Nuclear Weapons – The Ongoing Threat to Humanity

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Many people have a vague awareness that nuclear weapons exist and have immense destructive potential, but too few are aware of how likely that destruction is to occur.

Consider the Doomsday Clock, which since 1947 has brought together serious scientists and policy experts to determine the threat nuclear weapons pose. The Clock measures the probability of widespread human catastrophe by its minute hand’s closeness to midnight, with more closeness to midnight indicating a higher chance of annihilation. It used to measure only nuclear weapons, but since 2007, it has also accounted for the threat of climate change and technological advances gone wrong.

The Clock was originally set at 7 minutes to midnight in at the beginning of the Cold War, and it’s oscillated back and forth at various lengths ever since. For reference, the farthest that it’s ever been from midnight was 17 minutes in 1991, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the closest it’s ever been (before 2018) was 2 minutes when the United States and USSR detonated thermonuclear weapons in 1953.

The Doomsday Clock is now back to being set at being 2 minutes to midnight, and had it been updated a few months later – considering the Trump regime’s dangerous nuclear posture review that expands use cases for nukes – it would likely have been set even closer to midnight. That’s what the world faces in 2018 – a scenario where the immediate threat of catastrophe from nuclear weapons is about as high as ever, but this rarely receives much attention at all.

As a former Pentagon chief and respected nuclear weapons analyst has put it: “Today, the danger of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War, and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger.”

Recognizing the mounting risks, North Korea has now even said that it will give up its nuclear weapons program if the U.S. promises not to invade while officially ending the Korean War, which is technically still ongoing since a peace agreement was never reached. These are such simple and obviously good terms for reducing the risks of disaster for most people, but the warmongering national security adviser to the terrible current U.S. president actually has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that advocates bombing North Korea, so of course those terms aren’t that likely to be accepted soon.

It’s also amazing that no nuclear disasters since the atomic bombings of Japan in 1945 have occurred. There have been a handful of incidents that could have caused a nuclear disaster though, including one in 1983, where a Soviet officer read a warning system that said multiple nuclear weapons had been sent by the United States. This officer chose to disobey orders by not informing his superiors, and since the warning had been a false alarm, this ended up saving the world from witnessing a nuclear war. Other incidents where the brush with nuclear war was all too close are similar — in other words, a few different people in those positions could have resulted in the losses of tens or hundreds of millions of people. The immediate damage the nuclear weapons (which are exponentially stronger today than in decades past) would cause wouldn’t be the only harm either, as there would be negative atmospheric effects that would spread elsewhere.

And as seen with the recent false alarm in Hawaii and various examinations of the highly flawed or insecure nuclear weapons systems used today, the personnel is put at higher risk of making mistakes through the design of the technology. And the U.S. and Soviet Union maintaining absurd amounts of nuclear weapons means that there are more people vulnerable to making those dangerous mistakes.

There is no rational reason to keep hundreds or thousands of nuclear weapons. At the very least, countries could drastically reduce their nuclear stockpiles so that they only keep several of them. More ideally though, it would be better to just not keep them after binding international agreements are reached. Other non-nuclear weapons are already powerful enough today to be highly destructive, and every year that humanity engages in war is another year of year of risking the potential of war to end humanity. And with regards to nuclear weapons, the world shouldn’t bet on another 70 year miracle of escaping the damage they can cause.

 

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Questioning the Effectiveness of Nuclear Deterrence

An interesting article appeared recently that challenges the established narrative that nuclear weapons are effective at preventing war. Among conflicts between states with nuclear weapons, it admittedly might have been effective, but at the huge risk of causing massive catastrophe to the human species. There are doubtlessly better methods at maintaining peace than keeping nukes though.

In any case, agree with the article’s basic premise or not, the world could at least drastically reduce its nuclear stockpile to reduce the risks of disaster. Also, in reference to ongoing wars, I would add that the World Peace Index notes that there are only a dozen or so countries that are “free from conflict.”

Second, deterrence requires that each side’s arsenal remains invulnerable to attack, or at least that such an attack would be prevented insofar as a potential victim retained a ‘second-strike’ retaliatory capability, sufficient to prevent such an attack in the first place. Over time, however, nuclear missiles have become increasingly accurate, raising concerns about the vulnerability of these weapons to a ‘counterforce’ strike. In brief, nuclear states are increasingly able to target their adversary’s nuclear weapons for destruction. In the perverse argot of deterrence theory, this is called counterforce vulnerability, with ‘vulnerability’ referring to the target’s nuclear weapons, not its population. The clearest outcome of increasingly accurate nuclear weapons and the ‘counterforce vulnerability’ component of deterrence theory is to increase the likelihood of a first strike, while also increasing the danger that a potential victim, fearing such an event, might be tempted to pre-empt with its own first strike. The resulting situation – in which each side perceives a possible advantage in striking first – is dangerously unstable.

Third, deterrence theory assumes optimal rationality on the part of decision-makers. It presumes that those with their fingers on the nuclear triggers are rational actors who will also remain calm and cognitively unimpaired under extremely stressful conditions. It also presumes that leaders will always retain control over their forces and that, moreover, they will always retain control over their emotions as well, making decisions based solely on a cool calculation of strategic costs and benefits. Deterrence theory maintains, in short, that each side will scare the pants off the other with the prospect of the most hideous, unimaginable consequences, and will then conduct itself with the utmost deliberate and precise rationality. Virtually everything known about human psychology suggests that this is absurd.