Nuclear Taboo in the era of Trump

The Nuclear Taboo is the title of a book by Nina Tannenwald, an academic who specializes in “global security issues, efforts to control weapons of mass destruction, and human rights and the laws of war,” according to her profile here. She works at Brown University. Other people like her work in think tanks and federal agencies. (Trump refers to them as “the deep state;” more about that below.)

These are people with Ph.D.s, capable of high-level abstract thinking, who spend their entire lives thinking about problems that are worth thinking about because of their potential consequences.

No, this is not a book review; I started reading it a while ago, but haven’t finished it, so I couldn’t write a review if I wanted to, and I don’t want to. I really ought to finish reading it, though, after finishing the book I’m reading now. (I read a lot of books. Maybe you can tell.)

A good companion book is Command and Control by Eric Schlosser, a Princeton- and Oxford-educated journalist, which reveals how insanely lucky we’ve been that none of our nuclear weapons has fallen into the wrong hands or gone off accidentally (and describes some of the near-misses).

I don’t want to go into Tannenwald’s book too much, as this isn’t a book review; basically she argues that inhibition, not deterrence, has kept nuclear weapons from going off intentionally. If you want details, read the book.

If she’s right, that’s very disturbing, because morality is a much weaker force than fear, and morality fails much quicker and more easily than nail-biting fear does. If that’s what keeps world leaders from pushing the launch buttons, all it will take to destroy the world is someone with no morals. We’ve seen those before.

But the average man in the street who contemplates nuclear security while waiting for his bus to work, and then watches apocalypse movies when he gets home, probably will shrug and say, “Whatever it is, deterrence or inhibition, it must work because there haven’t been any nuclear wars or accidents.”

Now let’s visit an example of that thinking. The Beirut port officials about to be made scapegoats for a small-nuclear-explosion-scale disaster had a problem dumped on them they couldn’t manage, so they didn’t manage it. They probably periodically gazed at that 2,750-ton pile of trouble waiting to happen, shrugged, and said, “Well, it’s been okay for 6½ years.” And it was, too. Nobody lit a match, the worst they did was neglect it, which was enough to level the port and kill hundreds of people. At least it wasn’t millions or billions of people.

This got me thinking about Tannenwald’s book again, which brings me to the “deep state.” There are people who know how to prevent disasters. We call them “experts.” There was a time, not so long ago, when we listened to them.

Trump and his hard-core followers don’t listen. They distrust, despise, and even hate experts. For example, they’re showing up at public health officials’ homes with guns. This rejection of knowledge, brainpower, and competence extends to scientists, doctors, academics, and foreign policy specialists, among others. If they haven’t gotten around to mistrusting and disliking nuclear security experts, that’s probably because they haven’t thought of it yet. While this is not overtly suicidal, at best it’s an especially virulent form of neglect, much more pernicious than the passive neglect that blew up the Beirut docks.

We’re still here, but who knows for how long? The Beirut disaster could be a metaphor for our own “it must work, because we’re still here” mentality. And a warning. Yesterday, that pile of ammonium nitrate, equivalent to a small nuclear weapon, was still okay. Just sitting there fizzing. Then, almost instantly, it wasn’t okay. Explosives can explode, and just because they haven’t, doesn’t mean they won’t. Same with nukes.

There’s reason to believe inhibition doesn’t work on Trump. He goes with his “gut” on nearly everything. And if Tannenwald is right — that inhibition, not deterrence, has kept fools from blowing up the world and all of us with it, that’s not good. In fact, there are reports his advisers were afraid to give him military options against North Korea and Iran. Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative magazine National Review, in 2017 wrote, “The good news is Trump’s a coward. The bad news is he’s a fool.”

We need people who know how things work, and who think about how to avoid disasters — the “deep state.”

The idea that anyone can run this country on gut instinct alone, without experts, is dangerous. Right now, we would be lucky to have public officials who are merely negligent. Remember, this is a president who drew, with crayons, his own hurricane-track map because he didn’t trust weather experts. The Beirut survivors at least can count themselves lucky, to the extent they have any luck, that he’s our president and not theirs.

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  1. Mark Adams #

    The United States use of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagosaki fundamentally changed war fare, should have probably ended war fare, but instead of peace the US and Soviet Union got into an arms race. Building a log of bombs that were and are part of an industrial nation with a military complex ability to wage war, yet weapons so destructive they simply cannot be used. During WWII the weapons of mass destruction ie gas and biological were studied by all the participants and not used by any and particularly the aggressors. Even when an entire boatload of US gas went off at a port in Italy during WWII Hitler did not begin to use Germany’s arsenal of Sarin gas and other chemical weapons, if for no other reason than the allies could answer with their own chemical weapons.
    For most nations of the world nuclear weapons remain out of reach. Too expensive, too technical, and too fearsome to develop, and also to develop some means of delivery. Though Belgium likely has NATO nuclear weapons on its soil it would only take a few Russian warheads to destroy that nation.
    Folks who work in think tanks and federal agencies are not the folks wh o will decide to use our nuclear weapons in offense or defense that person or persons will be politicians, most likely the President under our current command and control. For the United States, Russia, China, Isreal, Pakistan, India, North Korea it is a political decision in using this type of weapon. Clausewitz is probably closer to seeing the truth than the think tank folks as he is clear war is simply a continuation of politics. It is the politicians of nations who decide these things and not the techno crats. The Kaiser’s inability to turn off his own nations war machine at the start of WWI should give us all much pause on the prospects of nuclear weapons as they become more common place in various nations arsenals. It has been much more likely a nuclear exchange could take place between India and Pakistan than between the US and the former Soviet Union, because the Indians and Pakistani’s really don’t like each other. And now we have conflict on the border between China and India, and it is all about the agae old dispute of Kashmir. And all three nations with military theory allowing the use of nuclear weapons and one or more thinking they can hurt the other nation more than being hurt.

  2. Roger Rabbit #

    Not bad, for the most part, but I’ll say a couple of things. First, Clauswitz’s maxim is disputed by some modern thinkers who argue it’s incorrect or at least incomplete; and Dr. Andrei Kortunov of Oxford even argues the reverse, i.e. that politics is becoming “war by other means,” which does seem descriptive of international competition today. The reality is probably some of both, somewhere in between, and changes with societies over time. Second, Germany’s role in the events of 1914 is best described as diplomatic and military bungling, with the Kaiser and Moltke playing influential roles (but the culpability is not theirs alone), but at no point did Germany try to “turn off” its war machine; its strategy went off the rails, that’s all, and it then had to improvise. Finally, I take issue with your view of how ultimate decisions are made; in all nations of the nuclear age, while final authority is vested in top political leaders, who would make the “go-no go” decision, this doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It would be based on intelligence, military advice, and standing policies; an out-of-the-blue nuclear launch order likely wouldn’t be obeyed and carried out.