“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

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

  1. While I agree with the broader idea that allowing nuclear power to be concentrated in the hands of a small number of people, there is a problem with the establishment of the proposed system of checks and balances. If there were to be an imminent threat of nuclear or other large-scale attack on the United States, congressional or other debate might take too long and put American security at risk.
    I also believe that it is not inappropriate for the United States to not have a no first use policy because it is a necessary deterrent against chemical/biological weapons or other non-nuclear WMDs.
    I would argue that nuclear deterrence would be much safer if all states agreed upon clear standards under which nuclear launch would be considered “legitimate” (as far as launching a nuclear weapon ever could be considered legitimate), thereby establishing clear and inviolable red lines back by threat of the legitimate use of force. While nuclear weapons would lose their effectiveness as a deterrent in all other cases, they would be more effective at deterring anything within the scope of an acceptable response. Additionally, this would eliminate much of the uncertainty involved in nuclear deterrence. If an actor is foolish enough to cross a red line with a nuclear state, they run the risk of nuclear war but it is much easier for all actors involved to understand if they run a real risk of starting a nuclear conflict.

  2. The proposed system of checks and balances would decrease the likelihood of an irrational first-strike scenario but would also hinder the concept of nuclear deterrence. While the fear of a nuclear attack helps with nuclear deterrence, I argue that this fear results from the uncertainty of the situation. The volatility of nuclear weapons and seeming lack of a decision-making process to use them are what make nuclear deterrence effective. Other nations are kept in fear of treading too far because of the lack of a definite line. This lack of definite guidelines allows for nuclear deterrence to play a larger role in another nation’s decision-making because nuclear deterrence is does not limit itself. A nation, when dealing with another that has nuclear capability, is forced to check itself because of the fear of an unknown nuclear attack. Logically (and hopefully), the nation would err on the side of caution, but if the nation does not, then strategies to escalate to deescalate are in place to keep them in check.

    Furthermore, the creation of a standards to determine the “legitimacy” of a nuclear attack also prevents nuclear deterrence from doing its job because it removes the fear that it provides. While I assume the standards would be extremely rigorous, there are still problems that result from corner cases and the manipulation of these “lines” by other nations? What is the course of action if a nation treads extremely close to the line but does not cross it? Are we to interpret the action as warranting nuclear attack? And, if we decide that it does not warrant nuclear attack, will the other nation interpret it as a sign of unwillingness to follow through with the established guidelines? While the regulations would provide a red line, they would instead limit the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence which in turn could increase the chances of nuclear war. It is important that while nuclear deterrence is utilized to ensure that it is effective. The loss of its effectiveness, before the creation of a replacement policy, could have devastating consequences

    Disclaimer: I do not support nuclear deterrence and would much rather prefer complete disarmament.

  3. Although the system of democratic checks and balances would in my opinion indeed limit the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence, it would be for reasons other than the lack of uncertainty. Deterrence works best when one’s adversary knows without a shadow of a doubt that any form of nuclear attack would be repaid in kind, dealing enough damage that the costs of engaging in hostilities would be exorbitantly high. A nation whose policy is to project a lack of definite guidelines for a nuclear launch would be veering dangerously close to “madman theory”, in which one tries to make an adversary believe that one is irrational and unpredictable. Nations on the receiving end of this treatment tend to see it as a sign of weakness, perhaps explaining why this approach has had very limited success, both during the Vietnam War and more recently when dealing with North Korea, where mixed signals about the US’s stance only served to further embolden the DPRK.

    Nevertheless, a bureaucratic process would still hinder deterrence due to the fact that an aggressor, especially a weaker one, could see this as an opportunity for asymmetric escalation in the case of a conventional war. Armed with the knowledge that one’s enemy would end up swamped by red tape, a state could launch a first strike hoping to destroy its opponent’s second strike capability and/or command and control centres before politicians manage to reach a consensus on what an “appropriate” response should be. If any one of the nuclear triad (missiles in silos, on submarines, and mounted on fighter jets) has the capability to retaliate immediately upon confirmation of a hostile nuclear launch, and a possible adversary is made well aware of this fact, nuclear deterrence prevails.

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