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My Transition from Nuclear to Covid

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Many people have expressed curiosity about my switch of interest from nuclear nonproliferation and (especially) disarmament to the Covid pandemic policies of lockdowns, masks and vaccines. This article attempts to explain the transition from one policy to the other in 2020. 

The common elements linking the national security and public health policies are skepticism about the dominant narrative and beliefs underpinning countries that subscribe to the effectiveness of nuclear weapons and nonpharmaceutical and then pharmaceutical interventions to manage threats to national security and health, respectively; interrogating claims by political leaders and top officials against real-world data, historical evidence and logical reasoning; and analyzing benefits against costs and risks.

In both cases the net conclusion is that the emperor – the nuclear emperor and the pandemic policy emperor – is naked.

Readers of this site will be familiar with these arguments in relation to the grievously misguided policy interventions to deal with the Covid disease. I’d like to reach back into my pre-Covid professional background to show the analogous shortcomings and flaws of national security policies that rely on nuclear weapons.

Myth One: The Bomb Ended the Second World War

The belief in the policy utility of nuclear weapons is widely internalized owing in no small measure to Japan’s surrender immediately after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Yet the evidence is surprisingly clear that the close chronology is a coincidence. Hiroshima was bombed on 6 August, Nagasaki on the 9th, Moscow broke its neutrality pact to attack Japan on the 9th, and Tokyo announced the surrender on 15 August. 

In Japanese decision-makers’ minds the decisive factor in their unconditional surrender was the entry of the Soviet Union into the Pacific war against the essentially undefended northern approaches, and the fear they would be the occupying power unless Japan surrendered to the United States first. This was analyzed in great detail in a 17,000-word article by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, professor of modern Russian and Soviet history at the University of California Santa Barbara, in The Asia–Pacific Journal in 2007.

Nor, for that matter, did the Truman administration believe at the time that the two bombs were war-winning weapons. Rather, their strategic impact was vastly underestimated and they were thought of merely as an incremental improvement on the existing weaponry of war. It was only after 1945 that the military, political and ethical enormity of the decision to use atomic/nuclear weapons gradually sank in.

Myth Two: The Bomb Kept the Peace during the Cold War

Nor was the bomb the decisive factor in the territorial expansion of the former Soviet Union across central and eastern Europe during the 1945–49 years when the US held an atomic monopoly. In subsequent years during the long peace of the Cold War, both sides were determined to protect their own spheres of influence on either side of the highly militarized North-South spine that divided Europe into the NATO and Warsaw Pact alliance structures.

Nuclear weapons are credited with having preserved the long peace among the major powers in the North Atlantic (the argument that holds NATO to have been the world’s most successful peace movement) and deterred attack by the conventionally superior Soviet forces throughout the Cold War. Yet this too is debatable. There is no evidence that either side had the intention to attack the other at any time, but was deterred from doing so because of nuclear weapons held by the other side. How do we assess the relative weight and potency of nuclear weapons, West European integration, and West European democratization as explanatory variables in that long peace? 

After the Cold War ended, the existence of nuclear weapons on both sides was not enough to stop the US from expanding NATO’s borders ever eastwards towards Russia’s borders, in violation of the terms on which Moscow thought Germany’s reunification and the admission of united Germany into NATO had been agreed. Several Western leaders at the highest levels had assured the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand even “one inch eastward.”

In 1999 Russia watched helplessly from the sidelines as its ally Serbia was dismembered by NATO warplanes that served as midwives to the birth of an independent Kosovo. But Moscow did not forget the lesson. In 2014 the nuclear equation did not stop Russia from reacting militarily to the US-backed Maidan coup in Ukraine – that displaced the pro-Moscow elected president with a Westward-looking regime – by invading eastern Ukraine and annexing Crimea.

In other words, the more or less constant US–Russia nuclear equation is irrelevant to explaining the shifting geopolitical developments. We have to look elsewhere to understand the rebalancing of US–Soviet/Russia relations over the past several decades since the Second World War.

Myth Three: Nuclear Deterrence is 100 Percent Effective

Some profess interest in nuclear weapons in order to avoid nuclear blackmail. Yet there is not one clear-cut instance of a non-nuclear state having been bullied into changing its behavior by the overt or implicit threat of being bombed by nuclear weapons. The normative taboo against this most indiscriminately inhumane weapon ever invented is so comprehensive and robust that under no conceivable circumstance will its use against a non-nuclear state compensate for the political costs.

This is why nuclear powers have accepted defeat at the hands of non-nuclear states rather than escalate armed conflict to the nuclear level, as in Vietnam and Afghanistan. President Vladimir Putin’s serial threats in connection with Ukraine did not succeed either in intimidating Kyiv into surrendering, or in preventing Western countries from providing substantial and increasingly lethal armaments to Ukraine.

According to a careful statistical analysis of 210 militarized “compellent threats” from 1918–2001 by Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann in Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy (Cambridge University Press, 2017), nuclear powers succeeded in just 10 of these. Even then the presence of nuclear weapons may not have been the decisive factor compared to their general military superiority. Non-nuclear states were successful in 32 percent of attempts at coercion, compared to just 20 percent success for nuclear-armed states, and nuclear monopoly gave no greater assurance of success.

Reversing the direction of analysis, countries whose possession of the bomb is not in doubt have been subjected to attacks by non-nuclear-weapon states. The bomb did not stop Argentina from invading the Falkland Islands in the 1980s, nor the Vietnamese and Afghans from fighting and defeating the US and the Soviet Union respectively. 

Lacking compellent utility against non-nuclear adversaries, nuclear weapons cannot be used for defence against nuclear-armed rivals either. Their mutual vulnerability to second-strike retaliatory capability is so robust for the foreseeable future that any escalation through the nuclear threshold really would amount to mutual national suicide. Their only purpose and role, therefore, is mutual deterrence.

Yet, nuclear weapons did not stop Pakistan from occupying Kargil on the Indian side of the Line of Control in 1999, nor India from waging a limited war to retake it – an effort that cost over 1,000 lives. Nor do nuclear weapons buy immunity for North Korea. The biggest elements of caution in attacking it are its formidable conventional capability to hit the heavily populated parts of South Korea, including Seoul, and, recalling China’s entry into the Korean War in 1950, anxiety about how China would respond. Pyongyang’s present and prospective arsenal of nuclear weapons and the capacity to deploy and use them credibly is a distant third factor in the deterrence calculus.

If we move from historical and contemporary cases to military logic, strategists face a fundamental and unresolvable paradox in ascribing a deterrent role to the bomb. In a conflict dyad involving two nuclear-armed countries, in order to deter a conventional attack by a more powerful nuclear adversary, the weaker state must convince its stronger opponent of the ability and will to use nuclear weapons if attacked, for example by developing tactical nuclear weapons and deploying them on the forward edge of the battlefield.

If the attack does occur, however, escalating to nuclear weapons will worsen the scale of military devastation even for the side initiating nuclear strikes. Because the stronger party believes this, the existence of nuclear weapons will induce extra caution but does not guarantee immunity for the weaker party. If Mumbai or Delhi were to be hit by another major terrorist attack which India believed had Pakistan connections, the pressure for some form of retaliation could overwhelm any caution about Pakistan having nuclear weapons.

Myth Four: Nuclear Deterrence is 100 Percent Safe

Against the contestable claims of utility, there is considerable evidence that the world averted a nuclear catastrophe during the Cold War, and continues to do so in the post-Cold War world, as much owing to good luck as to wise management, with the 1962 Cuban missile crisis being the most starkly graphic example.

For nuclear peace to hold, deterrence and fail-safe mechanisms must work every single time. For nuclear Armageddon, deterrence or fail-safe mechanisms need to break down only once. This is not a comforting equation. Deterrence stability depends on rational decision-makers being always in office on all sides: a dubious and not very reassuring precondition. It depends equally critically on there being no rogue launch, human error or system malfunction: an impossibly high bar. 

The number of times that we have come frighteningly close to nuclear holocaust is simply staggering. On 27 October 2017 a newly-formed organisation, the Future of Life Institute, gave its inaugural “Future of Life” prize, posthumously, to one Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov. If you have never heard of the NGO, the prize or the laureate, not to worry: you are in good company. Yet there is a good chance neither you nor I would have been around today to read and write this were it not for Arkhipov’s courage, wisdom and calmness under pressure.

The date of the prize marked the 55th anniversary of a critical incident on which the fate of the world turned during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. On that day, Arkhipov was a submariner on duty near Cuba in the Soviet submarine B-59. Unknown to the Americans, whose entire quarantine strategy and enforcement of the blockade was motivated by the determination to prevent Soviet nuclear weapons from being brought into and stationed in the region (the sovereign status of both Cuba and the USSR be damned), there were already more than 160 Soviet nuclear warheads present in the area and commanders had been given the authority to use them in the event of hostilities.

US forces began to drop non-lethal depth charges just to let the Soviet crews know that the Americans were aware of their presence. But of course the Soviets had no way of knowing that the American intentions were peaceful and, not unreasonably, they concluded they were witness to the start of World War III. The captain of B-59, Valentin Savitsky, and another senior officer voted to launch a 10kt nuclear-tipped missile. Savitsky said, “We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all – we will not become the shame of the fleet,” according to files in the US National Security Archive.

Unfortunately for Savitsky but fortunately for us, the protocol required the decision to launch to be unanimous among the top three officers on board. Arkhipov vetoed the idea, thereby proving that not all Soviet vetoes are bad. The rest is history that wouldn’t have been otherwise. That’s how close we came to Armageddon in the missile crisis of 1962.

There have been numerous other examples where the world came too close for comfort to a full-fledged nuclear war:

  • In November 1983, in response to NATO war games exercise Able Archer, which Moscow mistook to be real, the Soviets came close to launching a full-scale nuclear attack against the West.
  • On 25 January 1995, Norway launched a scientific research rocket in its northern latitude. Because of the speed and trajectory of the powerful rocket, whose stage three mimicked a Trident sea launched ballistic missile, the Russian early warning radar system near Murmansk tagged it within seconds of launch as a possible American nuclear missile attack. Fortunately, the rocket did not mistakenly stray into Russian airspace.
  • On 29 August 2007, an American B-52 bomber carrying six air-launched cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads made an unauthorised 1,400-mile flight from North Dakota to Louisiana and was effectively absent without leave for 36 hours.
  • In the one-year period to March 2015 following the 2014 Ukraine crisis, one study documented several serious and high-risk incidents.
  • A 2016 Global Zero study similarly documented dangerous encounters in the South China Sea and South Asia.
  • As for near misses in an accident, in January 1961, a four megaton bomb – that is, 260 times more powerful than that used at Hiroshima – was just one ordinary switch away from detonating over North Carolina when a B-52 bomber on a routine flight went into an uncontrolled spin.

This selective catalogue of misperceptions, miscalculations, near misses, and accidents underscores the message of successive international commissions that as long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will want them. As long as they exist, they will be used again someday, if not by design and intent, then through miscalculation, accident, rogue launch, or system malfunction. Any such use anywhere could spell catastrophe for the planet.

The only guarantee of zero nuclear weapons risk is to move to zero nuclear weapons possession by a carefully managed process. Proponents of nuclear weapons are the real “nuclear romantics” (Ward Wilson) who exaggerate the bombs’ significance, downplay their substantial risks, and imbue them with “quasi-magical powers” also known as nuclear deterrence.

The claim that nuclear weapons could not proliferate if they did not exist is both an empirical and a logical truth. The very fact of their existence in the arsenals of nine countries is sufficient guarantee of their proliferation to others and, some day again, use. Conversely, nuclear disarmament is a necessary condition of nuclear nonproliferation.

Thus the logics of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation are inseparable. In the Middle East, for example, it simply is not credible that Israel can be permitted to keep its unacknowledged nuclear arsenal indefinitely, while every other state can be stopped from getting the bomb in perpetuity.

The normative boundaries between conventional and nuclear, regional and global, and tactical and strategic weapons, as also between nuclear, cyber, space, and autonomous weapon systems controlled by artificial intelligence, are being blurred by technological developments. These create the risk that, in an escalating crisis, second-strike capabilities are under threat because the command, control, and communication systems could be vulnerable as conventional and nuclear capabilities get hopelessly entangled.

For example, conventional anti-satellite weapons can destroy space sensors and communications that are critical components of nuclear command-and-control systems. Although more pronounced on the Chinese and Russian sides, their potential destabilizing impact on deterrence stability is also of some concern to US and allied experts.

Nuclear weapons also add significant financial cost in an ever more competitive fiscal environment. Not only is there no diminution in the need for and costs of full conventional capabilities; there are additional costs in relation to the safety and security requirements that cover the full spectrum of nuclear weapons, material, infrastructure, facilities, and personnel. In addition, as Britain and France have discovered, investment in the essentially unusable nuclear deterrent can take funds away from conventional upgrades and expansion that are actually usable in some contemporary conflict theaters.

The cataclysmically destructive potential of nuclear weapons puts a premium on secrecy and underpinned the creation and expansion of the national security state that relies on claims to technocratic expertise of the scientific-bureaucratic elite. This too was a forerunner of the rise of the biosecurity state in which national security, public health institutions, and powerful corporations in the media, social media, and pharmaceutical sectors became seamlessly fused.

From the North Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific

Reflecting the Anglo–European dominance of global scholarship, the strategic studies literature has been preoccupied with Euro–Atlantic nuclear relations. Yet a prospective Russia–NATO/US war is only one of five potential nuclear flashpoints, albeit the one with the gravest consequences. The remaining four are all in the Indo–Pacific: China-US, China-India, Korean Peninsula, and India-Pakistan.

A simple transposition of the dyadic North Atlantic frameworks and lessons to comprehend the multiplex Indo-Pacific nuclear relations is both analytically flawed and entails policy dangers for managing nuclear stability. As China and the US struggle for primacy in the vast Indo–Pacific maritime space, will they fall into what Harvard University’s Graham Allison calls the “Thucydides Trap” of a 75 percent historical probability of armed conflict between the status quo and rising powers?

The geostrategic environment of the subcontinent had no parallel in the Cold War, with triangular shared borders among three nuclear-armed states, major territorial disputes, a history of many wars since 1947, compressed timeframes for using or losing nuclear weapons, political volatility and instability, and state-sponsored cross-border insurgency and terrorism.

In the North Atlantic nuclear rivalry, submarine-based nuclear weapons deepen strategic stability by enhancing survivability and reducing successful first-strike possibilities. By contrast, the race to attain continuous at-sea deterrence capability through nuclear-armed submarines is potentially destabilizing in the Indo-Pacific because the regional powers lack well-developed operational concepts, robust and redundant command-and-control systems, and secure communications over submarines at sea.

Strategic submarines (SSBNs) are the most stabilizing platform for nuclear weapons deployment for assured destruction through second-strike capability. For this to be credible, however, they must be exempted from the usual practice of demating weapons from missiles and storing them in physically dispersed locations. This too weakens the arms race suppressing and crisis stability enhancing potential of China’s and India’s no-first-use policies.

Conclusion

The case for nuclear weapons rests on a superstitious belief of magical Realism in the utility of the bomb and the theory of deterrence.  The extreme destructiveness of nuclear weapons makes them qualitatively different in political and moral terms from other weapons, to the point of rendering them virtually unusable. Like the emperor who had no clothes, this might well be the truest explanation of why they have not been used since 1945.

The hubris and arrogance of the nuclear-armed states leaves the world exposed to the risk of sleepwalking into a nuclear disaster. Remember, people are not aware of their actions while they are sleepwalking.

Moreover, compared to the sophistication and reliability of the command-and-control systems of the two Cold War rivals, those of some of the contemporary nuclear-armed states are dangerously frail and brittle. Each additional entrant into the nuclear club multiplies the risk of inadvertent war geometrically and these would vastly exceed the dubious and marginal security gains of possession. This is of course the key argument also with respect to lockdowns, masks, and vaccines, that their net costs and damage greatly exceed their purported benefits.

The risks of nuclear weapons proliferation and use by irresponsible states, most of whom are in volatile conflict-prone regions, or by suicide terrorists, outweigh realistic security benefits. A more rational and prudent approach to reducing nuclear risks would be to actively advocate and pursue the minimization, reductions, and elimination agendas for the short, medium, and long terms identified in the Report of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.



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Author

  • Ramesh Thakur

    Ramesh Thakur, a Brownstone Institute Senior Scholar, is a former United Nations Assistant Secretary-General, and emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.

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