The psychology of nuclear survival

By James E. Doyle | November 6, 2015

With “The Psychology of Nuclear Restraint,” Jacques Hymans makes a strong contribution to understanding the meaning of nuclear weapons. But if human beings want to keep considering the meaning of anything, we have to change the status quo and construct mechanisms that reliably and permanently prevent the threat of nuclear annihilation. Current approaches to preventing nuclear warfare entail high risk, are prone to human and mechanical error, and are unlikely to succeed over the next several decades.

Hymans discusses the concepts of “nuclear deterrence” and the “nuclear taboo,” which scholars and strategists have credited with preventing both nuclear weapons use and general war between nuclear-armed states. He correctly claims that the latter may reinforce the former, and that the taboo against nuclear use has emerged as we have more clearly realized the enormity of a decision to use nuclear weapons. That is true, but in the paradoxical, counterfactual world of nuclear strategy, the concepts of nuclear deterrence and the nuclear taboo also contradict and undermine one another.

Potentially lethal tension exists between nuclear deterrence and the nuclear taboo because the effectiveness of a nation’s nuclear deterrent depends on the credibility of its threat to use those weapons. If one state believes its rival will refrain from nuclear retaliation due to a desire to preserve the nuclear taboo, that state may be less deterred to initiate a nuclear attack.

In other words, leaders of nuclear-armed countries must project their capability and willingness to break the nuclear taboo in order to deter potential rivals. As Eric Schlosser catalogs in his book Command and Control, this tension has contributed to a lengthy trail of close calls, misunderstandings, hair-raising false alarms, and miraculously avoided accidental thermonuclear detonations. Unless we fundamentally change the system, some day our luck will run out.

Unfortunately, recent events may allow us to answer a vital question raised by Hymans: Is the nuclear taboo strengthening or weakening? Hymans seems to find solace in his belief that reckless political decision making is rarely found among leaders at the apex of states that have enough internal institutional infrastructure to mount a credible nuclear weapons program. Unfortunately, there is ample reason to doubt this assertion.

In recent weeks, Russia has conducted nuclear weapon release drills near British airspace, North Korea declared its readiness to use nuclear weapons against any aggressors, and NATO officials are considering the resumption of Cold War–style command exercises that include nuclear use in order to strengthen deterrence of Russia. The United States is debating the construction of a new generation of mini-nukes that would be more credible for use in a regional war. China, India, and Pakistan are all developing the means to deliver nuclear weapons from naval forces. All of these actions say to the world, “If we perceive a credible threat, we will not hesitate to break the nuclear taboo.”

Nuclear-armed states could take steps to strengthen and formalize the nuclear taboo, but they have not done so. They could all adopt a declaratory policy stating that nuclear weapons will only be used as a last resort and agree never to use them first in a conflict. Only China has officially adopted and advocated for such a universal no-first-use policy. States could also configure their nuclear forces so they could not be used promptly in a crisis or to launch a disarming first strike against a potential adversary’s nuclear forces. States have failed to take these steps because they fear it will weaken deterrence. The nuclear taboo thus remains a fragile firebreak against nuclear catastrophe.

Hymans writes that “nuclear scholars’ responsibility … is to lay bare the complexity and uncertainty that are inherent to the acquisition and use of nuclear weapons.” But there is no uncertainly regarding the acquisition and use of nuclear weapons. The design of nuclear explosives is 70-year-old technology. Even North Korea could build the Bomb, and without an enforceable global convention against nuclear weapons, other nations will too. The use of a single modern nuclear weapon on a city would destroy the city instantly, causing immense human suffering. The exchange of 50 nuclear weapons on cities will kill more people than have died in all warfare in recorded human history, cause permanent ecological damage, and trigger an age of extinction. Yet nearly 16,000 nuclear weapons exist in arsenals today. A war employing just 10 percent of these weapons would destroy human civilization and eliminate much of life on Earth.

Scholarship and advocacy of nuclear abolition is important, but it is not enough. The psychology of nuclear deterrence is a mental illness. We must develop a new psychology of nuclear survival, one that refuses to tolerate such catastrophic weapons or the self-destructive thinking that has kept them around. We must adopt a more forceful, single-minded opposition to nuclear arms and disempower the small number of people who we now permit to assert their intention to commit morally reprehensible acts in the name of our defense. We must, as Pope Francis has said, “counter the logic of fear with the ethic of responsibility.” The practical next step is to demand negotiations on a global convention against nuclear weapons. One hundred and twenty-one nations have expressed their willingness to adopt such a ban by joining the Humanitarian Pledge against nuclear weapons initiated by Austria in 2014.

Jeremy Corbyn, the new British Labour leader who said publicly that under no circumstances would he order an attack with Britain’s sub-based nuclear missiles, has been widely criticized. Britain’s defense secretary, Michael Fallon, called Corbyn “a serious threat to our national security.” In essence Fallon, like all who embrace the logic of nuclear deterrence, is promoting the psychology of fear at the expense of morality and claiming we have no alternative but to place our security in the hands of people willing to use the Bomb. Nonsense. We all have the right to choose the ethic of responsibility and employ morality in our politics. Like Corbyn, we must find the courage to do so. 

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