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

4 thoughts on “Out of the Shadows: Navigating Modern Nuclear Diplomacy

  1. Like Jordan, I was struck by the devastating potential of the world’s nuclear stockpiles. The number of people that could killed by a single bomb – and the number of bombs that we have to kill with – is staggering.

    That being said, what struck me most from the readings was not the devastation really, but the ease at which that devastation could happen. Reading Gilinsky, it seems so easy to start a nuclear war on accident or as the result of rushed judgements. Gilinsky notes that nuclear weapons have nearly been deployed on accident in the past (Gilinsky 5), and that when deployment is intentional, the people deciding to drops bombs will be “likely tired, possibly awake with stimulants, and largely unfamiliar with…perhaps even the basic facts” (Gilinsky 5).

    I think Jordan’s argument for educating world leaders on the consequences of nuclear warfare is a good one. However, his suggestion assumes that, in crisis situations, world leaders will react rationally if given the proper facts. I’m not sure that’s good assumption. The possibility of non-rational nuclear actors weakens arguments for deterrence-based strategies as well.

    In order to address the accidental or imprudent deployment of bonds, I would like to know more about how decisions to drop bombs are made, and how accidental detonations are averted. How many people are consulted before a drop decision is made? How long does the process take? What are the counter-strike plans that have already been discussed? Most countries would be reluctant to answer these questions, but I would be interested in thinking of creative ways to get at the answers.

  2. I think bringing up the saying “those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it” gets at something tricky in nuclear policy. I think the history you’re referring to is the use of nuclear weapons in World War 2, and that it might be easy to make poor policy decisions as public memory of the weapons destructiveness fades. But on the other hand, Gilinsky seems to imply that we might also make the mistake of remembering history inaccurately, worrying that, if we made it through the Cold War mainly by luck, then we might incorrectly conclude that no one would ever use a nuclear weapon because, after WW2, no one has. Another is that, whatever happened during the Cold War, the power dynamics between nuclear states we worry about now is totally different—instead of superpowers, we have small, threatened states. Practically, that changes the cooperation problem we face when dealing with nuclear policy, but I think that it’s too easy to focus on looking for policy solutions to that problem rather than to change the problem’s circumstances. To circle back to the original quote about remembering history, I think you can argue that what led to the dramatic but insufficient reduction in nuclear weapons from a peak of around 60,000 to today’s levels of around 15,000 had much less to do with evolving attitudes towards the weapons than it did with the change in the cooperation game that resulted from the fall of the Soviet Union. That might imply that an education program for world leaders would ultimately be far less effective than working to change the relationships between nuclear powers.

  3. Modern nuclear diplomacy is a tough tightrope to balance on. The U.S. and Russia may be reducing nuclear stockpiles, but there is a real incentive for much smaller nations to hold on or develop nukes. In a purely militaristic sense, nuclear weapons level the playing field for severely underdeveloped countries like North Korea. In a conventional war, there is little doubt the DPRK would be quashed quickly – as with any small, underdeveloped country facing a much more formidable foe. However, the nuclear weapon has become a bargaining chip that brings even superpowers to the negotiating table, in a way it has not in the past.

    The current administration’s “America’s First” policy certainly doesn’t help lead us to nuclear zero. If the U.S. chooses to renounce its protection over South Korea, then South Korea, all on its own, in a very realist way, would have strong incentive to develop nuclear weapons of their own. That goes for any country with adversaries which hold nuclear weapons, which don’t have guaranteed protection from another nuclear power. If fewer countries are protected by nuclear powers, those countries, incentivized to develop weapons, might develop them. This would make the specter of nuclear war all the more likely, as nuclear proliferation would increase.

    I think educating world leaders on the effects of nuclear war would be important, though would hardly stop its proliferation. It might deter its usage, but probably won’t affect proliferation – for reasons stated above. It’s a powerful negotiating tool, and unfortunately in international relations, more power often translates into more doing whatever you want.

    If we were to reach nuclear zero, then that incentive – the incentive to create a nuclear weapon to deter conflict, self-defend or level the playing field – must be eliminated, or some kind of counter-incentive must be stronger than the incentive to develop nuclear weapons. It’s difficult to tell what that may be, though.

    Also a side note re: education – the CDC is now hosting a workshop to inform government leaders what a public health response to a nuclear detonation would look like. Given that the CDC specializes in emergency response, they are a surprisingly natural agency to lead this workshop. So, maybe these efforts of education may bear fruit – only time will tell.

  4. In this post Jordan addresses the role that the increasing number of volatile global conflicts plays in the nuclear policy landscape. I absolutely agree, and I do think that educating world leaders is an important element of the nuclear question. However, I also think it may be dangerous to rely too heavily on the persuasive power of statistics and projections about the harm that a nuclear attack would bring about. I think that the political pressure attached to issues of security and specifically nuclear weapons may be a more powerful driver of decision making in favor of proliferation than a lack of information. This applies to both new nuclear powers such as North Korea, where Kim Jong-un has used his nuclear program to assert his authority domestically and on the international stage, and to more established ones including the United States. Although there are many high profile anti-proliferation advocates and organizations in America, it is difficult to imagine politicians being willing to sacrifice our nuclear capabilities when there are other nations, some of them hostile, with stockpiled nuclear weapons. Elected officials in particular often use national security as an important element of their campaign platforms, and those advocating for denuclearization may risk being labelled weak in this area. It seems that the number of nuclear powers in the modern era and the fact that some of them are involved in major conflicts creates an environment in which global leaders are unwilling to forfeit their nuclear capabilities not because they don’t understand the danger of nuclear weapons but because of the political and diplomatic ramifications of doing so. I do think that the article from Robock and Toon about the environmental impacts of nuclear war presents a novel approach to exploring the danger of nuclear weapons by extending the debate beyond casualty projections and other statistics that may already be familiar to leaders and other actors. Given that environmental issues and climate change have generated significant international attention recently, exploring this argument against nuclear weapons may provide another source of information to educate leaders and the public as Jordan proposes.

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