Existential(ish) Threats

March 10, 2015

Mankind probably developed nuclear technology before it became sufficiently morally capable of handling it. It is rather remarkable that we made it this far, close as we have been to annihilating the planet, capable as we were, and politically childish as well. Anyone who has read accounts of the Cuban Missile crisis knows we came too close. Vice President LBJ’s position differed greatly from Kennedy’s, and we know now that he disapproved of Kennedy’s backdoor de-escalation through the deal to decommission missiles in Turkey. Had LBJ been president rather than Kennedy at the time, we might not have survived. Nuclear weapons remain an impermissibly great threat to our existence, and the fact that the two main powers who monopolized these weapons for most of our nuclear history are again on shaky grounds diplomatically, and still stockpile these weapons in outrageous numbers, should leave us all horrified. The nuclear stalemate must end, and worldwide nuclear disarmament is the only rational solution. How did we get here, and how can we step back from the brink?
When nuclear weapons were first developed, some scientists and policy makers suggested that the know-how to create the technology should be immediately disseminated, and the US ought to unilaterally dismantle what weapons they had and pledge never again to create them. Madness, of course, cried those who viewed the Soviet’s ambitions to dominate their half of the world as sufficient reason for them to stockpile and perhaps use the technology should they replicate it. Of course they did, and the arms race that dominated politics and for many of us, daily fear for the second half of the 20th century was underway. At its height, the numbers of nuclear weapons, the sheer megatonage of destructive power was beyond all sense, beyond any necessity, beyond any moral justification. We had the opportunity with the fall of the Soviet Union to scale back from the brink, and the numbers of such weapons have declined thanks to treaties, but they remain ridiculously high. Nuclear weapons serve no purpose in warfare, as all nuclear strategists know. Their only justification is to maintain a balance of terror. They are a terror weapon whose value is in their possession, and whose value is destroyed by their use.
For decades, the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was maintained as a way to prevent war between the two superpowers, and the fact that we survived may be testament to its having worked, but it’s also quite possible we just got lucky. We no longer live in a bilateral world, and there is great danger in maintaining the stance and policies associated with the Cold War. The end of the Cold War and the growth of powers beyond the old Soviet Union (and now Russia) and the US, means that we must take seriously shifts in the center of power, and the right and ability of other nations to come to the table, negotiate policy, and help international systems of agreements form and endure.
In our 2012 paper, Dr. Kateřina Staňková and I argue from a game-theoretic approach that the current monopoly on nuclear weapons is unstable. You can read the paper here: https://www.stankova.net/Koepsell_Stankova_JWP_2012.pdf . Game theory has long been used in modeling nuclear weapons deployment and strategy, and was behind much of our Cold War policy. According to our models, the fewer the number of states in a multilateral nuclear world holding weapons, the greater the likelihood of their first use. It follows in the model that the greater the number of states holding nuclear weapons (or, we might extrapolate, any WMD), the lower the likelihood of first use. The most stable situation is one in which every state has the technology and reduces consciously their numbers of weapons, ultimately to zero. Zero should be the goal. It was not the goal in the Cold War, and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (which is being violated now by some rather vocal opponents of a deal with Iran, for instance), merely maintains the existent monopolies, and may have (if our model is correct) helped maintain a dangerously unsafe situation. To get to zero, I believe we need to help remove the current instability, open as we had considered briefly at one time the technology to development by any and all, and bring everyone to the table to negotiate complete disarmament. Negotiating from a position of terror and monopoly is not negotiating in good faith, and it is ultimately very dangerous for human existence, which ought to be our primary concern. It is not yet too late, but it’s getting near.