The policy of nuclear deterrence is a raging failure masked as a roaring success. It is a failure because if it does break down—and it will unless we change direction—we are all toast—we and our innocent, hopeful children.
The candidacy of Donald Trump, however disconcerting, has opened the door a crack to public discussion of deterrence. Mr. Trump has, at least implicitly, raised the issue of the unfortunate effect of NATO having violated its word not to expand eastward, the word given when Gorbachev was in the midst of dissolving the Soviet Union.
Agreed, deterrence has been a major factor in preventing a third world war from 1945 until the present. The problem is what the future holds. Deterrence masquerades as a stable system when in truth it is constantly subject to ongoing imbalances—advances in technology, the diversification of kinds of nuclear weapons available, enlargement of the number of nations possessing them, and successions of leadership. All these factors in combination almost certainly will result in a deterrence breakdown sometime in the future.
We persist in the illusion that someone is “in charge” of these weapons. Here especially the emperor is walking around naked, clothed only in the transparent illusion of fail-safe mechanisms. There are indications that in some circumstances control has moved down the military chain of command, as in Pakistan, where it is said that the use of nuclear weapons has been left up to battlefield commanders in the Kashmir conflict. We may assume the nine nuclear nations have given some thought to what might happen if their head of state was unable, in the chaos of war, to maintain command and control, and so mechanisms no doubt have been developed that would allow others to make world-ending decisions. But that only intensifies the potential for confusion. Because of the complexity of the electronic systems connected to these thousands of weapons, there is a strong argument to be made that no one is really in charge—only the system—a system, as the record shows, capable of feeding false information to the fallible humans monitoring it.
The questions raised about Mr. Trump’s temperament, particularly where it comes to his potentially being in charge of the nuclear codes, underscore the bizarre nature of deterrence overall, where the head of a democracy—or for that matter a totalitarian state like North Korea—may have only minutes to make decisions that affect the lives of everyone on the planet.
The provocative notion of a “madman” somehow getting into the system and starting a war oversimplifies the reality of our situation, which is that any human being, not just a knowledge-averse demagogue like Mr. Trump, may have the capacity to go “mad” in the tensions leading up to the decision to launch. The historical record shows that past presidents of the U.S. had seriously considered using nuclear weapons, most distressingly Mr. Nixon when he realized we were losing in Vietnam. Even a “no-drama” Obama could be rendered almost psychotic with dread by evidence that missiles were apparently headed for our major cities. This is a situation that is far beyond the psychological endurance of even the sanest and most well-trained leader. Madness is relative in the nuclear world. We would certainly label mad an extremist who set off a nuclear weapon in a city. We do not apply the same label to the whole field of leaders and diplomats who seem to be more or less satisfied, or pretend they are, with a status quo that is patently insane.
If leaders had the same nightmares that many citizens have, they would be far more aggressive in setting up ongoing international conferences hell-bent on raising the level of awareness that the deterrence system is obsolete and self-contradictory—a god that fails to provide security and must be altered before it fails to provide survival. Nuclear weapons have been proliferating on the planet now for more than 70 years. Their destructive power has far outgrown the most intense hatred any human could feel for adversaries. Computer models hypothesize that it would take the detonation of only a fraction of the available weapons to bring about planet-wide changes in climate, rendering a nuclear “solution” to conflict self-negating. (Discussion of this in our presidential election process so far seems off-limits.)
What would constitute a healthy response to this collusive madness? It ought to be shame. Shame because we know that we have invented a system intended to protect civilians, including children, which will make no distinction between civilian and military. We know shame is present if only because we do not talk with children about this curse we have laid on them. We are not honest about it because it is unbearable and makes us feel helpless. If we did have the courage and skill to talk about it, it might be something like the situation in which black families are forced to have a poignant talk with their young male children about being extra-subservient in the presence of the police—except no degree of subservience to power will prevent nuclear apocalypse. It is up to grown-ups to begin now to make the necessary structural changes in these similarly intolerable situations.
One of the bottlenecks that slows nuclear disarmament is that nations know that possessing nuclear arms deter powers like the U.S. from imposing regime change upon them. We are not going to be able to use superior police-the-world military force to cut this particular Gordian Knot. An open dialogue that breaks down fears and stereotypes on the basis that we’re all in this together, leading to gradual, reciprocal agreements to disarm, is the only way to keep our children from becoming toast.