Tag Archives: nuclear weapons

Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare by Bertrand Russell

Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare was a 1959 book by Bertrand Russell. The title is clearly tongue-in-cheek because these are two things that don’t mix. Here is a fun quote/paraphrase relating the book to the present day, provided by History News Network:

Responding on August 8 to North Korean threats, Trump publicly warned that North Korea “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Later that day, North Korea’s state media announced that its government was considering a strategy of striking the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam with mid- to long-range nuclear missiles―a strategy that a spokesman for the Korean People’s Army said would be “put into practice” once Kim authorized it.

This kind of reckless and potentially suicidal behavior is reminiscent of the game of “Chicken,” which achieved notoriety in the 1950s. In the film Rebel Without a Cause (1955), two rebellious, antisocial male teenagers (or juvenile delinquents, as they were known at the time) played the game before a crowd of onlookers by driving jalopies at top speed toward a cliff. Whoever jumped out of the cars first was revealed as “chicken” (a coward). A more popular variant of the game involved two teenagers driving their cars at high speed toward one another, with the first to swerve out of the way drawing the derisive label. According to some accounts, young James Dean, a star of Rebel Without a Cause, actually died much this way.

With news of the game spreading, Bertrand Russell, the great mathematician and philosopher, suggested in 1959 that the two sides in the Cold War were engaged in an even crazier version: nuclear “Chicken.” He wrote: “As played by irresponsible boys, this game is considered decadent and immoral, though only the lives of the players are risked.” But the game became “incredibly dangerous” and “absurd” when it was played by government officials “who risk not only their own lives but those of many hundreds of millions of human beings.” Russell warned that “the moment will come when neither side can face the derisive cry of ‘Chicken!’ from the other side.” When that moment arrived, “the statesmen of both sides will plunge the world into destruction.”

This might be the biggest problem of all with having nuclear weapons around. Even if rational adult supervision is present 99% of the time, and even if there were no risk of terrorism, it only takes one irrational leader one time to pull the trigger and fuck up our world permanently.

North Korean nuclear submarines

Submarine-launched nuclear missiles are the ultimate deterrent, because unless your enemies are sure they can find and destroy all your subs before they have a chance to launch, you have the ability to retaliate anywhere at anytime, even if this is your last action after your enemy has turned your country into a “sea of fire” (as the North Koreans are fond of saying). If you read the first half of this CNN article, you think North Korea has them or almost has them, but if you get to the end you find out that the expert consensus is that North Korea isn’t close.

The US military has detected “highly unusual and unprecedented levels” of North Korean submarine activity and evidence of an “ejection test” in the days following Pyongyang’s second intercontinental ballistic missile launch this month, a defense official told CNN on Monday.

An ejection test examines a missile’s “cold-launch system,” which uses high pressure steam to propel a missile out of the launch canister into the air before its engines ignite. That helps prevent flames and heat from the engine from damaging either the submarine, submersible barge or any nearby equipment used to launch the missile.

Two concerns: one is that Trump decides they are close and decides to order a preemptive strike. Even if this were the best course of action, Trump is not the leader we would need at the helm during such a crisis. Two is that these might be the same experts what brung us weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Maybe this is their makeup call for the earlier bad call. In other words, maybe we’re in for an unpleasant WMD surprise that goes in the opposite direction of the last one.

The current US intelligence assessment is that the missile program aboard submarines remains in the very early stages.

nuclear proliferation and non-state actors

This post on Lawfare talks about three ways people and groups other than nation-states could get their hands on nuclear weapons.

That entails blocking the pathways to terrorist acquisition of a nuclear weapon. There are three possibilities for how a terrorist organization might acquire the bomb: transfer—the sale or handoff of a weapon from a nuclear-weapon state; leakage—the theft of a nuclear weapon or weapons-grade fissile material; and indigenous production—the construction of a nuclear device from illicitly obtained weapons-grade fissile material.

Each pathway to nuclear acquisition by a non-state terrorist group is contingent on an act of commission or negligence by a state. The “leakage” of a weapon to a terrorist group would originate from one of the nine nuclear-weapon states or the 22 states (at current count) with weapons-grade fissile material in their civilian stocks. Among this group, the countries of greatest concern regarding the nexus of proliferation and terrorism—North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia—are each continuing their development of nuclear weapons and risking broader proliferation, including to non-state actors.

North Korea is on the verge of a strategic breakout both quantitatively, by ramping up its number of warheads to possibly as many as 100 weapons by 2020, and qualitatively, by mastering warhead miniaturization. And it would have few qualms about selling nuclear materials for the right price. Pyongyang is known, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it, for its willingness to “sell anything they have to anybody who has the cash to buy it.” Pakistan continues to build up its nuclear arsenal (including the development of battlefield tactical nuclear weapons), employs terrorism as an instrument of state policy, and faces the internal security threat of radical Islamists attempting to infiltrate its nuclear establishment. And Russia, which inherited the Soviet Union’s vast nuclear arsenal and stocks of fissile material, terminated its nuclear-security cooperation with the United States under the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program put in place by the Nunn-Lugar Act in 1991.

July 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

Most hopeful stories:

  • A new cancer treatment genetically modifies a patient’s own immune system to attack cancer cells.
  • Shareholders of big fossil fuel companies are starting to force some action on climate change business risk disclosure.
  • Richard Florida offers five ideas for solving poverty and what is wrong with cities: taxing land based on its improved value, massive investment in public transportation and public education, ending the mortgage interest tax deduction, and guaranteed minimum income.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • Technology is marching on, whether or not the economy and human species are. The new thing with satellites is to have lots of small, cheap ones instead of a few big, expensive ones. Even if the coal industry were to make a comeback, today’s coal jobs are going to data analysts, remote control machine operators, mechanical and electrical engineers, not guys underground with pickaxes and headlamps. But the coal can be produced with a lot less human effort (i.e. jobs) than it used to be. Iris scans like in Minority Report are now a thing.
  • Ecologists have some new ideas for measuring resilience of ecosystems. Technologists have some wild ideas to have robots directly counteract the effects of humans on ecosystems. I like ideas – how do I get a (well-compensated) job where I can just sit around and think up ideas?
  • Isaac Asimov says truly creative people (1) are weird and (2) generally work alone.

Some combination of the Trump news, the things I see every day on the streets of Philadelphia, and events affecting friends and family led me to question this month whether the United States is really a society in decline. Actually, I don’t question that, I think the answer is yes. But the more important question is whether it is a temporary or permanent decline, and what it means for the rest of the globe. I am leaning slightly toward permanent, but maybe I will feel better next month, we’ll see. Maybe I need to get out of this country for a little while. Last time I did that I felt that the social glue holding Americans together is actually pretty strong compared to most other places, even if our government and its approach to other governments have become largely dysfunctional. We need to get through the next couple years without a nuclear detonation, hope the current vacuum of leadership leads some quality leaders to emerge, and hope things have nowhere to go but up. There, I talked myself off the ledge!

 

the value of nuclear weapons

Moral considerations aside, Richard N. Haas gives a clear explanation of why nuclear weapons are attractive to countries.

Decades ago, Israel made such a calculation in the face of Arab threats to eliminate the Jewish state. More recently, Ukraine, Libya, and Iraq all gave up their nuclear weapons programs either voluntarily or under pressure. Subsequently, Ukraine was invaded by Russia, Iraq by the US, and Libya by the US and several of its European partners. Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya were ousted.

North Korea has avoided such a fate, and the third generation of the Kim family rules with an iron fist. It is doubtful that the lesson is lost on Kim Jong-un.

You could try to estimate what it would cost for a particular country to have a conventional military equal in deterrent power to a few nuclear weapons. And the answer is almost certainly that they couldn’t afford it, even if they had the people and technology and productive capacity necessary. So a nuclear deterrent seems very logical. Of course the problem is that when everybody has them, or even a substantial fraction of countries has them, the risk to everybody becomes much higher than if nobody had them.

Another thing I learned from this article is that the UN General Assembly in July created (I don’t know if that is the right legal word) a treaty designed to facilitate long-term disarmament and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. It may not be legally binding or backed by serious political power at the moment, but it shows leadership and could give serious, ethical leaders something to point to in future negotiations. Imagine for example if China, Russia, and the United States decided to throw their weight behind this.

Niall Ferguson compares Trump to JFK

Niall Ferguson appears to have finally stopped explaining and apologizing and rationalizing Donald Trump, and admitted that he is a bad President. Just not the only bad President ever, so that makes it okay. Who is Niall’s example of another bad President? John F. Kennedy. He withheld information on his health from the public, had suspected ties to organized crime, and was unfaithful to his wife. These are historical facts I can’t argue with, but surely not very important points of comparison between the two men. Niall picks a couple more points of comparison that I think are important, but for completely different reasons than Niall.

And on his watch, the world came closer than at any other time to nuclear Armageddon, during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. How was catastrophe averted? By using a back channel to the Kremlin to cut a secret deal…

Perhaps Trump’s Cuban missile crisis is on its way, in North Korea.

On the secret back channel, Trump has been criticized for not maintaining this back channel. The idea of the back channel is that if the radar says there are incoming missiles, the President has a direct line to the other side that will help him make a crucial decision whether to launch a response. That happened several times during the Cold War. Do we trust Trump to make the right decision under similar circumstances? Or at least a reasoned, rational decision even if there is no right one. I don’t.

On the Cuban Missile Crisis, one reason it happened is that foreign enemies perceived the U.S. leadership as weak and decided to test it. When we were tested, the U.S. military leadership pressed for an attack on Cuba, which very likely could have led to a world war with or without thermonuclear weapons. Kennedy resisted this advice and managed to defuse the crisis without launching an invasion. I admit, he bluffed his way through it, and maybe got lucky, but it was strong leadership and it took as much courage to stand up to the U.S. military as to the USSR. Possibly more. And maybe they killed him for it.

Trump is not only weak, he is an international laughing stock. Foreign powers who wouldn’t have crossed a Clinton or Bush or Obama are constantly testing him. Not only is he likely to do whatever military advisers tell him to do, he does not really even have independent civilian advisers to counter them. He is insecure, ignorant, and irrational. The risk to civilization is huge.

Wow, I just depressed myself. Well, nuclear weapons are the worst thing currently out there in the world, and the threat is real and growing. Start a global thermonuclear war, and we will not be around to worry about health care or climate change or anything else. The cockroaches can figure that stuff out when they evolve intelligence in another trillion years or so.

drumbeat of war with North Korea?

According to CNN, “US military options for North Korea have been prepared” and “all options are on the table”. Neither of these statements is concerning to me on its face. I assume the U.S. military has considered how to respond to all sorts of “what if” scenarios, and it should. What is concerning – do i have to point this out – is Donald J. Trump. If he wakes up one day and impulsively decides to order an attack, will the U.S. military just automatically carry it out?

Once the first shots are fired, the civilians tend to lose a lot of control to the military. I would hope Trump, Mattis and the other civilians who supposedly are in control of our foreign policy and military actions would go to Congress and then to the UN, get a resolution and build a coalition before taking any such action. If George W. Bush had followed those steps, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars either would not have happened, or would have happened with much broader support from the rest of the world. A calm, rational, confident leader could actually show strength by doing this, but someone like Trump will almost certainly see any attempt at consensus building as a sign of weakness. This is getting very dangerous.

“What we have to do is prepare all options because the President has made clear to us that he will not accept a nuclear power in North Korea and a threat that can target the United States and target the American population,” McMaster said during remarks at a Washington think tank…

“I hardly ever escape a day at the White House without the President asking me about North Korea and how it is that the United States is responding to that threat,” CIA Director Mike Pompeo told MSNBC’s Hugh Hewitt this past weekend. “It’s very much at the top of his mind.” Trump last week also indicated he is becoming more concerned…

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley warned lawmakers on Wednesday that the North Korea’s missile program may be advancing ahead of previous estimates that put Kim Jong Un’s unpredictable regime three to five years away from achieving its ambition of being able to deliver a nuclear weapon to the US…

In a recent exchange with Sen. Lindsay Graham on Capitol Hill, Defense Secretary James Mattis took an unusually specific stand on US military policy. Graham asked: “Is it the policy of the Trump administration to deny North Korea the capability of building an ICBM that can hit the American homeland with a nuclear weapon on top? Is that the policy?”

“Yes,” Mattis answered.

Qatar

One thing my limited experience living abroad taught me is humility about my ability to interpret geopolitical events. The facts themselves are not always accessible through media reports, and even if the facts are clear there are points of view to take into account. I have read media accounts of events I personally experienced, like elections and demonstrations, in both the foreign media and the U.S. media, and often felt that they were not an accurate depiction of what I saw with my own eyes. So taking all that into account, I am somewhat agnostic when trying to interpret events in countries I have never set foot in, where local media is tightly controlled, and where U.S. media and government probably have limited access to accurate local information. All that said, I am interested and trying to make sense of the events surrounding Qatar and Saudi Arabia. For one thing, I have a ticket on Qatar Airways later in the year so it does affect me personally. And for another, any risk of war and especially nuclear war in the Middle East affects everyone on Earth personally. So here goes:

I have always assumed that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar represented a monolithic geopolitical force. And I generally thought the United States, Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey were part of this block for most purposes most of the time. Clearly I was wrong about that. Saudi Arabia’s alliances are contradictory. For one thing, they are publicly an enemy of Israel. But they and Israel have a common ally in the United States and a common enemy in Iran, the Syrian government, elements in Iraq, Hezbollah, and to some extent Russia. Saudi Arabia is closely allied with Pakistan’s military and according to many independent media accounts has bankrolled Pakistan’s nuclear program. During the Cold War the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan worked together to fund and equip the Afghan resistance, elements of which later mutated into the Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIS, and became public enemy #1 for the United States. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the rest of the Arab world seem to have a complex relationship with these groups, where governments see them as a threat but portions of the population support them. Then you have the complex relationships between the United States and various groups in Iraq and Syria, wars that seemingly have three or more sides. Then of course there is the complicated Israel-Palestine situation, which fuels a lot of anger in populations throughout the region, and which governments talk a lot about but seem to take very little action.

So the Middle East is a mess and very hard for those of us outside the region to interpret. And none of what I just said comes close to explaining the situation in Qatar. Those of us outside the region should all have a certain humility in understanding that there is a lot we don’t understand. My two cents is that the United States should err on the side of not interfering militarily but also work very hard through the UN to work on arms reductions and especially prevent nuclear proliferation.

May 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • The public today is more complacent about nuclear weapons than they were in the 1980s, even though the risk is arguably greater and leaders seem to be more ignorant and reckless.
  • The NSA is trying “to identify laboratories and/or individuals who may be involved in nefarious use of genetic research”.
  • We hit 410 ppm at Mauna Loa.

Most hopeful stories:

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • Some experts think the idea of national sovereignty itself is now in doubt.
  • Taser wants to record everything the police do, everywhere, all the time, and use artificial intelligence to make sense of the data.
  • The sex robots are here.