“Strange Game … The Only Winning Move is Not to Play.”

For all of us who have watched the movie Wargames, we remember the iconic final scene in which a computer analyzes every possible scenario concerning all-out nuclear war. Bruce Blair’s article on strengthening checks on presidential authority draws valid points about our current response structure to a nuclear attack. In short, a considerable amount pressure is placed on the president and his closest advisors in a very narrow window of time as to what strategy the US would implement in the response given a multitude of contingencies offered by military strategists. Bruce Blair, as the co-founder of Global Zero, is against this notion that such world-ending power should be allowed in the hands of such few individuals including our current president (or any). For his proposed solution, he optimized democratic checks and balances upon the president through Congress whilst minimizing “use it or lose it” forces such as missile silos, making the US response one that would take deliberation concerning legality, ethics, and logical consideration. Alongside this is a push to eliminate land-based missile silos and remove nuclear strikes as a counter to non-nuclear threats.

While I agree that basing the US’s nuclear strategy upon subs and other mobile launch platforms, I can see the logic of maintaining a “base-load” of silos as a deterrent in itself. What is your incentive for nuclear war if you know that your opponent is willing to use their nukes rather than lose them. It is nearly a guaranteed reaction, as opposed to a deliberated response which would increase the time to decision and quite possibly have ethical issues as the time-horizon of justified M.A.D. passes with every minute. In a sense, the peace brought by the age of nuclear weapons is the rationalization of known strategies and irrational reactions. During the cold war in Germany, the US established the “nuclear tripwire” system where lower yield tactical nukes were to be used at the discretion of regional military commanders given an attack from a Soviet invasion force. No one wants to end the world and everyone is afraid that someone will shoot first, conventionally or strategically, in a scenario where escalation will not only be absolute and irreversible but also be based in non-rational responses. The Congressional solution also assumes that we have the ability to safeguard our politicians and that there won’t be irrational group-thinking under such stress – there’s a reason why military strategy is not a democratic process.

In my argument, I propose that checks and balances are necessary for a first-strike scenario, but irrelevant in a response scenario after receiving a nuclear attack. Sun Tzu stated that one should never fully encircle one’s foe, but leave an avenue for them to give up, and I will use that in a metaphorical sense. Deterrence strategy is all about showing rational state actors an outcome that will encircle them and thus be trapping them into a fixed detrimental outcome for all parties. The avenue of escape into peace, then, is not simply in the deterrence system, aside from some strategy adjustments and disarmament to “baseload” levels for assurances, safety, and practicality, but in the diplomacy between states and the ability for representatives thereof to give options that allow contesting parties to play the only winning move. — Dean

Political Armament: Non-Military Explanations and Willing Non-Proliferation

One model that Sagan outlines is the security model, where nuclear bombs are a sort of poker chip in international relations: strong states build up their own arsenals, and weak states ally themselves within coalitions that collectively have more bombs. Because this naturally leads to an arms race where power is represented by the quantity of nuclear bombs held, such competitive armament was described as “proliferation begets proliferation”. Next, the domestic politics model purports that politicians manipulate citizens into perceiving a threat, and scientists encourage nuclear development so that their labs receive funding. Finally, the third kind of model is the norms model, where modern countries have come to believe that in order to be considered a legitimate state, they need an arsenal in the way they need a flag or an Olympic team. It has simply become a status symbol and psychological indicator of power. All of these explanations go to show that nuclear weapons do not function simply as military tools, but rather as political levers to exert power and influence domestically and internationally.

I was particularly interested in Sagan’s analysis of South Africa as a country that gave up its nuclear arsenal. Sagan proffered that they did so because the Soviet threat to their regime diminished. I was shocked by this account and explanation, because I could not imagine that a country would give up its strongest defense system simply because an immediate threat had disappeared. It seems short sighted to assume that a country is EVER safe as long as any other country possesses nuclear weapons. Such countries seem to put a lot of faith into alliances which I personally would never assume are set in stone. I wonder, however, how much of my viewpoint has been shaped by the fact that I grew up in the United States during an era where we have viewed so many countries as threats and ourselves as the victim. If, perhaps, one did live in an under-the-radar country, one might never imagine that you might need nuclear bombs because one wouldn’t expect to ever be a target of stronger countries with powerful arsenals.

Generally, I agree with Sagan’s claim toward the beginning of the essay that it is too simplistic to assume that if states do not need to defend themselves with nuclear weapons that they will “willingly” remain non-nuclear states. In an era where nuclear weapons are seen as counterbalances to larger geopolitical power struggles, I find it hard to believe that a lack of need for nuclear weapons exists as long as any nation has access to an arsenal. While I could imagine states unwillingly remaining non-nuclear, such as if they did not have the resources or are afraid of side-effects, from a military standpoint I am jaded enough to believe that if a country could have nuclear weapons, they would. — Sarah

Out of the Shadows: Navigating Modern Nuclear Diplomacy

The Princeton Science and Global Security program’s November 2017 exhibit “Shadows and Ashes: The Peril of Nuclear Weapons” is an informational piece about modern nuclear weapon technology and the possible “catastrophic effects”—environmental, health, existential—of using this technology in a modern international conflict. The exhibit coincides with a renewed focus on nuclear policy inspired by volatile global conflicts such as the Syrian Civil War and disputes between countries, such as the United States, Russia, North Korea, India, Pakistan, Iran and Israel.

SGS officials emphasize that the chances today for a modern international dispute escalating into nuclear war are high—and may be calamitous. One graphic, for instance, shows how a modern nuclear weapon yields a detonation 28,000 times greater than the 1945 Hiroshima atomic bomb, which killed tens of thousands of people. Their exhibit shows how the number of nuclear powers has increased, while these countries modernize and maintain their arms stockpiles.

Thinking about this and other readings from the week, vis a vis Gilinsky, I’m reminded of the adage that “those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.” What can be done, then, to mitigate such dangers of modern nuclear diplomacy? I agree with the exhibit that, perhaps, educating world leaders and policymakers on the present risks of nuclear destruction, the profound outcomes of the atomic bombings and the mistakes and successes of past decision making is a start. Such an approach can be part of a comprehensive program that encourages our world leaders not to trivialize the threat of using nuclear weapons.

However, the present, ongoing challenge remains for the international community to pivot the conversation away from deterrence to other policies such as détente or even abolition. The 2017 UN Treaty is a start, but I wonder how policymakers will be able to continue to work with world leaders who may be unpredictable or antagonistic. In a world of changing politics, advanced nuclear weapon technology, and proliferation, how can we constructively move forward? I look forward to learning more about these challenges, and the efforts to embrace the modern technologies, while supporting the current global health, environment, and security needs. — Jordan

Nuclear Winter: Does Anyone Care?

The article Local Nuclear War, Global Suffering discusses the possible effects of a “nuclear winter,” an event following nuclear conflict that would have a major impact on the environment and on global agriculture. Nuclear explosions are theorized to throw enormous amounts of debris and fine particles into the high atmosphere, where it is trapped for long periods of time. This layer of particles blocks sunlight, thereby lowering global temperatures and affecting crops. In addition, a nuclear winter would heat the atmosphere and cause a drastic thinning of the ozone layer, which could cause future effects on global climate in the future. In the event of even a regional conflict in northern India and Pakistan (with, as the authors propose, only 100 nuclear detonations), the resulting nuclear winter could cripple agriculture globally, and possible cause the deaths of one billion people from food shortages. Even in the case of a “local” or regional war then, the authors argue, the impact of this war can be felt in a severe way across the entire world. They recommend abolition of nuclear weapons, to preclude a nuclear winter from happening.

One question that came to my mind as I read this is whether the possibility of a nuclear winter is appropriately taken into account by political and military decision-makers in debating when and why to use nuclear weapons. I can’t say that I’ve heard much about an event like this in debates on nuclear weapons. It also seems that the people who would be most affected by hunger (the global poor) are extremely far from the decision-making process for two other nations to go to war.

Another question that I had was what precautions can be made to mitigate the effects of a nuclear winter, if one were to occur. For example, have agricultural methods and seeds been engineered in order to sustain production in this type of event? Or, are there potential ways to hasten the clearing of the atmosphere (by capturing particles early, for example)? — Jay

Welcome and Introductions

Welcome, everyone. We thought it would be a good idea to briefly introduce ourselves, and the WWS/MAE 353 team is taking the lead here. Please write a two or three sentence introduction about yourself and why you are taking this course. You can also note any questions you have after reviewing the syllabus and highlight topics that particularly stand out for you. We’d like your interests to help determine what we emphasize this semester.