Each nuclear weapons state claims it has nuclear weapons so as to prevent it’s enemies from using their nukes, a strategy called deterrence. If you bomb me I will bomb you back, thus you will never bomb me, or so the reasoning goes. This scheme is often called “MAD”, short for mutually assured destruction.
In order for deterrence to be successful in preventing global nuclear war and the collapse of modern civilization, the MAD strategy will have to work successfully every single day for so long as these weapons exist. Given that there is currently no credible plan for global disarmament, or even much discussion of such a prospect, for the time being we are counting on the MAD deterrence plan to work every day forever.
Thousands of years of persistent human conflict and FUBAR screw ups would seem to prove beyond any doubt that achieving the perfect record of success that deterrence requires is a fantasy. It’s simply not rational to assume that we can keep such powerful weapons around forever and they will never be used.
Deterrence is based on the inaccurate idea that we can accurately detect when missiles have been launched, when in fact both America and Russia have mistakenly identified first strike attacks which were never actually ordered, which caused them to come within minutes of launching their own missiles in a retaliatory strike.
Deterrence is based on the wishful thinking fanciful notion that human beings can be counted on to be rational. The mass production of nuclear weapons proves that this idea is itself irrational.
In WWII all of Hitler’s generals knew that invading a country as large as the Soviet Union was madness, but Hitler’s ego was drunk on his previous victories so he didn’t listen. There will always be someone who thinks he is clever enough to outwit logic and facts.
And let us not forget that deterrence does nothing, nothing at all, to prevent nuclear weapons accidents. In fact, keeping weapons on hair trigger alert so as to maintain deterrence makes accidents more likely.
Deterrence is a game of Russian roulette. As we cling to our nuclear weapons, we keep pulling the trigger of the deterrence gun every day and getting away with it. And so we fall victim to the wishful thinking fantasy that the chamber of the nuclear weapons gun will always come up empty.
The reality is that deterrence is a short term, short sighted strategy whose ultimate outcome will be death. So long as we possess nuclear weapons we are drifting towards the day when they slip from our control.
The idea that nuclear deterrence can keep us safe will always be true, until the day that it isn’t.