The nuclear debate is susceptible to logical analysis.
In principle, if the consequences of the failure
of a system would be infinitely destructive to a civilisation,
it is reasonable for that civilisation to use that system if and
only if the probability of its failure are zero.
Does the possession of nuclear weapons by a number
of states in the international community constitute a system,
that is, a group of interrelated parts forming a whole?
It is certain that they are interrelated; the possession of these
weapons by one state is indeed the driver for a second state to
obtain its own weapons, forming a chain reaction of nuclear weapons
proliferation which the NPT seeks, with surprising success, to
restrain. They also form a system in the sense of classical MAD
deterrence, whereby opposed states are restrained from using their
weapons in warfare because of the threat of retaliation by its
So nuclear weapons do form a group of interrelated
parts. Do they form a whole? In classical deterrence, the answer
given by supporters of deterrence theory was a categorical affirmative.
For them, nuclear weapons kept the peace between the West and
the Communist states for fifty years. A more neutral point of
view would agree that the existence of nuclear weapons does indeed
raise the threshold for declaring war. So all parties can agree
that the outcome of collective nuclear weapons possession is an
inhibition of declaration of war, a relative state of world peace,
which is a whole product, and therefore nuclear weapons possession
is a system.
Next, can the system fail? Nuclear deterrence
is a complex arrangement of electronic sensors embedded in a command
and control network composed of humans working to hard protocols
that are interwoven with pattern judgements and valuations which
are affected by the emotional state of the individuals and groups
that make the judgements. The groups themselves, particularly
the supreme decision making groups, are isolated from the common
body of humanity, and are known to be susceptible to a condition
known as group think - A mode of thinking that people engage in
when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the
members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to
realistically appraise alternative courses of action. Moreover,
the interplay of decision makers is now far more complex than
in the days of the cold war, with players coming on to the field
who might not view the death of the prevailing world civilisation
as a thing wholly to be avoided, and other players already on
the scene who believe that nuclear weapons could be used tactically
without risking a strategic exchange.
In short, it is entirely reasonable to judge that
the probability of failure of the nuclear deterrence system is
greater than zero.
Would the breakdown of the nuclear deterrence
be infinitely destructive? This point must be settled by value
judgements. First, would it be possible to get away with a limited
exchange, or would one nuclear detonation inevitably escalate
into an all out global nuclear war?
It is impossible to give a definitive answer to
that question, but the safest assumption to make is that if one
weapon is detonated, they will all be fired. The reason for this
lies in the doctrine of first strike, which aims to destroy the
opponent's weapons before they can be fired. Once it is known
that an opponent has detonated a nuclear weapon, the pressure
will be on to fire all nuclear weapons before they are hit by
a first strike. It would therefore be the height of folly for
anyone to assume that they could use weapons in a limited tactical
strike and believe that matters would then be allowed to rest.
Unfortunately this is the prevailing nuclear doctrine of the United
States of America.
Would an all out strategic nuclear exchange be
infinitely destructive? There are estimated to be at least 27,000
nuclear weapons in the world held by at least eight countries,
96 percent of them in the possession of the United States and
The effects of all-out nuclear war were well studied in the 1980s.
Physically, the most interesting possible effect is the so-called
Nuclear Winter, where atmospheric soot cuts off sunlight for a
period of weeks or months. When the sunlight returns, the effects
of city and forest fires will have been to increase the atmospheric
CO2 load, thus exacerbating global warming. Species loss will
increase, secondary to habitat loss. Of these, the loss of bees
will be most important, since cessation of their pollination services
will lead to failure of such crops as survivors may try to plant.
Ironically, rats and cockroaches are resistant to radiation, and
so will flourish, given the plentiful quantities of human and
animal carrion available.
Economic growth will be unlikely to continue.
In fact a global economic recession or even a depression is inevitable,
and to be replaced by a survival economy based around obtaining
water, food, warmth and shelter for the group. Life will be short,
and cancers plentiful, but health services would be rudimentary,
and analgesics in short supply. Gangsterism will flourish, and
self interest is likely to become the norm.
In summary, it is entirely reasonable to expect
that an all out nuclear exchange would lead to the end of western
civilisation. It would be infinitely destructive.
This is a value judgement, and there will inevitably
be others who take a different view. In the circumstances, however,
because of the uncertainties involved, it is safer to take a precautionary
view. The great majority of people view the possibility of all
out nuclear war with a great deal of distaste. They should be
helped to understand that the nuclear deterrence system is not
infallible, and that these weapons are perfectly capable of ending
our civilisation. This should then motivate them to exercise their
democratic right and duty to remove from political office anyone
who believes that it is reasonable for any state to possess nuclear
i Janis, Irving L. Victims of Groupthink. Boston.
Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972, page 9.
ii Lachlan Forrow and others, "Accidental Nuclear War --A
Post Cold War Assessment," NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE
Vol. 338, No. 18 (April 30, 1998), pgs. 1326-1331
iii http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_weapons (4 June 2007)
iv Nuclear winter: Physics and physical mechanisms," R. P.
Turco, O. B. Toon, T. P. Ackerman, J. B. Pollack and C. Sagan,
Ann. Rev. Earth and Planet. Sci., 19, 383-422 (1991).
Monday, 04 June 2007