The Madness of Nuclear Deterrence

In Justice, Nuclear abolition, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, War on May 2, 2019 at 9:00 am

The dangers have only become more acute in the decades since I tried to convince Thatcher.

‘Deterrence cannot protect the world from a nuclear blunder or nuclear terrorism,” George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn recently wrote. “Both become more likely when there is no sustained, meaningful dialogue between Washington and Moscow.” I agree with them about the urgent need for strategic engagement between the U.S. and Russia. I am also convinced that nuclear deterrence, instead of protecting the world, is keeping it in constant jeopardy.

I asked her: “Are you really comfortable sitting on a nuclear powder keg?” I showed her a diagram representing the world’s nuclear arsenals, grouped into hundreds of squares. Each square, I told her, is enough to eliminate human civilization as we know it. I was unable to persuade Margaret Thatcher. We hear the same arguments today, including in the U.S. and Russia.

Yet nuclear weapons are like a rifle hanging on the wall in a play written and staged by a person unknown. We do not know the playwright’s intent. Nuclear weapons could go off because of a technical failure, human error or computer error. The last alarms me the most. Computer systems are now used everywhere. And how many times have computers and electronics failed—in aviation, in industry, in various control systems?

Nuclear weapons might also be launched in response to a false alarm. If the flight time of the missiles is reduced, leaving less time to detect a false alarm, the probability of a mistaken retaliatory launch is bound to rise.

Nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists. And who knows what other “surprises” these weapons have in store for us?

Those who believe nuclear weapons can save the world from war should recall the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. A dispute over the placement of Soviet nuclear weapons put the world on the brink of war. Recently published documents show how close the world came to the fateful line. It was not nuclear weapons that saved the world, but the sobering up of the two countries’ leaders, John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. I am sure they thought long and hard, then and afterward, and their perception of nuclear weapons changed a great deal.

What’s more, they reached agreement on ending nuclear tests in the atmosphere, in outer space and under water, thus slowing the qualitative weapons race as well as protecting the air from the deadly products of nuclear explosions.

The opportunity to continue progress in nuclear arms control was then squandered. The military-industrial complex won out over common sense. Only much later, toward the end of the 1980s, were we able to stop the arms race. Today, the U.S. and Russia are at a perilous crossroads. They must stop and think. The veterans of the Cold War have spoken. It is now up to our nations’ leaders to act.

Mr. Gorbachev is former president of the Soviet Union.

The Threat of Nuclear War Is Still With Us: The U.S. must re-engage with Russia to ensure the ultimate weapon doesn’t spread and is never used.

In Environment, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, Politics, War on April 12, 2019 at 7:33 am
Wall Street Journal


The U.S., its allies and Russia are caught in a dangerous policy paralysis that could lead—most likely by mistake or miscalculation—to a military confrontation and potentially the use of nuclear weapons for the first time in nearly 74 years. A bold policy shift is needed to support a strategic re-engagement with Russia and walk back from this perilous precipice. Otherwise, our nations may soon be entrenched in a nuclear standoff more precarious, disorienting and economically costly than the Cold War. The most difficult task facing the U.S. is also the most important—to refocus on America’s most vital interests even as we respond firmly to Russia’s aggressions. 

The three of us experienced the low points of U.S. relations with the Soviet Union, and the nuclear dangers that arose. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the 1981-83 confrontation over intermediate-range nuclear missiles were periods of increased tensions, reduced trust and rising nuclear risks. With Henry Kissinger, we wrote in 2007 that although the world escaped the nuclear knife’s edge of the Cold War through a combination of diligence, professionalism and good luck, reliance on nuclear weapons for deterrence is becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective as more states gain nukes of their own. The U.S. and other nuclear states have yet to take decisive steps toward the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and the dangers continue to mount.

Deterrence cannot protect the world from a nuclear blunder or nuclear terrorism. Both become more likely when there is no sustained, meaningful dialogue between Washington and Moscow. The risks are compounded by the rising possibility that cyberattacks could target nuclear warning and command-and-control systems, as well as the continuing expansion of global terrorist networks. Since the crises broke out in Ukraine and Syria in the past few years, U.S. and Russian forces have again been operating in proximity, increasing the risk that an act of aggression, followed by an accident or miscalculation, will lead to catastrophe.

A new comprehensive approach is required to decrease the risks of conflict and increase cooperation, transparency, and security. This will require a united effort in Washington and with U.S. allies on a Russia policy that reduces the unnecessary nuclear danger we are currently courting, while maintaining our values and protecting our vital interests.

The U.S. must first address its own dysfunctional Russia policy, and Congress must lead the way. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should convene a new bipartisan liaison group of legislative leaders and committee chairmen to work with senior administration officials on strengthening the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and renewing dialogue with Russia. This model was used in the arms-control observer group led by Sens. Robert Byrd and Bob Dole in the 1980s. The group was able to build bipartisan consensus for a defense modernization program that strengthened America’s defenses and bolstered NATO’s deterrence, as well as a Russia policy that led to negotiations eliminating missiles in Europe. These policies helped end the Cold War.

Second, Presidents Trump and Vladimir Putin should announce a joint declaration reaffirming that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. This would renew the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev statement that Americans and Russians received positively as the beginning of an effort to reduce risk and improve mutual security. A joint statement today would clearly communicate that despite current tensions, leaders of the two countries possessing more than 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons recognize their responsibility to work together to prevent catastrophe. This could also lead other nuclear states to take further steps to reduce nuclear risk. The timing of such a statement would also signal Washington and Moscow’s commitment to build on past progress toward disarmament, as next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Third, the U.S. and Russia must discuss a broad framework for strategic stability—including increasing decision time for leaders—in a period of global destabilization and emerging military technologies. In a positive step, Presidents Trump and Putin apparently agreed in Helsinki last summer to open a dialogue on strategic stability, focused on nuclear dangers that threaten both nations. Yet their inability to follow up by empowering their military and civilian professionals to follow through underlines how dangerously dysfunctional relations have become.

This effort must begin now. America’s leaders cannot call a “time out” to wait for the aftermath of the Robert Mueller investigation or other issues to play out in Congress or the courts. Nor is there time to await a new U.S. administration, a new leader in the Kremlin, or the gradual resolution of current international disputes. The risks are simply too grave to put America’s vital interests on hold.

The U.S. and Russia should work toward a mutual vision for a more stable security architecture in the next five to 10 years, and identify the tools and policy initiatives necessary to get there. Our nations have a shared responsibility to communicate about crisis management, including between our armed forces, and to maintain our agreements on arms control and transparency. Where treaties are not likely or feasible, understandings and red lines are imperative.

The U.S. and Russia, joined by other nuclear states, must decisively confront the problems that threaten global security. It is essential that we re-engage with Russia in areas of common fundamental interest to both nations, including reducing reliance on nuclear weapons, keeping them out of unstable hands, preventing their use and ultimately ending them as a threat to the world.

Mr. Shultz served as secretary of state, 1982-89. Mr. Perry served as defense secretary, 1994-97. Mr. Nunn, a Democrat, was a U.S. senator from Georgia, 1972-97, and was chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

Appeared in the April 11, 2019, print edition.


Nuclear age: Humanity is flirting with extinction

In Nuclear abolition, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, Politics, War on April 5, 2019 at 12:57 am

Nuclear age: Humanity is flirting with extinction
© Getty Images

The most stunning and frightening truth about the nuclear age is this: Nuclear weapons are capable of destroying civilization and most complex life on the planet, yet next to nothing is being done about it. Humanity is flirting with extinction and is experiencing the “frog’s malaise.” It is as though the human species has been placed into a pot of tepid water — metaphorically with regard to nuclear dangers and literally with regard to climate change — and appears to be calmly treading water while the temperature rises toward the boiling point. In this piece, I focus on the metaphorical pot of heating water, heading toward a boil, representing the increasing nuclear dangers confronting all humanity.

Disconcertingly, there is virtually no political will on the part of nations in possession of nuclear arsenals to alter this dangerous situation; and, despite legal obligations to negotiate in good faith for an end to the nuclear arms race and for nuclear disarmament, there is no major effort among the nuclear-armed and umbrella countries to achieve nuclear zero. While the non-nuclear-armed countries have negotiated a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and are working to bring this treaty into force, those countries that possess the weapons and those sheltering under their nuclear umbrella have not supported the new treaty.

All nine nuclear-armed countries boycotted international negotiations on banning and eliminating nuclear weapons. In addition, each of these countries is in the process of modernizing its nuclear arsenal, thereby wasting valuable resources on weapons that must never be used, and doing so while basic human needs for billions of people globally go unmet and unattended. Despite this unjust and deplorable situation, most of the 7 billion people on the planet are complacent about nuclear weapons. This only adds fuel to the fire under the frogs.

In the nuclear age, humanity is challenged as never before. Our technology, and particularly our nuclear weapons, can destroy us and all that we hold dear. But before we can respond to the profound dangers, we must first awaken to these dangers. Complacency is rooted in apathy, conformity, ignorance and denial — a recipe for disaster. If we want to prevail over our technologies, we must move from apathy to empathy; from conformity to critical thinking; from ignorance to wisdom; and from denial to recognition of the danger. But how are we to do this?

The key is education — education that promotes engagement; education that forces individuals and nations to face the truth about the dangers of the nuclear age. We need education that leads to action that will allow humanity to get out of the metaphorical pot of heating water before it is too late.

Education can take many forms, but it must begin with solid analysis of current dangers and critiques of the lack of progress in stemming the dangers of the nuclear age. We need education that is rooted in the common good. We need education that provides a platform for the voices of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We need education that makes clear the instability and dangerous nature of nuclear deterrence. We need education that challenges the extreme hubris of leaders who believe the global nuclear status quo can survive indefinitely in the face of human fallibility and malevolence.

We need education that can break through the bonds of nuclear insanity and move the world to action. We need the public to speak out and demand far more of their leaders if we are to leap from the pot of heating water, avert disaster and reach the safe haven of nuclear zero.

David Krieger is a founder of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, and has served as its president since 1982. He is the author and editor of many books on nuclear dangers, including “ZERO: The Case for Nuclear Weapons Abolition.”