Kim Jong-un North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is now complete

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 dangerous

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.

In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia (1941), Rebecca West noted that: ‘Only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our 90s and die in peace …’ It requires no arcane wisdom to know that people often act out of misperceptions, anger, despair, insanity, stubbornness, revenge, pride and/or dogmatic conviction.

Moreover, in certain situations  as when either side is convinced that war is inevitable, or when the pressures to avoid losing face are especially intense  an irrational act, including a lethal one, can appear appropriate, even unavoidable.

When he ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese defence minister observed that: ‘Sometimes it is necessary to close one’s eyes and jump off the platform of the Kiyomizu Temple [a renowned suicide spot].’ During the First World War, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany wrote in the margin of a government document that: ‘Even if we are destroyed, England at least will lose India.’

While in his bunker, during the final days of the Second World War, Adolf Hitler ordered what he hoped would be the total destruction of Germany, because he felt that Germans had ‘failed’ him.

Consider, as well, a US president who shows signs of mental illness, and whose statements and tweets are frighteningly consistent with dementia or genuine psychosis. National leaders  nuclear-armed or not  aren’t immune to mental illness. Yet, deterrence theory presumes otherwise.

If something is immoral to do, then it is also immoral to threaten

Finally, there is just no way for civilian or military leaders to know when their country has accumulated enough nuclear firepower to satisfy the requirement of having an ‘effective deterrent’. For example, if one side is willing to be annihilated in a counterattack, it simply cannot be deterred, no matter the threatened retaliation.

Alternatively, if one side is convinced of the other’s implacable hostility, or of its presumed indifference to loss of life, no amount of weaponry can suffice. Not only that, but so long as accumulating weapons makes money for defence contractors, and so long as designing, producing and deploying new ‘generations’ of nuclear stuff advances careers, the truth about deterrence theory will remain obscured. Even the sky is not the limit; militarists want to put weapons in outer space.

Insofar as nuclear weapons also serve symbolic, psychological needs, by demonstrating the technological accomplishments of a nation and thus conveying legitimacy to otherwise insecure leaders and countries, then, once again, there is no rational way to establish the minimum (or cap the maximum) size of one’s arsenal. At some point, additional detonations nonetheless come up against the law of diminishing returns, or as Winston Churchill pointed out, they simply ‘make the rubble bounce’.

In addition, ethical deterrence is an oxymoron. Theologians know that a nuclear war could never meet so-called ‘just war’ criteria. In 1966, the Second Vatican Council concluded: ‘Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive areas along with their populations is a crime against God and man itself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.’

And in a pastoral letter in 1983, the US Catholic bishops added: ‘This condemnation, in our judgment, applies even to the retaliatory use of weapons striking enemy cities after our own have already been struck.’ They continued that, if something is immoral to do, then it is also immoral to threaten.

In a message to the 2014 Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, Pope Francis declared that: ‘Nuclear deterrence and the threat of mutually assured destruction cannot be the basis of an ethics of fraternity and peaceful coexistence among peoples and states.’

The United Methodist Council of Bishops go further than their Catholic counterparts, concluding in 1986 that: ‘Deterrence must no longer receive the churches’ blessing, even as a temporary warrant for the maintenance of nuclear weapons.’ In The Just War (1968), the Protestant ethicist Paul Ramsey asked his readers to imagine that traffic accidents in a particular city had suddenly been reduced to zero, after which it was found that everyone had been required to strap a newborn infant to the bumper of every car.

Perhaps the most frightening thing about nuclear deterrence is its many paths to failure. Contrary to what is widely assumed, the least likely is a ‘bolt out of the blue’ (BOOB) attack. Meanwhile, there are substantial risks associated with escalated conventional war, accidental or unauthorised use, irrational use (although it can be argued that any use of nuclear weapons would be irrational) or false alarms, which have happened with frightening regularity, and could lead to ‘retaliation’ against an attack that hadn’t happened.

There have also been numerous ‘broken arrow’ accidents  accidental launching, firing, theft or loss of a nuclear weapon  as well as circumstances in which such events as a flock of geese, a ruptured gas pipeline or faulty computer codes have been interpreted as a hostile missile launch.

The above describes only some of the inadequacies and outright dangers posed by deterrence, the doctrinal fulcrum that manipulates nuclear hardware, software, deployments, accumulation and escalation. Undoing the ideology  verging on theology  of deterrence won’t be easy, but neither is living under the threat of worldwide annihilation. As the poet T S Eliot once wrote, unless you are in over your head, how do you know how tall you are? And when it comes to nuclear deterrence, we’re all in over our heads.

This essay was originally published in Aeon (courtesy).

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