Revenge is a dish best served nuclear. US deterrence depends on it.

By Peter K. Hatemi, Rose McDermott | December 4, 2020

ICBM test launch An operational test of an unarmed US Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, Feb. 2016. Photo credit: public domain.

US nuclear strategy relies on a deceptively simple concept: deterrence in the form of mutual assured destruction. Adversaries will not attack the United States, the thinking goes, because they know the United States would retaliate with overwhelming force, potentially involving nuclear weapons.

The concept of deterrence assumes that both sides are rational actors who ultimately desire survival above all else. The problem is that this concept is not valid. In the age of suicide attacks and apocalyptic leaders, it is clear that this first assumption is demonstrably false. Even if one was to cast aside recent phenomena, throughout human history, revenge, not rationality, has been the primary motive for retaliation, irrespective of self-preservation. If a nuclear attack is going to come against the United States, it is not likely to be a response to a nuclear attack US leaders launch, or even the threat of one, but rather instigated in retaliation for the harms, degradation, injustice, and humiliation that opponents believe the United States has already inflicted on them.

As a result, unless US leaders start thinking about the prevention of nuclear war from a more coherent perspective that includes human motivations for revenge, they are likely to end up with exactly what they are trying to prevent: assured destruction. To avoid a nuclear attack in the future, it is critical to understand the underlying human psychological drive for retaliation depends not on a rational calculus of the likelihood of victory, but the unquestioned desire to elicit payback in the face of injury. Yet because decision makers continue to believe that global stability has derived from rational leaders and deterrence, such false beliefs now lead to a more dangerous world where complacency places humanity at greater risk in the face of increasing nuclear proliferation. The stakes are too high for such ignorance to continue.

The three flaws of deterrence. The basic notion of deterrence is that one side is prevented from attacking the other because of the expectation and belief that the retaliation it will have to absorb in response will be worse than any benefit it can obtain by initiating an assault. In this way, mutual deterrence depends on each side having a secure retaliatory force. In this view, only then can both sides ostensibly rest assured that the other would never risk launching a first strike, since it would ensure its own destruction in return. For example, it is believed that the United States and the Soviet Union deterred one another during the Cold War through a policy of mutual assured destruction (MAD). However, the international system and the nature of international security have changed greatly since then, and the incentives upon which MAD rests no longer hold.

There are at least three critical flaws with the deterrence-as-mutual-assured-destruction strategy. First, it rests on an assumption of rational decision making. Second, it largely assumes only state actors are involved; included in this assumption is perfect nonproliferation and perfect security among and between nuclear powers. Third, it requires the clear signaling of commitment and intention as well as accurate perceptions of capability and resolve. Each of these assumptions runs completely contrary to human nature, capabilities, and reality.

Flaw number one: Leaders are not rational. The rationale of deterrence is that once each side recognizes it is locked into a mutual threat of destruction, both sides will restrain themselves from doing what might otherwise come naturally. This doctrine assumes that leaders are informed, rational, self-interested actors, who always prioritize stability and survival, and that the threat of retaliatory self-destruction constrains the desire to annihilate the other. This is demonstrably untrue. It is patently obvious, and increasingly so in the modern world where greater numbers of personalistic leaders are acquiring or seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, that not all leaders are rational in any sense of the term. As Columbia University professor Robert Jervis has shown, many of the actors in international politics, including leaders of great powers, are not rational or even concerned about self-preservation. Their decisions can and have destroyed their states. Hitler provides only one iconic example of a self-destructive leader in charge of a global power.

Importantly, conflicts are not simply about material resources, territory, or strategic opportunities, but take place increasingly over factors that transcend national boundaries, such as religion, ethnicity, ideology, and other amorphous but powerful factors, including status. Such goals are often more important to leaders than even their personal survival or the survival of their people. Furthermore, most modern conflicts are characterized by deep cultural hatreds in many places around the globe, from Africa and the Middle East to Asia, Northern Ireland, and the Americas. People fight not only because they want to win, but because they want their opponents to suffer. And they are willing to punish them regardless of the cost to themselves, their families, loved ones, or anyone else. In this way, it is not only maniacal or narcissistic leaders who could prove irrational in the face of a threat and not be deterred by the prospect of death and destruction. For example, many years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Fidel Castro admitted to former US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara that he would have used nuclear weapons against the United States during the crisis if he had had control of those weapons at the time.

Indeed, even the leaders of one of the original postwar nuclear powers, the United States, have not always been rational. Most recently, many high-level officials, including those in the military, worried realistically about President Trump’s stability; throughout his presidency they wondered whether he would start a nuclear war. Since taking office, Trump has threatened North Korea with “fire and fury,” boasted about the size of his “nuclear button,” and considered using nuclear weapons to stop a hurricane. His own chief of staff described him as “unhinged.” Trump is no exception however, and he shares many of the same characteristics as other modern world leaders who possess nuclear weapons, including some in the very nations that have threatened the United States with a nuclear attack, such as Kim Jong Un, for example.

Flaw number two: States do not act, people do; and all actors are more incentivized than ever to obtain nuclear weapons. The strategy of mutual assured destruction rests largely on a tunnel vision that assumes only state actors, and a very small number at that, will ever possess nuclear weapons. There are two fundamental fallacies to such logic. First, all states now face a future populated by non-state actors with fewer constraints, where one military general or scientist with access to nuclear weapons, or entrepreneurs looking to sell weakly guarded materials or technology, can unleash horrific levels of destruction. A. Q. Khan, a metallurgist, not only helped make Pakistan a nuclear power with stolen plans, but also touched off the creation of an underground smuggling network to sell both nuclear technologies and Chinese-designed warhead plans to rogue states including Libya and Iran. This is a perfect example of how the spread of nuclear weapons cannot be stopped by larger, powerful, or more influential states. Terrorist leaders, including Osama Bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have stated or implied their willingness to use such weapons against the United States; few doubted their sincerity.

Critically important, the stakes are different for non-state actors, terrorists, and other rogue players. In this nuclear age, these well-financed actors are more dangerous because, unlike great powers, they are unconstrained by financial markets, trade, treaties, institutions, or public opinion. Indeed, such non-state actors, as well as leaders of poorer states, are no longer limited by the previously exorbitant costs of fuel and delivery systems, or what used to be the tightly controlled networks of scientific knowledge necessary to create weapons of mass destruction.

Perhaps the best example of how close a nuclear power has come to a nuclear terrorist attack came in November 1995, when Chechen separatists created a crude bomb of cesium-137 and dynamite and placed it in Moscow’s Izmailovsky Park. Though the bomb was not detonated, nuclear terror was found to be part of the Chechen separatist government’s plans under Dzhokhar Dudayev. There was even a plan to capture a Russian nuclear submarine from the naval base near Vladivostok. And the plan appeared credible, since the former chief of staff of the Chechen rebels, Islam Khasukhanov, previously served as second-in-command of a nuclear submarine from that base.

The influence of non-state actors in the security realm can hardly be overestimated. It only took a handful of individuals on 9/11 to shatter the US economy, plunging the country into a 20-year unwinnable war. As the Washington Post’s publication of the “Afghanistan Papers” has shown, no US leaders from 2001 onward acted rationally in the “war on terror.” In the end, the US war on terrorism changed the United States far more than it changed radical Islam. Non-state entities do not have the institutional, organizational, or bureaucratic constraints of the United States, Russia, or the United Kingdom. Realpolitik reasoning does not apply to actors such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, which espouse religious and apocalyptic motives.

This desire for nuclear weapons is not limited to non-state actors. Rather, states are more incentivized to obtain nuclear weapons today than in the past, even in the face of sanctions. Strategists have not fully thought through the consequences of the lessons the world has learned about the provocative nature of American military action. The United States has taken military action against states that are not nuclear powers such as Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Panama, Serbia, Somalia, Libya, and Nicaragua, but has remained hands-off against those countries that possess nuclear weapons, such as North Korea, China, and Russia, for example. Iran may soon be added to this list. The message to the world is clear: obtaining nuclear weapons is a country’s best safeguard against the United States.

As additional states inevitably develop nuclear weapons, the strategy of deterrence is being extrapolated and applied without consideration for how such proliferation might affect its theoretical underpinning. Yet the possibilities for sub-state and rogue actors to obtain weapons of mass destruction continue to increase, and the risks of such actors attacking the United States in vengeance for past actions similarly increases. Nevertheless, most policy makers do not consider such threats because they feel secure that MAD will hold. Such blinders are likely due in part to the appearance of stability that seemed to hold during the Cold War. In this way, the strategy of deterrence is based on assumptions that represent little more than the birth defects that surrounded its creation: a world run by seemingly rational leaders of strong states interested in their own survival in the context of a limited number of nuclear powers.

Flaw number three: Misperception trumps rational deterrence. Even if we lived in a world of perfectly rational actors where only traditional states possessed nuclear capabilities and each one had perfect safeguards to limit access to nuclear weapons, there are myriad ways that misperception can lead to deterrence failure. Well-established obstacles in human psychology, both motivated as well as unconscious, including fundamental attribution errors, belief perseverance, misinformation effects, overconfidence, motivated reasoning, illusory correlations, confirmation bias, and other kinds of cognitive effects allow individuals to avoid having to change beliefs they hold dear about the nature of themselves or their enemies. Such biases also induce individuals to misperceive or deny accurate information, believe false information, engage in unwarranted value trade-offs, and block the ability to confront unpleasant realities about their own skills and capabilities and those of their opponents. In the face of these cognitive and emotional roadblocks, it can prove extremely difficult to properly assess an opponent’s values, intentions, or goals; to accurately gauge the credibility of a threat; or to fully appreciate the adversary’s perception of its own choices.

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Perhaps the most recent and strongest example of misperception is the US response to the 9/11 attacks. The United States attacked Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. The Bush administration justified its actions based on a long series of incorrect assumptions about Saddam Hussein, his potential for weapons of mass destruction, Iraq’s people, and their role in terrorism. Rather than the Iraqis greeting the United States as “liberators” in 2003 as George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Richard Cheney predicted, the United States was seen as an occupier. Deterrence fundamentally depends on accuracy in exactly these sorts of perceptions, and yet this capability is precisely what is compromised in the wake of biased perception, and equally challenged under conditions of threat or time pressure such as those that typically characterize a crisis. The end result of the Iraqi conflict has been the greatly accelerated decline of the United States as a global leader, stronger Iranian power in the region, a destabilized Syria, empowered Turkish aggression against the Kurdish peoples, and increased Russian influence in the region.

Revenge is why deterrence works—and why it fails. It is critical to understand what really motivates people to act with excessive and even self-destructive force. Rather than fear of reprisal, upon which mutual assured destruction depends, the stability of deterrence rests, and always has rested, implicitly on the unassailable motivation of revenge. If states did not believe that retaliation would follow an attack, even when absolutely no benefit can result from such destruction, then deterrence would not be stable. Indeed, it is the desire for revenge that motivates destructive action in the first place. In the future, weapons of mass destruction will get into the hands of new and less constrained actors. Under such conditions, mutual assured destruction will not be a deterrent. But revenge will remain an extremely potent motivation for attack. Reducing that motivation must be a critical part of any rational defense strategy.

To be sure, revenge provides a stronger, and more stable, psychological basis for deterrence than incorrect assumptions of rationality. But it also supports a greater inclination for a first strike. Historically, leaders have launched all kinds of assaults simply out of a desire for revenge or an impulse to make those who hurt them suffer. And they often undertook these actions fully realizing the consequences.

The Crusades provide a prime example of this dynamic, but modern actors are not immune to such behavior. For example, revenge provided the primary reason Chechens resorted to terrorism and joined with Al Qaeda, eliminating any strategic hope for legitimate statehood. Shamil Basayev, the renowned field commander of the Chechen resistance, said this explicitly: “My father had been shot dead from a helicopter; my older brother had been blown up by a land mine. It was my duty to take revenge or I would lose my honor before my neighbors.” The same impulse of revenge motivated the so-called Black Widows, who participated in suicide bombings in the war. More than religious or political aims, these women specifically claimed revenge as the main motive for their actions of mass terror. Revenge also underlies much of the US response to the attacks on 9/11. The United States invaded Iraq at least partly out of revenge for Saddam Hussein’s attempt to assassinate President Bush’s father.

Once the nuclear component is taken out, it seems easier to digest that people act on the basis of revenge in all kinds of circumstances. The entire assumption surrounding why such motives do not apply in the realm of nuclear confrontation rests on the notion that because the stakes are so high, people are more likely to behave rationally, and a revenge motive won’t come into play. And yet this is absurd. Pick up most any introductory psychology textbook and it becomes clear that people are most vengeful when the stakes are highest. People blow up marriages, partnerships, bank accounts, and even risk personal injury to get back at those who have hurt them, often fully aware of and yet unconcerned with the risks to themselves or their loved ones. The belief that leaders are somehow immune to such psychological processes is idealistic. A nuclear conflagration has not yet have happened because the right conditions have not yet been met, but there are many examples of situations where the world came very close to nuclear confrontation, a few which have already been mentioned.

In sum, despite claims to the contrary, the concept of MAD actually rests on the instigator’s belief that the targeted country’s leaders will act irrationally and want revenge even if they cannot gain from it. This contradicts a rational perspective because decision making under threat, pressure, or duress is anything but rational. It often relies upon emotional motivations. If this emotional aspect of decision-making is not included and adequately acknowledged and considered in the model of deterrence, the most critical factor is neglected. If a leader has already lost everything they value in an attack, then, from a rational perspective, the leader has nothing to gain from retaliating. The leader can no longer protect or preserve anything of value. All they can achieve is the inherent sense of satisfaction that comes with delivering payback. Psychologically, this sense of satisfaction can be everything, and there is strong evidence that all humans, leaders included, behave this way outside the nuclear arena. Indeed, even though many may be loath to admit it, everyone knows the feeling of wanting to get revenge against someone who has harmed them, even if there is nothing objectively to be gained from such a response, no matter how much it costs. This—not the proposed reliance on rationality—is what has enabled deterrence to be successful for over 70 years.

The goal of retaliation has always been to punish others who threatened a community, and in many cases to actually eliminate the threat altogether. Deterrence is the byproduct of an evolutionary drive for revenge, and when an equilibrium exists, or various sides are constrained by power balances, it may hold, as it has since the inception of nuclear weapons. But this does not necessarily mean that it will continue to hold for the indefinite future. Although the natural psychology that creates a desire for revenge in the face of attack exists in everyone, individual differences still exist, and circumstances influence decision making.

What does this mean in practice? The attention on mutual assured destruction in policy may appear stabilizing, and sometimes it has been, but conditions today are vastly different than during the Cold War. When discussing close calls in the realm of nuclear war, it has become common to invoke the historical case of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But imagine replacing Kennedy and Khrushchev with Trump and Kim. Is it credible to believe that the end goals of modern leaders are similar enough to those of the past? Can we rely on past lessons to instruct future behavior? If a strategy rests on specific people, it is no strategy at all. If people are willing to pay a cost to engage in payback after an attack, and possibly destroy an entire society for revenge, then it becomes naïve to assume that the leaders of countries such as Iran, North Korea, or the United States, much less ISIS and Al Qaida, might prove as constrained as Kennedy and Khrushchev were while staring down the silo of a nuclear war.

Indeed, what is different now is that many current US adversaries are driven by revenge not for any incipient nuclear attack that they might suffer, but rather for the harms and degradation that they believe the United States has already inflicted upon them. And that is a very different kind of calculation. If adversaries attack the United States because their leaders’ irrationality mirrors US policy makers’ own, then US retaliation would no doubt be driven by revenge as well. Thus, it is the double irrationality of unstable leaders and the drive for retaliation even when there is nothing left to gain that together will undermine deterrence. These simple truths bring the entire logic of MAD crashing down.

A new strategy is needed. If the human race is to survive, there is a desperate need for a new strategy that goes beyond deterrence. All it takes is one miscalculation, or one person, and not even a leader, to start a nuclear exchange. A greater number of nuclear powers, including countries that have their own enduring rivalries, makes everyone in the world less secure. Opportunities for third parties or unstable leaders to launch an attack proliferate in a world where fissionable material is unaccounted for and the technical skills for building a bomb are increasingly available. This reality holds important implications for policy going forward. Any strategy that assumes the rationality of leaders invites catastrophic consequences. Yet the formal plan to deter rogue actors does not differ from the strategy designed to ward off established state actors, even when it is clear the motives, goals, and incentives of non-state actors do not overlap with those of state leaders. If humanity is to survive, policy makers need to undertake major changes, including a strong push to reduce nuclear weapons across the board and a deeper investment in prevention, in order to reduce the risk of accidents and inadvertent escalation.

Reduce motivations for revenge. Enemies and rivals of the United States are motivated to seek revenge against America for injustices both real and imagined. American behavior has fed into these grievances, fueling a dangerous desire for revenge. The United States requires a true change in its foreign policy approach and can no longer act as if it is the sole global hegemon without consequence or forethought. For too long after the World War II, the United States has attempted to trade off of its reputation and leverage its military and economic might to incentivize, punish, or restrain actors whose behavior was not in keeping with American interests. However, in the last two decades the international system has become littered with more failed states. The United States’ actions and inaction have played a major role in this outcome. The United States now faces increasing challenges that policy makers have not only done little to confront, but rather have invited: Russia marching into Crimea uncontested; Syria repeatedly using chemical weapons against civilians with no meaningful reprisal; and Iran bombing ships in the Persian Gulf with no retaliation are only a handful of recent examples. America’s belligerent actions, such as the war in Iraq that spiraled the Middle East into terrible instability and angered the world’s Islamic populations, served only to stoke more hatred, create a desire for revenge, and generate infinitely more enemies.

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Worse still, American intervention around the globe has not demonstrated any clear goal or agenda. Rather, displays of personal self-interest, enrichment, and the assertion of military power to pursue domestic agendas tend to dominate American action abroad. Acting with no regard for how such behavior is received or interpreted is precisely the kind of behavior that inspires attacks against the United States, motivated by a desire for revenge against intrusive and destructive actions. September 11, 2001 should have been a wake-up call to the failure of American global leadership.

If the United States is going to reduce the motivations for revenge and prevent future attacks, it needs a radical shift in its foreign policy. This is not a partisan observation: Bush led America into an unnecessary and destructive war in Iraq, but Obama’s “light footprint” and head-in-the-sand approach ignored global events and the actions of adversaries, emboldening them to attack US allies. And of course, Trump has made things immeasurably worse through his irrational and conflicting policies, including courting dictators such as Kim Jong Un, treating Putin as a friend while Russia attacked US elections, and emboldening adversaries like China. For the first time in memory, in October 2019, under Trump’s orders, the world watched US soldiers in Syria appearing to flee while Russian troops moved into an American base loaded with millions of dollars in sophisticated medical and military supplies. Abroad, these videos have been celebrated as an iconic moment when America ceded its leadership in the Middle East.

In this way, American foreign policy has created the perfect motivation to encourage others to attack by showing weakness on the one hand and antagonizing belligerents on the other. That vacillating bipolar policy must end. That means the United States needs to not only learn to accept limitations, but also to acknowledge the legitimate interests of other actors on the world stage. For example, leaders need to find a way to both constrain Iran and restart peaceful relations with it, regardless of whether or not they like the Iranians’ system of government. US leaders have to learn to incentivize all states to cooperate with the international system to make it beneficial for all to secure and not sell fissile material and technology.

The post-colonial, ego-driven, ethnocentric foreign policy that has treated other countries as American vassals can no longer hold sway. But neither can US leaders allow states to develop nuclear materials with impunity. As much as the United States may have invited many of the violations against its interests, it must still seek out and respond to nuclear threats. Reducing the motivation to attack the United States begins with ending the inconsistent and aimless foreign policy.

Abandoning past policy platforms will not be easy, nor is there a perfect solution. But the world today looks difficult and dangerous in many ways, similar to the precipitants existing prior to the First World War, with many fractured states and no clear leader. The past hegemon, America, is declining, while other states, such as China, are on the rise. The United States needs a substantive discussion about how best to formulate a goal-oriented foreign policy. It does not need to create new enemies, nor antagonize past close allies. Rather, it needs to show both strength and restraint where each is needed, and to know the difference. It should end conflicts, rather than create new ones. Such a perspective won’t stop every actor with malicious intent, but even if it stops a single bad actor, that represents a valuable success.

Invest in prevention. Even if the United States reduces others’ motivations to attack, it must still act aggressively to prevent the means for others to attack. In many respects, the United States appears to have abandoned meaningful efforts to regulate and identify the exchange of nuclear information and fissile materials. America has spent the past 20 years chasing down Islamic extremists and nominal terrorists, often instituting performative policies such as requiring largely useless activities such as the removal of shoes at the airport. What it has not done is make the level of investment needed to identify and intercept nuclear arms trading networks. One nuclear weapon would level an entire city. Look at the destruction visited on Beirut from the recent explosion of combustible materials, and yet such destruction represents roughly 7 percent of the destructive potential of the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. And the Hiroshima bomb pales in comparison to a modern nuclear warhead atop a Trident II submarine-launched missile, which yields 455 kilotons of power.

There is serious doubt that the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency have an effective and systematic apparatus by which to truly investigate the sale and transfer of nuclear technology and fissile materials by China, North Korea, or the black market out of Pakistan. There is little confidence that the location of all weapons-grade nuclear material is accounted for, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union. More serious investment into looking for and identifying nuclear brokers, as well as protecting US borders and shipyards with sensors that could detect nuclear materials, is needed. America appears to be blind when it comes to the transfer of nuclear materials. And yet this constitutes a much more serious threat than lower level terrorism, not because it is more likely, but because the potential cost is so much higher.

The United States appears to lack an agency or program dedicated to infiltrating these black markets, identifying and locating high risk points and actors prior to sale, and securing materials and points of entry into the United States and bases abroad, with technology that would identify nuclear material and movement. Some of these actions are in play, but if US intelligence is anything on the level it has been for Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, or Libya, then it represents little more than lip service. The United States has been blind to almost every major conflict in the last three decades; pretending its intelligence on nuclear materials is any better constitutes a dereliction of duty.

What is needed is an agency specifically dedicated to risks associated with nuclear materials akin to the kind of investment the National Security Agency has made against cyber threats. Just as the CIA collects and analyzes intelligence for national security, and the Defense Department is devoted to the successful conduct of war, it is time to consider an agency or sub-agency specially tasked to reducing these risks. While some of this work may be occurring in a clandestine manner, such a serious and important task deserves a separate unit designed to locate, remove, or attempt to mitigate the myriad risks that are associated with fissile materials. Policy makers simply don’t know where all the nuclear material is located. So they have to assume that there is a reasonable probability, however low, that such materials may be in the hands of dangerous actors’ intent on their use. Aggressive preventive measures are needed to find and neutralize fissile materials and get them off the market to reduce the possibility for their use in the future. In short, America should invest in protective structural apparatus for personnel and assets, both at home and abroad.

Prepare for the consequences of a nuclear attack. The COVID-19 pandemic shows the devastating consequences that can occur when predictable threats are downplayed or ignored. The coronavirus found the United States both unprepared and incompetent in the face of the challenge, even though US intelligence agencies had been briefing the president about it since the beginning of January, and the prior administration had created a detailed pandemic “playbook” to guide a response. In the case of nuclear weapons, the potential for destruction is thousands of times worse. If others are going to take revenge on America, then America needs to be prepared for the aftermath of such action. The last public preparation campaign in the United States was in the 1950s, when school-aged children were told to “duck and cover” or use their desks as a shield against a nuclear attack. That is the extent of American preparedness in this realm.

It is also critical to consider that such changes, while appearing reasonable, are unlikely to occur. In many ways, the American system of government is failing. It no longer appears capable of operating for the benefit of the public, even when threatened by external forces. Indeed, there appears to be no incentive for elected leaders to even try to look out for the public. The connection between representation and electability has been broken by the two-party system. Ideally in a democracy, there is a connection between leaders and constituents, whereby leaders hope to lift themselves up by serving their country and helping to improve the lives of their followers. But the two-party system in the United States has circumvented that connection, creating rules to consolidate power in contradiction to the implementation of effective governance. Elected leaders are more loyal to their party than to their country or their constituents, and the system ensures that they are punished by their party more than their constituents. When a government cannot protect its people, then it has failed at its most central and important task. Many argue that COVID is such an example.

There are specific kinds of measures that would better help the United States prepare for a nuclear attack. The stockpiling of medicines, the creation of shelters, plans, and drills to distribute food and water, national mobilization and response teams, and hundreds of other measures could save millions of lives if instituted before an attack.

In order to take the needed actions to reduce the motivation for revenge on the part of enemies, as well as prevent nuclear proliferation and prepare for the consequences of such revenge should it occur, it may require extracting the parties’ control of our elections, and removing the partisan veneer now laid over the US Constitution. This is no small task, given that the parties control the elections, who gets to run, debate, or even act in Congress.

In a world increasingly populated by personalistic leaders who are seeking to acquire, or have recently acquired, nuclear weapons, the danger of escalation rises. As the number of such countries increases, including those like India and Pakistan with their own enduring rivalries, everyone becomes less safe. Opportunities for third parties and unstable leaders to launch an attack or proliferate drastically increase as well. Not only are such leaders less constrained by organizational and state institutions and structures, but their goals may differ in meaningful ways from the leaders of more established or traditional nuclear powers. The lack of bureaucratic or public constraint also allows such leaders to give free reign to their more fundamental psychological goals and drives, including the desire for revenge and payback, not only in the wake of threat, but also in the face of perceived disrespect or injustice, including historical wrongs or slights, or presumed future transgressions. The psychological forces that helped keep nuclear weapons in check in the past are the very instincts that pose greater risks in a future populated by a greater number of unconstrained or unstable actors.

People use the phrase “going nuclear” so often that it has lost its power to chill. Indeed, the notion of how easily someone might lose their ability to control their behavior speaks directly to the ubiquity of the psychological impetus of revenge. Deterrence actively depends on a belief that the exact opposite is true: the implicit and universal belief that revenge will dependably motivate retaliation even when there is nothing left to be gained by exacting punishment on the attacker. The psychological drive to engage in payback, driven by any remaining public that might similarly demand retribution, will simply overwhelm national security leaders at a time of great crisis and ensure that even the most limited attack will quickly escalate into a major nuclear war. And given the environmental consequences of even a small number of nuclear weapons exchanged, even for people living on the opposite side of the globe, such an escalation would inevitably lead to a realistic threat of mass extinction.

Given these psychological imperatives, it should be clear that relying on deterrence to limit the risk of nuclear attack appears to be little more than an absurdist fantasy of the kind portrayed so well in Dr. Strangelove. This reality holds important implications going forward, because any strategy that depends on the rationality of actors, clear signaling, accurate perceptions, solely state actors, nonproliferation, and perfect security invites catastrophic consequences.


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Julius Mazzarella
Julius Mazzarella

Great article… this could have been something Rod Serling wrote…stories with a twist. Love that guy. The fact that no one has learned after 75 years says the players were always a “little” irrational to begin with. What ususally gets you is the thing you ignore. The players didn’t plan on emerging pandemics, dwindling food and water resources or climate change. Instead of spending all those resources and tens of trillions of dollars playing tiddlywinks with nukes they could have researched and preparaed for pandemics , climate change and a host of other useful work to help humanity.

Alan Robock

You have left out one important factor. If one nation threatens a nuclear attack as deterrence, they would be acting as suicide bombers. Everyone in the “deterring” nation would starve to death because of the climate impacts of their attack. As we wrote in the Bulletin in 2012 (Robock, Alan, and Owen B. Toon, 2012: Self-assured destruction: The climate impacts of nuclear war, Bull. Atomic Scientists, 68(5), 66-74, doi:10.1177/0096340212459127), an attack on an enemy would produce so much smoke it would make Earth’s surface cold, dark, and dry, and agriculture would grind to a halt. And anyway, for “deterrence” to… Read more »

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