.e., deterrence) credible by deploying weapons, tactics and strategies to make nuclear use appear more likely cannot avoid making such use more likely! Advocates of deterrence cannot have it both ways: we cannot achieve credibility without increasing the likelihood of actual use.

Alas, there is much more, not least the additional paradox that ongoing efforts to shore up deterrence via counterforce necessarily undermines it by threatening potential first strikes, thereby initiating reciprocating strategic instability, especially under crisis. Add it up, and deterrence engenders threat — to threatener as well as threatened — far more than it promotes security.

And yet, deterrence itself is rarely questioned, even by those arms control wonks who recognize the threats posed by nuclear weapons. Deterrence remains the primary underlying justification for the whole nuclear weapons enterprise, and that alone is more than enough reason to question its legitimacy and to move beyond its deceptions.


  1. Bill (History)

    David Barash’s argument about the dangers of deterrence is well taken. The U.S. deployed Jupiter missiles to Turkey as a deterrent but then what happens? Khrushchev responds to this “defensive” move by secretly shipping IRBMs to Cuba. The Eisenhower administration’s understanding that the West needed better deterrence through IRBM deployments in the UK, Italy, and Turkey led to a first class nuclear crisis. Eisenhower understood that what the U.S. was doing could provoke “Communist missile bases in Cuba or Mexico” (see https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1958-60v10p2/d262), but he went ahead.

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