I’m a complete amateur at this stuff but I try to keep my hand in, because it seems important. In fact, the most important thing there is: good old Cold War-style mutually assured destruction.
Nukes often get put at number one on a list of existential threats by the kinds of nerds who actually take the time to think about such things. In his last term Obama had been floating the idea of a no first use policy, so the US would only deploy nuclear weapons if another nuclear state did first. This sounds great but there are two sides to the debate, even among non-proliferation fans.
- For (abolitionist). A no first use policy is a signal to other nuclear states to de-escalate; it also directly lowers the risk of nuclear conflagration because at least one of the major nuclear powers can no longer strike first; and any conventional threat in today’s world can be handled with a conventional response anyway, so there’s no need to have a nuclear alarm system.
- Against (realist). Such refiguring of the nuclear landscape should only happen at strategically stable times; Russia will not be as deterred from taking more territories without a US first strike threat; there are conventional threats that can’t be matched without nuclear weapons.
The last parts of each of the two statements are in direct opposition. Alas, it seems like the realists in this debate have more realistic threat assessments of current conflict zones. War game simulations suggest that if Russia attempted to annex parts of Estonia and Latvia as part of Putin’s deranged establishment of “New Russia”, then NATO would not have the conventional forces to do anything to stop them and at best, they would still reachTallinn and Riga within 60 hours. The strategic situation is even more baleful as Russian generals reportedly threatened to use nuclear weapons during a meeting with US generals in Germany in 2015 discussing Ukraine. Were US or NATO forces to attempt to intervene in the erstwhile Ukrainian territory then Russia would respond with a spectrum of weapons ranging up to nuclear. Such a threat is (I think) unprecedented in the post-Soviet era((All of this is ratfucked by Trump’s pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey approach to strategy, but the general disarmament agenda continues with other leaders from less funny countries.)).
There is more credible evidence about current events on the realist side that says a no first use initiative is a bad idea. But this is a trap. By having more facts to work with this position feels more coherent, feels more convincing merely because of a kind of availability heuristic. Yes, the thought of an irredentist Russia seizing parts of sovereign nations, making incursions into the EU and repatriating “ethnic Russians” is terrifying and plausible and seems to represent a reversal of hard won progress. But if we try and prescind((v.intr. to withdraw one’s attention from something; v.tr. to isolate, remove or separate for special consideration. Underused word. Closest synonym is abstract in transitive form but it has too many other senses.)) to a “super-rational” viewpoint, a perspective that looks down on this situation from a wider angle, with a longer historical lens, then we are forced to see that the threat of even accidental nuclear conflict, which would be a ruinous, catastrophic outcome, must outweigh virtually any short-term losses, however realistic they are((I often crticise Christians for not marching in the streets every day to protest abortion, warn people of Hell and to try and save the immortal souls of their friends and strangers. If they really believe their doctrines, then their inaction on this front is the grossest negligence ever recorded. And yet look at our record on nuclear disarmament. We know that only very dumb luck (and occasional sanity) has prevented nuclear catastrophes, even all out nuclear apocalypse. We know that if the status quo continues then a catastrophe will occur. We know that the very much non-zero chance of a serious error — or a deliberate use — of the launch systems of the nuclear powers means that given a long enough timeframe the probability approaches one. And yet how much of an average day, week, or year do we dedicate to this most total of emergencies?)). Even though the Obama doctrine may seem shortsighted it is actually highly progressive and anything that reduces the threat of all-out nuclear exchange has to be pursued((This sometimes gets called “nuclear blackmail” because you can justify anything in the face of a threat like MAD. It’s a good label but I’m not sure it actually works as an argument. Surely you can justify almost anything to obviate a total, credible, catastrophic threat? What if you couldn’t?)).
The main point in favour of keeping a deterrent against Russia is that history appears to validate the idea that a nuclear threat stopped the USSR invading Western Europe during the Cold War. Probably, it did partly contribute. But this again gives the impression of having more facts, more evidence on that side. But if the USSR’s tanks had rolled into a NATO-allied country just once then we wouldn’t be saying that and, possibly, we would have had a nuclear exchange and we wouldn’t be saying anything at all right now((In weighing evidence, we of course think not just about the multitude of facts on either side, but of their relative magnitudes as well.)). This kind of counterfactual, what-if thinking might sound silly and speculative, but to blindly only consider events that have already happened and extrapolate thus into the future is the problem of induction in a nutshell and a recipe for never being prepared for unprecedented events.
Would we rather live in a world where Baltic states are chipped away at, where further outrages on Ukraine’s sovereignty are made, where thousands die in new conventional conflicts in Eastern Europe — or a world in which there is a 5% greater chance of nuclear apocalypse? I’ve pulled 5% out of my arse there, but I think any increase is too risky. For someone living in southern Estonia, you might say, the situation looks different. I’m not sure it does. Easy for me to say. Would I rather have my region invaded and subsumed into a modern pseudo-fascist quasi-democracy (or whatever Russia is these days) or remain inviolate but have the doomsday clock go forward a few minutes? How do you feel about that bet?
I hold out for diplomatic solutions in which all nuclear players (ignoring North Korea) are able to move to a new stage in a game theoretic scenario. This is a high stakes game where, remember, everyone knows what each others’ cards are. Russia knows that a nuclear exchange would destroy its own interests as well. Pakistan knows that it has a limited nuclear threat, but one which, if actuated by an Indian aggression, would see millions of its own citizens obliterated and its own existence as a geopolitical entity effaced. I’m not privy to any information that diplomats aren’t((Although the thought does occur, has anyone actually studied what the knowledge of diplomats, generals, strategists, leaders actually is? Do they know about game theory? How much do they know about nuclear winter? Are they actually well versed in the technical questions over warheads, decapitation scenarios and automatic launch?)).
So how can these negotiations yield the stalemate we still have? How is it that any third party observer can see, with crystalline lucidity, that the incumbent situation with nuclear arsenals on hair-trigger alert is systemically unsustainable? It threatens not only the stability of current arrangements but the coherence of itself as a doctrine((The MAD doctrine is loopy in every sense. How does it stop the nuclear weapons launch threat? By threatening to launch nuclear weapons. It’s like some mad palindrome…)). If the exchange comes to fruition, then even our ability to discuss other arrangements is wiped out. There would be no more games to play, no more positions to stake out, no more smaller conflicts to avoid, no more virtues to signal, no more borders to defend, no more rivals to deter, no more policy positions to defend, no more threats whose credibility needs assessing.
“But we have to deal with the world the way it actually exists,” cries the realist, realistically.
No. No, no, no — no. We absolutely have to act in respect of a world that does not exist. Because that’s what the future is.