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Deterrence and its Discontents

In one of his most famous lines, Captain Ahab urged: “Strike, strike through the mask!” Admittedly, said captain isn’t the finest role model one can imagine, but I’ve long thought that his demand is precisely what good skeptics are called to do: to strike through the mask of bullshit, false logic, and appeals to misleading passions so as to reach the substance underneath—if there is any—and to reveal its absence if such is the case. When it comes to skeptical unmasking, nuclear deterrence is long overdue. Just ask the citizens of Hawaii the second week of January 2018 when they were alerted by the government to run for cover with an ICBM incoming, possibly containing a nuclear warhead. It was a false alarm, but a stark reminder—with video footage filling the evening news of masses of peoples scrambling to find cover—that this is no theoretical game for intellectuals to play.

Deterrence is a remarkably simple concept, based on threat: If you attack me, I’ll retaliate so strongly that you’d wish you hadn’t started it. Therefore, you won’t attack me in the first place and both of us will be better off. Simple enough, or so it might seem—until it comes to nuclear deterrence. For many people, threatening to retaliate with nuclear weapons (following an initial attack) is a necessary evil, the only safe and secure way to live in a world with nuclear weapons. For others, it’s downright wonderful, a guarantor of peace and, moreover, a confirmation of the power and influence of their country. For me, however—and a growing number of deterrence detractors—it’s an immense evil, a downright dunderheaded, dastardly dangerous, double-dose of deception. Also ethically dubious (make that “despicable”), strategically incoherent and misleadingly marketed pile of nightmarish, nuclear nonsense.

You now know where I stand. Clearly many others are not so skeptical. To advocates of deterrence, nuclear weapons are not only justified, their existence seems to have worked, and to be working, right now. After all, they point out, nukes haven’t been used in conflict since August of 1945. Why, then, should one be so skeptical of nuclear deterrence?

Let’s start with a bit of biology, where deterrence, in its non-nuclear incarnation, is widespread and not always malign. It emerges in day-to-day affairs, in the animal world and even among plants. Roses and blackberries have thorns, saying in effect “Don’t touch me—or else!” Confront a spider, perhaps one that has accidentally strayed indoors and is thus on human turf rather than its own. The tiny creature will likely rear back on its hindmost legs and assume a threatening posture, one that is ridiculous given that it can easily be squashed with a shoe. Yet, everyone understands the gesture, even though to locate the most recent common ancestor shared by a spider and a human being one must go back more than 500 million years.

Threats have an ancient pedigree in the human imagination, too. Among the most iconic and oft-repeated tales are explicit prohibitions: in the ancient Hebrew Bible, Yahweh warns Adam and Eve not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, lest you “surely die.” (They do, anyhow.) Prometheus gives fire to human beings, despite Zeus’s explicit order to the contrary. Also from Greek mythology, Pandora gets a box (originally, a jar) that she is forbidden to open. Bluebeard’s young wife is warned not to open a particular basement door. The list goes on—and inevitably, deterrence fails.

There is no doubt, however, that in some cases, it works. Lions have large canines, not only for killing their prey but also for threatening other lions; they are notably silent when stalking zebras, reserving their impressive roar for discouraging other lions from invading their territory. When threatening another animal, the standard procedure is for the threatener to make him or herself seem larger, more imposing, more dangerous than it really is, in an effort to deter an opponent from taking its food, nest site, mate, or, quite simply, from attacking. Deterrence is far less costly than actual combat but you have to signal that you are willing to use your weapons for the deterrence to work.

There is no punishment more draconian—for an aggressor, but extending inexorably to the entire planet—than nuclear retaliation.

Nature isn’t only “red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson wrote. Nevertheless, living things are typically equipped with a range of intimidating options: not just teeth and claws, but also horns, antlers, poison fangs, bony shields, scary hisses and formidable roars, often wrapped up in a package designed to make themselves seem as ferocious and intimidating as possible. All the better to deter you.

At the same time, a would-be deterrer must be prepared “if deterrence fails” (a frequent and terrifying phrase within the community of nuclear strategists), but something that is not uncommon in nature. In that event, a fight ensues, which might be harmful for one or both parties, but most often results in the loser slinking, slithering, flying, climbing, or running away—to fight, or at least threaten, another day. Unlike nuclear deterrence, failure of natural deterrence is rarely disastrous. Often the result is a standoff, with a would-be aggressor held at bay, the status quo maintained and individuals settling down on their territories, their nests, and with their mates and lives more or less intact.

Even if push comes to shove, antler comes to antler, beak to beak, tooth to tooth, or claw to claw, and if, as a result there are winners and losers, the former enjoy the fruits of their (sometimes temporary) victory while the latter, albeit defeated and disappointed, are only rarely annihilated. In the worst case, at least their ecosystems are still intact. Not so if nuclear deterrence ever fails.

I am not opposed to all uses of deterrence. Our ten-acre farm in western Washington state is patrolled by an aggressively territorial 140 lb. Anatolian shepherd dog—and we have never been burglarized. We also maintain an electric fence around the perimeter of our property, to keep our animals in (including the Anatolian), and others out. Even if we could, however, we wouldn’t seek to deter intruders by threatening to blow up the neighborhood. Aside from the insuperable practical and moral constraints, such a threat would lack credibility (an enormous and consequential problem when it comes to nuclear deterrence, which, as I’ll describe later, has led to such dangerous absurdities as doctrine and weapons designed for fighting “limited nuclear wars”), and also because on occasion, accidents happen.

Thus, we have sometimes inadvertently touched our “hot wire,” and although painful, such events simply reinforce our subsequent caution; the effect is unpleasant but far from lethal. More than once our big dog has misfired and in a fit of excessive, redirected exuberance—for example, when a coyote is tantalizingly close but on the other side of our fence—he has attacked one of our smaller dogs. The outcome has been financially beneficial for our local veterinarian, but the canine victim has always recovered—unlike the all-but-certain consequence of a nuclear response to a misfiring computer or satellite false alarm, or an ostensibly “limited” nuclear war.

The Baker explosion, part of Operation Crossroads

The “Baker” explosion, part of Operation Crossroads, a nuclear weapon test by the United States military at Bikini Atoll, Micronesia, on 25 July 1946. The wider, exterior cloud is actually just a condensation cloud caused by the Wilson chamber effect, and was very brief. There was no classic mushroom cloud rising to the stratosphere, but inside the condensation cloud the top of the water geyser formed a mushroom-like head called the cauliflower, which fell back into the lagoon. The water released by the explosion was highly radioactive and contaminated many of the ships that were set up near it. (Photo derivative work by Victorrocha based on original by United States Department of Defense [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

My opposition to various alternative forms of deterrence is thus less than absolute, and yet herein lies part of the problem when it comes to nuclear deterrence. Although carrots are generally better than sticks, and threats are less effective (also less ethical) than rewards, the fact that threats sometimes work—that indeed, they are baked into much of the animal and human world—readily leads to the unspoken assumption that what’s good, at least occasionally, in the interpersonal and conventional domain is also good when it comes to nuclear weapons. It ain’t necessarily so. In fact, it is downright wrong.

Here is a basic rule: when you multiply something by a million, you not only change it quantitatively, but also qualitatively. You might currently have, say, $40 in your wallet; multiply this by ten, and your new-found $400 would have a genuine impact, but would not likely make a deep change in your life. Multiply it by a million, however, and with $40 million in your pocket there’s a good chance that your future would be radically altered. Most people walk at about two miles per hour. Increase this by a factor of ten, and you’re riding a bicycle at 20 mph, or perhaps in a car going slowly. Multiply by a million, and you’ve exceeded escape velocity and are heading for outer space. A change, not just of degree, but of kind.

No one should ever have the opportunity to unleash nuclear war: not Trump, not Pence, not Theresa May, Emmanuel Macron, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un—nobody!

TNT is a powerful but conventional explosive. A ton of it can do enormous damage. Atomic bombs are measured in kilotons (thousands of tons of TNT) and hydrogen bombs in megatons, or millions of tons. The difference, once again—in this case between conventional and nuclear munitions—is qualitative, not merely quantitative. The temperature inside a nuclear explosion is similarly a thing unto itself: in the range of millions of degrees, something not otherwise found on Earth. Not surprisingly, although deterrence exists in both the conventional and nuclear world, when it comes to things nuclear, its implications and its dangers are also qualitatively discontinuous.

Nuclear deterrence isn’t normally discussed in polite civilian conversation, but start looking for non-nuclear deterrence and you will find it almost everywhere. “Don’t make me say this a second time, or else”, “If you hit your sister again, you’ll be timed out.” From Pink Floyd’s The Wall: “You can’t have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat!” Strong doors and locks are intended to deter crime. So are police. But although a policeman on the corner may well deter criminals, recent well-publicized events make it clear that sometimes the police resort to lethal force when it is not called for. A saving grace is that such occasions, although tragic, do not result in destroying an entire city, or country. Not so in a nuclear context.

In its non-nuclear manifestation, deterrence is fundamental to law enforcement, with the expectation that the threat of condign punishment will inhibit malefactors. (Whether it does so, on the other hand, is another matter.) By the end of the 18th century, English law specified 220 different offenses—most of them involving theft of property—that were punishable by death. The expressed intent of the infamous Bloody Code was deterrence: “Men are not hanged for stealing horses,” wrote the Marquis of Halifax, “but that horses may not be stolen.” But horses were stolen nevertheless, and people—poor people, especially—were hanged for stealing a quill pen or a bolt of cloth.

European reformers—notably Cesare Beccaria—sought a more effective social policy by making “the punishment fit the crime,” and shortly thereafter, Jeremy Bentham argued strongly for similar adjustments. This corresponds to strategists’ “ladder of escalation,” by which U.S. presidents are supposed to have a variety of punishing nuclear options instead of simply an all-out, insensate, devastating response to any aggressive transgression.

Structured levels of punishment make sense in the world of criminology, not only because it is widely seen as immoral to execute someone for stealing a loaf of bread, but for practical reasons: before the relaxation of England’s Bloody Code, judges and prosecutors often ignored or understated a crime so as to avoid becoming complicit in overly draconian punishment. There is no punishment more draconian—for an aggressor, but extending inexorably to the entire planet—than nuclear retaliation.

What follows is a brief survey of some of the skeletons in the closet of nuclear deterrence.

Skeleton #1: No Limits. Deterrence is a psychological maneuver whose avowed goal is to pose unacceptable damage to a would-be attacker. Rarely acknowledged, however, is that no one knows how much threatened damage is sufficient. During his tenure as JFK’s Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara attempted to oversee a logical analysis of “how much is enough.” Graphing percentage destruction against megatonnage “delivered” against the USSR, the curve showed a levelling off—essentially, diminishing returns—at destruction of a quarter of the population and two-thirds of the industrial capacity. This was then arbitrarily announced to be sufficient for deterrence; just to be “safe,” however, it was decreed that each leg of the strategic triad (land-based ICBMs, submarine launched ballistic missiles, and strategic bombers) should independently have this capability.

Given the current anxiety in the U.S. over the prospect of a handful of North Korean nuclear-armed missiles, it seems reasonable that effective deterrence could be achieved with a very small number of such weapons. (China has calculated similarly, having capped its arsenal at about 300 nuclear warheads, carried by roughly 100 missiles.) A single U.S. Trident submarine can carry 24 D-5 missiles, limited to 20 by current treaty. Each missile has eight independently targetable warheads, of about 465 kilotons (thousands of tons of TNT equivalent), with each such warhead being about 30 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb. Thus, a single Trident sub packs 20 × 8 × 30 = 4,800 Hiroshimas. If this alone seems excessive, consider that the U.S. has 18 Trident submarines, not to mention the bombers and ICBMs—and yet the Trump Administration claims that much more is needed! Suffice it to say that there is no logical way to cap the size of an adequate deterrence force.

The lack of limits is a serious economic and political problem, and a blank check for what Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex. But this particular skeleton is not in itself perilous. The remaining ones, however, are.

Skeleton #2: Credibility. Let’s say you want to deter your child from poking the cat. You might threaten a loss of desert, or of screen time, etc. Or, you might announce that the next time the cat is assaulted, you’ll blow up the house. Since such a threat would likely lack credibility, you might enhance your would-be deterrent by planting sticks of dynamite throughout the house. Your deterrent’s credibility would still likely be low, however, and most psychologists would probably argue against such a child-rearing tactic.

Similarly, people who invest in a home security system are understandably reluctant to install one that responds to a burglary by blowing up the house—even if such a threat were advertised on a conspicuous lawn sign, just as a guard armed with a backpack nuclear bomb is unlikely to stop a thief: “Halt, or I’ll blow us all to bits!” This speaks to one of the most intractable skeletons in the closet of nuclear deterrence: its incredibility. Decades ago, McNamara noted that it is impossible to make a credible threat out of an incredible act, a problem that long vexed NATO planners, summarized by one general’s complaint that West German towns were “only two kilotons apart.” It wasn’t credible that NATO would destroy western Europe in order to save it from a potential Warsaw Pact invasion. The result was—and continues to be—the design and deployment of smaller, more accurate nuclear weapons, whose use is therefore more believable. The intractable problem, however, is that insofar as nukes are made more usable, in order to be more credible they are unavoidably more likely to be used, and thereby dangerous. Incredibly so.

Nuclear weapon test Mike (yield 10.4 Mt) on Enewetak Atoll.

Nuclear weapon test Mike (yield 10.4 Mt) on Enewetak Atoll. The test was part of the Operation Ivy. Mike was the first hydrogen bomb ever tested, an experimental device not suitable for use as a weapon. (Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The credibility skeleton has led to no end of hair-raising attempted work-arounds. For example, since the heart of deterrence—nuclear retaliation after a first strike—is itself lacking in credibility, not only because of its ethical problems as well as the fact that doing so would contribute to the worldwide catastrophe of nuclear winter, there has been continuing pressure to take people “out of the loop” and rely on “launch on warning,” whereby satellites and computer systems would automatically launch retaliation upon warning of an incoming attack. But such a move would itself be perilous, given the documented high frequency of false alarms, computer malfunctions, and so forth, as in the Hawaii example most recently.

Skeleton #3: Vulnerability. The issue here is vulnerability of the weapons themselves, not of the population. Seemingly more ethical than threatening population centers, “counterforce” doctrines target a potential opponent’s weapons (particularly ICBMs), bringing to mind the Lone Ranger on 1950s TV, who would neatly shoot the pistol out of a bad guy’s hand…without even hurting him! A key problem, however, is that such a capability—aside from being technically impossible—suggests that the Lone Ranger might be planning a disarming first strike, which, in times of stress, could result in a never-ending cycle of instability in which each side endeavors to attack first.

Skeleton #4: The Assumption of Rationality. Nuclear deterrence makes the peculiar assumption that we can scare the hell (or more) out of opponents by threatening the most unimaginable horror and then expect them to behave with exquisite cognitive control. This problem is immensely enhanced if and when the leader of a nuclear-armed country ever happens to be mentally unstable, thin-skinned and quick to anger, vindictive, indifferent to facts, impulsive, unreflective, ego-threatened, politically and militarily inexperienced, ethically challenged, untaught and unteachable, and so forth. This potentially catastrophic weakness isn’t only found in today’s political leaders, although it seems especially developed in the current president of the United States. No human being is rational all the time. Isn’t it therefore rational to turn a deeply skeptical eye on the proposition that we can trust the animal called Homo sapiens to never, ever screw up?

Skeleton #4: Ethics. Nuclear deterrence is widely justified because it is a preventative, and as such “much better than nuclear war.” This ignores the conundrum that the only way this doctrine could prevent nuclear war is if anyone brandishing deterrence is fully prepared to engage in nuclear war if pushed or sufficiently provoked (see Skeleton #2, credibility). And there would be nothing ethical about such a war. The most influential ethical analysis of war in the Western tradition can be found in the Catholic Church’s “Just War” doctrine, which is divided into jus ad bellum (the legitimacy of fighting a given war, regardless of how said war is fought) and jus in bello (the legitimacy of the tactics employed). Each of these, in turn, is divided into several sub-components, and nuclear war violates every one. As to being a Just War, nuclear war simply wouldn’t be Just Another War.

Skeleton #5: Efficacy. But hasn’t deterrence worked? Maybe. But maybe not. The fact that the Cold War never went hot might have been due to deterrence, or to the fact that the U.S. and USSR had nothing worth warring about. And of course, correlation is different from causation. In ancient China, it was widely believed that solar eclipses were caused by a dragon swallowing the sun, so people responded to sudden darkening by making as much noise as possible: banging pots and gongs, yelling loudly and guess what? It worked! Every time. If for some reason the villagers had refrained from all that noise-making and the eclipse resolved anyhow, the worst outcome would have been a loss of confidence in the role of dragons. But if nuclear deterrence had failed, I likely wouldn’t be around to write this, or you to read it, so neither of us would be congratulating ourselves on the efficacy of deterrence.

In some cases, it only takes one failure for an entire scaffolding, previously thought to be safe, to come crashing down. The Concorde Supersonic Transport entered service in 1976 and flew flawlessly throughout the late 1970s and 1980s. In fact, it was lauded as not only the fastest but the safest passenger plane of all, having a zero accident and fatality rate. Then, in 1990, one of them crashed on a runway in Paris, killing all 109 people on board and ultimately grounding the entire fleet, which was subsequently abandoned. Its safety record instantly jumped from the safest to the most dangerous (because only a handful of the planes were ever built and flown). Failure of the Chinese dragon myth wouldn’t have been catastrophic; failure of the Concorde was, but “only” for the passengers (and the plane’s investors); failure of deterrence—just once—would be catastrophic for hundreds of thousands, more likely millions and perhaps billions, not to mention the rest of the innocent natural world. Such considerations should mitigate against celebratory confidence as to the reliability of deterrence, and the fact that it has always worked…thus far.

Moreover, you cannot prove a counter-factual: why something has not happened. Maybe there was no U.S.-Soviet nuclear war because of the Howdy Doody show, or the invention of air conditioning. To be sure, The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962—when by most accounts we were closest to nuclear Armageddon—is sometimes cited as an example of successful deterrence. But, in fact, this crisis was caused by nuclear weapons, specifically the Soviet attempt to base nuclear missiles in Cuba. And according to many historians, the major reason Khrushchev backed down was because the Soviets were greatly inferior to the U.S. in conventional military forces in the Caribbean. In any event, it is not unlikely that the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved short of nuclear war not because of nuclear deterrence, but despite it. It may seem a truism that absent nuclear weapons there wouldn’t have been any crisis, but that is precisely the point: Khrushchev’s move to install nukes in Cuba in 1962 was a direct consequence of the Soviet perception that such weaponry was needed. Why? To deter the U.S., which had deployed intermediate range Thor missiles in the UK in 1959, and Jupiter missiles in Turkey in 1961. And why had the U.S. done that? To deter the Soviet Union. (An initially unpublicized part of the agreement that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis was for these Soviet and US missiles—i.e., mutual provocations—to be removed. In that limited sense, deterrence was successful: as a prod toward giving up on one aspect of itself.)

What about North Korea? The thousands of artillery pieces maintained by the North and aimed at Seoul and environs have almost certainly dampened any potential enthusiasm from aggressive militarists in the South to march north, just as the South’s well-oiled military machine plus the deployment of U.S. “tripwire” forces have constrained aggression from the North. In short, conventional deterrence worked and showed no signs of failing…until the Kim regime, fearing that it needed yet more deterrence, began vigorously pursuing a full-fledged nuclear arsenal, which touched a nerve in what Senator Bob Corker aptly called the “adult play-pen” at the White House. The currently unstable situation on the Korean Peninsula is frightening testimony to deterrence run amok.

Okay, but haven’t nuclear weapons and their deterrent threats enabled nuclear armed countries to get their way in the world? Hardly. The U.S. wasn’t able to bend North Vietnam to its will, or the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. Our atomic arsenal didn’t benefit us in Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, or against ISIS, nor did the Soviets gain similarly in Afghanistan, or in keeping control of its East European satellites, or even in maintaining its territorial integrity. France’s nukes didn’t help them keep Algeria. And when it comes to protecting them from attack by non-nuclear aggressors, forget it: In 1951, China’s non-nuclear status didn’t inhibit Mao from sending hundreds of thousands of soldiers against a nuclear-armed U.S. in Korea, nor was non-nuclear Argentina inhibited from invading nuclear Britain’s Falkland Islands in 1982. There are many other examples, to which the following must be added: nukes didn’t deter terrorist attacks against the U.S. on 9/11, or subsequently against the UK or France, attacks that in the future are far more likely to be conducted with nuclear weapons than deterred by them.

Overall, perhaps the most pernicious skeleton rattling in the closet of deterrence—and the most cogent reason to be skeptical of the whole enterprise of nuclear deterrence—is that it has served as the bedrock justification for the ongoing development, deployment, maintenance and escalation of nuclear weapons themselves…the whole shebang. It is because of nuclear deterrence that we have all been condemned to live under what President Kennedy called a nuclear sword of Damocles, liable to descend at any time. To be sure, Trump in the White House is especially terrifying; he is a national and international emergency. But no one should ever have the opportunity to unleash nuclear war: not Trump, not Pence, not Theresa May, Emmanuel Macron, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un—nobody!

There is a story, said to be of Cherokee origin, in which a young girl was frightened by a recurring dream in which two wolves viciously fought each other. She described this to her grandfather, a tribal elder, renowned for his wisdom, who explained that everyone has both peaceful and violent wolves within them, and they struggle for control. At this, the child was even more worried and asked who wins. Her grandfather replied: “The one you feed.”

It’s time to stop feeding the nuclear wolf, to unmask the unacceptability of deterrence, and turn a skeptical eye on the whole rotten enterprise. END

About the Author

David P. Barash is professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Washington; his most recent book is Through a Glass Brightly: Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are, forthcoming from Oxford University Press. With his wife, Judith Eve Lipton, he is currently writing a book about nuclear deterrence.

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