Michael KreponThe Perfect Storm

A time exposure of eight Peacekeeper (LGM-118A) intercontinental ballistic missile reentry vehicles passing through clouds while approaching an open-ocean impact zone during a flight test.

Verse of the week:

“I was wakened from my dream of the ruined world by the sound/ of rain falling slowly on the dry earth of my place in time.” — Wendell Berry

With few exceptions, those who focus on nuclear dangers do not enjoy the luxury of imagining nuclear peace. Staving off disaster is a full-time job. Trend lines are worrisome. Battles are seemingly lost. Guardrails are down. Negotiations seem unlikely to produce success, at least in the near term.

We’ve been here before, and we’ve managed not only to avoid worst cases, but also to achieve significant successes. Human agency is capable of excellent as well as terrible surprises. This time around, however, it seems harder to ward off pessimism and cynicism. A perfect storm seems to be brewing, leaving all of us in the cross hairs.

Since the Cold War ended, many of us have taken exceptional achievement for granted. The last atmospheric test of a nuclear weapon occurred over four decades ago. There have been no mushroom clouds in warfare for seven decades. This didn’t happen by chance, nor was deterrence solely responsible. Many have forgotten something elemental — that deterrence is exceedingly dangerous. Left to the devices of deterrence strategists, nuclear dangers rise. Deterrence requires diplomatic achievement to reduce nuclear dangers. 

Forgetfulness is compounded by other maladies. Our circuits are overloaded. The U.S. political system is now severely dysfunctional. We have other nightmares to concern ourselves with, starting with a pandemic and climate change due to our flagrant and persistent disregard for environmental stewardship. Social ills and income inequality have sharpened. Attention spans shrink. Nuclear dangers have receded in our collective consciousness. 

The perfect storm begins with these conditions, but starts here: The greatest of all nuclear dangers is numbness.

Lyndon Baines Johnson, a President I reviled because of the Vietnam War and now admire, passed the Voting Rights Act and other Great Society measures while attending to nuclear dangers. The Nonproliferation Treaty and the Outer Space Treaty were negotiated on his watch, along with preparations to begin strategic arms limitation talks. LBJ’s bandwidth was legendary. We’re now short of living legends. Cue the Marvel Superheroes.

The complexity of current nuclear dangers adds to our woes. Four pairs of nuclear-armed competitors — with perhaps more in the future — are overlaid by two triangular, dynamic force fields. We need new conceptual approaches, but we are called to fight familiar battles. We place great emphasis on words and on legal instruments when complex geometry undermines the verbal formulations and treaties we hold dear.

Most of those responsible for momentous arms control achievements are no longer with us. Our tribe is short of elders. The Obama and Biden administrations have attended to matters of gender, diversity, and sexual orientation. Personnel appointments reflect this on our issues as well as others. But good people are lost without a roadmap, and fire fighters in government are too busy to conceptualize one.

The State Department doesn’t publish a diplomatic posture review on plans to reduce nuclear dangers. We are left with the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review. I understand why we focus on this document, but this strikes me as the wrong place to look for a roadmap. The words might change from one administration to the next — sometimes marginally, and sometimes not — but if international conditions trend negatively, the words won’t help.

We need to conceptualize a new diplomatic strategy to reduce nuclear dangers. Major funders that could help with a new roadmap have turned their attention elsewhere. They invest in worthy social causes, some of which will now receive far more generous governmental funding. Trends in philanthropy have left gaping holes to fill because whatever progress might result from ameliorating societal ills can be erased in a matter of minutes in the event of mushroom clouds.

The perfect storm now forming at home and offshore has other contributing factors besides overloaded circuits, political gridlock, international trend lines, confounding complexity, a conceptual drought, foundation flight, and the shrinking network of nongovernmental organizations working against these heavy tides. I’ll leave it to others to add to or edit this list.

With so much to do, how to prioritize? Readers of these posts won’t be surprised at my answers. There are immediate negotiations to attend to. And nothing matters more than holding the line against the battlefield use of nuclear weapons, nuclear testing, and proliferation.The norm that Washington and Moscow once championed of avoiding dangerous military practices has been gutted. The other three pairings of nuclear-armed rivals haven’t begun to establish this norm. As if deterrence will suffice.

Comments

  1. robgoldston (History)

    You could count strategic instability on short and long time-scales in your list of “nothing matters more.”

  2. stokescorrales@mac.com (History)

    No first use should be announced. But I have to say that “nuclear dangers” are far less than during the cold war, in part because states possessing nuclear weapons do not see each other as threatening as they did during the cold war. That said, I certainly agree that we should be doing all we can to reduce the threat of nuclear conflict. I’m not convinced that the distraction of other problems, like the the climate crisis, needs to reduce the attention that reducing the nuclear threat should receive.

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