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Delusions of Deterrence

There are some really bad ideas out there, promoted by experts.

The other day I listened to one of my consistently favorite radio podcasts, KCRW’s “To the Point,” hosted by journalist Warren Olney. The topic was one dear to my heart—or rather, one that fills me with dread, but which I can’t escape, and neither, I fear, should you: nuclear war.

Among the people interviewed was Matthew Kroenig, an associate professor in the Department of Government at Georgetown University and a supposed expert on nuclear weapons. Although he had a reasonable demeanor and seemed relatively sane and composed, some of Mr. Kroenig’s arguments were, frankly, so wrong-headed that I feel obliged to comment on them here and now, at least in part because they reflect some of the many widespread misconceptions surrounding nuclear strategy and particularly the peculiar theology that passes as sophisticated strategy; namely, nuclear deterrence.

There are too many deceptions and illusions surrounding this topic for them all to be debunked in one brief blog, so I’ll limit myself to points that Mr. Kroenig expressed and that, sadly, were not refuted on air.

#1: It's quite okay for the U.S. to have nuclear weapons because unlike other countries, we respect human life and use our nukes only to maintain a safe, secure and reliable international order. This is so absurd as to hardly require any refutation, but just for starters, please consider that only one country has used nuclear weapons to kill roughly 200,000 noncombatant civilians, most of them women, children and the elderly. Can you guess which country?

#2: Nuclear weapons have kept the peace since 1945; after all, we’re still alive, aren’t we? This claim has been debunked many times, so I’ll be brief. Of course, we are still alive, but for one thing, there have been numerous near-misses, such that even a hawk like Truman's former secretary of state Dean Acheson noted that we’ve avoided Armageddon simply by “dumb luck” and one thing we all know about luck is that eventually, it runs out. For another, it is entirely possible, even likely, that a US-Soviet war was avoided not because of deterrence but because neither side had any issue worth fighting a war over (even a conventional one). Moreover, history shows that periods of peace haven’t been all that unusual—after which they are followed by war, which nearly always uses whatever weapons are in either side’s arsenal. In addition, if deterrence had failed, we wouldn’t be around congratulating it for having kept the peace, and the terrifying fact is that we may be like the person who jumped from the top of the Empire State Building and was asked, “How is it going?” as he plummeted past the 49th floor, whereupon he replied “So far, so good.”

#3: Our nuclear strategy is ethical because we don’t intentionally aim at civilian populations, only legitimate military targets such as a potential opponent’s nuclear weapons. U.S. nuclear targeting currently calls for, among other things, between 60 and 100 nuclear bombs and warheads to be directed toward Moscow alone. It scarcely matters whether the ostensible goals are military or civilian targets since every inhabitant in that city would be killed; someone who dies as “collateral damage” is no less dead. In addition, targeting a presumed opponent’s nuclear weapons may seem like a smart strategy, even a comparatively moral one, reminiscent of the Lone Ranger shooting the gun out of a bad guy’s hand. But such a policy, known as counterforce, is in fact extraordinarily ill-advised, because it leads to “crisis instability,” in which each side is at risk of thinking that the other might be planning a disarming first strike. This is deeply and dangerously destabilizing, since it threatens to produce an action-reaction sequence in which each fears that its only option is to attack first, with each one predisposed to pre-empt the other’s pre-emption, ad infinitum. Such a pattern represents the exact opposite of the supposed goals of deterrence.

#4: Nuclear deterrence is based on solid logic; hence it is reliable. In fact, the Emperor Deterrence has no clothes, and with an administration headed by Donald Trump, any claim of clear-headed logic is itself painfully illogical, perhaps terminally so.

The tragic truth is that deterrence is a delusion, the world’s most lethal one—something we ought to oppose with all our strength: intellectual, political, emotional, and by any and all means possible.

David P. Barash is professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Washington and - in addition to being an evolutionary biologist - is a long-time peace scholar and activist. With his wife, Judith Eve Lipton, he is currently writing a book that critiques nuclear deterrence.