In the coldest of blood: making nuclear policy

deproliferatorTHE DEPROLIFERATOR — Two days of nuclear reckoning are bearing down fast on the Obama administration. First, it’s scrambling to complete what’s called a nuclear posture review (posture n. Position assumed by President Obama on a specified issue, e.g., supine or prone) in time for renewal of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty I in December. START I, as it’s known, has carved sizable swathes out of nuclear arsenals, a process which Obama and Russian President Medvedev indicated a willingness to further accelerate in a preliminary meeting.

Meanwhile, a special U.N. Security Council meeting (also presumably to pave the way for the new, improved START) that President Obama is convening on September 24 inspired a Newsweek piece two weeks ago entitled Why Obama Should Learn to Love the Bomb. The title was likely slapped on by an editor, but the piece itself is no less glib.

In fact, were it not representative of the way many policy “realists” think, Tepperman’s piece would escape our scrutiny. He writes [all emphases added]:

A growing and compelling body of research suggests that nuclear weapons may not, in fact, make the world more dangerous [but] may actually make us safer. In this era of rogue states and. . . terrorists, that idea sounds so obviously wrongheaded that few. . . policymakers are willing to entertain it. But that’s a mistake.

By way of explaining why, Tepperman trots out the old argument that, in his words, “bombs tend to mellow behavior”:

[We] need to start by recognizing that all states are rational on some basic level. … Not even Hitler or Saddam waged wars they didn’t think they could win. [But leaders often] underestimate the other side — and millions of innocents pay the price. … Nuclear weapons change all that by making the costs of war obvious.

According to this line of thought, the looming presence of nuclear weapons operates as a mechanism for expediting a leader’s cost-benefit analysis.

Even the craziest tin-pot dictator is forced to accept that war with a nuclear state is unwinnable. … As [Kenneth] Waltz puts it, “Why fight if you can’t win and might lose everything?”

Is that heavy or what? Nothing like some words of neo-wisdom from one of the founders of neorealism. As for the threat that. . .

. . . a nuclear North Korea or Pakistan could collapse and lose control of its weapons entirely. … history offers some comfort. China acquired its first nuke in 1964, just two years before it descended into the mad chaos of the Cultural Revolution, when virtually every Chinese institution was threatened — except for its nuclear infrastructure, which remained secure. … The Soviets’ weapons were also kept largely safe (with U.S. help) during the breakup of their union in the early ’90s.

You can see where Tepperman’s going with this — straight to the heart of conservative thought. Never mind working to improve the world: If all utter hell hasn’t broken loose, let things be, especially war. He writes:

The argument that nuclear weapons can be agents of peace as well as destruction rests on two deceptively simple observations. First, nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945. Second, there’s never been a nuclear, or even a nonnuclear, war between two states that possess them.

First of all, the observations in question are not “deceptively” simple — they’re just plain simple. Tepperman turns to Waltz again to bolster his argument.

“We now have 64 years of experience since Hiroshima. It’s striking and against all historical precedent that for that substantial period, there has not been any war among nuclear states.”

Waltz isn’t doing Tepperman any favors. In fact, is he even listening to himself? Exactly which nuclear era, Professor Waltz, was the historical precedent for this one?

Okay, maybe that’s a cheap shot. Still, it would have better served Tepperman’s thesis if he had edited words that Waltz may have spoken off the cuff.

Then Tepperman admits: “The risk of an arms race — with, say, other Persian Gulf states rushing to build a bomb after Iran got one — is a bit harder to dispel.” But not enough, apparently, to slow him down. “Once again, however, history is instructive,” he writes, by way of prefacing another Waltz quote. . .

“In 64 years, the most nuclear-weapons states we’ve ever had is 12. … Now with North Korea we’re at nine. That’s not proliferation; that’s spread at glacial pace.” … Put this all together and nuclear weapons start to seem a lot less frightening.

Okay, we’ll put it all together: 12 – 3 = 9. Thanks for crunching those hefty numbers, guys. I feel a lot better.

Tepperman then has the nerve to ask, “So why have so few people in Washington recognized [how unfrightening nuclear weapons really are]?” His reply: “Most of us suffer from a fear . . . that keeps us from making clear, coldblooded calculations.” For his part, Tepperman is fearless. In fact, his casual attitude borders on criminal neglect.

Second, the author might have been chosen a word less heartless than “coldblooded.” It makes him sound like a nuclear strategist calculating how many might die in a nuclear attack. The thesaurus must have been fresh out of “dispassionates” when Tepperman wrote his piece. He continues:

The logic of nuclear peace rests on a scary bargain: you accept a small chance that something extremely bad will happen in exchange for a much bigger chance that something very bad — conventional war — won’t happen. This may well be a rational bet to take, especially if that first risk is very small indeed. But it’s a tough case to make to the public.

To find out just how “small indeed” the chances are that “something extremely bad” will happen, we obviously need to look elsewhere for a more, uh, thorough risk assessment. Let’s turn to Martin Hellman, professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Stanford University and one of the inventors of public key cryptography, which forms the basis for secure transactions on the Internet. He responded to Tepperman’s piece at Defusing the Nuclear Threat:

In the same way that life-insurance companies utilize statistical analysis to produce cold blooded [There’s that word again, but it works in this context. — RW] projections of fatality rates for individuals, statistics tells us that, to be 95% confident of our statements, we cannot project the last 64 years of nuclear non-use more than 31 years into the future. [In fact, if] we want to be 99% confident about our statements, the 64 years of non-use that we have experienced cannot be used to justify a time horizon of even 14 years.

Hellman elaborated on nuclear risk in a longer piece posted at Asia Times Online last year, Soaring, cryptography and nuclear weapons. Here, he writes about a landing maneuver glider pilots use:

While most experienced glider pilots sometimes do low passes. . . I’ve opted not to because I regard them as a 99.9% safe maneuver — which is not as safe as it sounds. A 99.9% safe maneuver is one you can execute safely 999 times out of 1,000, but one time in 1,000 it can kill you. …

The perspective gets worse when it’s recognized that the fatality rate is one in 1,000 per execution of the maneuver. If a pilot does a 99.9% safe maneuver 100 times, he stands roughly a 10% chance of being killed. … A similar situation exists with nuclear weapons.

Driving the point home, Hellman writes:

[I] ask people whether they think the world could survive 1,000 years [with] 20 repetitions of the last 50 years. Do they think we could survive 20 Cuban missile crises plus all the other nuclear near misses we have experienced? [Most] people do not believe we could survive 1,000 such years.

I then ask if they think we can survive another 10 years of business as usual, and most say we probably can. [The] time horizon for a failure of nuclear deterrence [is then between] greater than 10 years and less than 1,000. …

Given the catastrophic consequences of a failure of nuclear deterrence, the usual standards for industrial safety would require the time horizon for a failure to be well over a million years before the risk might be acceptable.

This is the kind of precise thinking that occurs outside the mainstream while sloppy extemporizing like Tepperman’s and Waltz’s appears in leading magazines.

First posted at the Faster Times.