The newspapers and airwaves today are replete with the ominous vibes of global nuclear proliferation, with Iran and North Korea the nuclear bêtes noires du jour. Nevertheless, by far the greatest threat to civilization does not reside in rogue nukes ensconced in distant lands. Today, 15 years after the fall of the USSR, the abiding menace is the wretched legacy of the Cold War the nearly 10,000-warhead-strong collective nuclear arsenal of the United States and Russia, with both countries’ arms targeted at the other, ready for launch within minutes, at each president’s unchallengeable whim.
We need little reminding that nuclear weapons are, to state the case euphemistically, a Very Bad Thing. Capable of destroying civilization within minutes, indiscriminately wreaking mass casualties against civilian populations, causing an ecological catastrophe unprecedented in Earth’s history, even depriving soldiers of the satisfaction of plunder, let alone a well-earned victory against military peers, nuclear arms are unparalleled in their sheer repugnance, an affront to civilization in their mass possession, let alone application. At a time when the U.S. is confronting a nearly $10 trillion national debt, our dedication to a massive nuclear arsenal costing hundreds of billions of dollars since the end of the Cold War alone is puzzling, to say the least.
Yet there is still another, particularly grave implication of our large, hair-trigger nuclear arsenal: the destruction of our cherished democracy itself. Because the enormous arsenals of the U.S. and Russia are maintained in a launch-on-warning posture, each side has, at most, 15 minutes to assess a potential launch by the other side (the interval for an intercontinental ballistic missile, on its parabolic trajectory, to travel between the Eurasian Russian heartland and the North American land mass). Officers in the bunker must then advise the president and, if an enemy attack is ascertained, launch a retaliatory strike. Otherwise, as the doctrine goes, the capacity for retaliation could be forestalled by a first strike that would take out an opponent’s own nuclear silos and command-control apparatus. Such is the core of the infamous mutually assured destruction (MAD) principle.
This ludicrously compressed time frame is fraught with the capacity for deadly blunders [.pdf] of the civilization-destroying type. In 1979, 1983, and 1995, the world came within minutes of a nuclear holocaust due to erroneous information received in nuclear command bunkers, and for reasons that verge on the farcical: a training tape inadvertently played at a U.S. command center in 1979, taken for an actual launch; solar reflection off clouds in 1983; and, of all things, a clerical error in 1995, four years after the USSR’s fall, when news of a Norwegian weather rocket’s launch failed to reach the Russian rocket forces. These examples, moreover, are but a fraction of the near-misses when our fail-safes essentially broke down. A Canadian physician, Alan Phillips, has documented quite a few more. In 1983 and 1995, in particular, the fail-safes to prevent an accidental launch utterly broke down. Civilization survived essentially by virtue of a coin flip: in 1995, the Norwegian weather rocket at issue happened to be headed offshore. It would have triggered a Russian launch had its apparent trajectory been otherwise, often the case for such projectiles.
The upshot of the absurdly short time constraints for a retaliatory nuclear launch, as you may have already surmised, is that the presidents of the U.S. and Russia have alarmingly wide discretion to launch our respective nuclear arsenals at any time, for whatever reason, and without any commentary or oversight from officials within other branches of government or even within the executive branch itself. Essentially, the president can launch our nukes and precipitate a nuclear holocaust within a few minutes with no checks and balances, no counterweights against his rationale or decision. Naturally, the president has military advisers within the strategic nuclear forces whom he consults about a launch decision, but as commander in chief, he ultimately has carte blanche to authorize an attack for whatever reason he chooses, without further discussion which can include an offensive strike as well as a retaliation based on faulty sensor data in a nuclear bunker.
As in any other military declaration, the exigencies of the chain-of-command structure brook no objections from lower-ranking officers, so the president, a single, flawed individual with fragmentary knowledge and arbitrary beliefs, just like the rest of us, has the power to destroy civilization within minutes on a whim. What little consultation there is with high-ranking officers in the strategic nuclear forces is itself inclined toward a launch recommendation, which, as the examples of 1983 and 1995 have demonstrated, is largely followed by the president without further question.
Especially if you are an American, proud of our democratic system with its elaborate checks on absolute power for any branch of government, let the implications of this fact churn and incubate in your mind for a few minutes. At our country’s inception, the Founding Fathers introduced a robust system of strong checks and balances into the U.S. Constitution to ensure that no one individual or branch of government would accumulate too much power, which, as Lord Acton realized, “corrupts absolutely” those who possess it. We spend not only weeks, but months, even years, debating the fine points of issues from Social Security to food stamps to the burning of Old Glory, with decisions by the legislative branch undergoing review by the executive branch and vice versa, with both consulting the opinion of the courts, and with all three then accepting some degree of power devolution to the states, upon which the federal government cannot encroach. Ultimately, the discussion is brought to the living rooms of the American people through the mechanism of a free press, thus allowing the citizenry to weigh in with crucial commentary.
Yet in a loathsome and utterly preposterous irony, on the most important and fundamental decision of life and death, the very survival of modern civilization there is no debate whatsoever, let alone checks and balances to block the arbitrary exercise of executive power by the president. When it comes to a nuclear launch, the president is nothing less than a dictator. If a president decides to initiate a nuclear holocaust, for any arbitrary reason, it happens within minutes of his fiat. There is no consultation with Congress, with the courts, none needed with the Cabinet or other “twigs” of the executive branch. There are no fireside chats, no roundtable discussions, no debates in the newspapers and news programs, nary a peep about the decision to state and local governments, not a word to justify or explain or argue the wisdom of a launch with the American people, who would obviously be quite directly affected in the most deleterious manner by the president’s decision. If the president is entrusted with such tyrannical, absolute power for the most fundamentally important decision imaginable, then the bitter truth is that our republican democracy, with our leaders ultimately answerable to the people, is nothing more than a façade.
How did this disastrous state of affairs sneak up on us? The answer can be found partly in a fundamental flaw of the MAD doctrine itself. Commentators sometimes profess that two countries with large nuclear arsenals, locked in a MAD standoff, are paradoxically relatively stable and that a nuclear war between them is virtually impossible, since they both know that destruction would await them as a consequence. Yet as we have seen, the world nearly did suffer a nuclear holocaust on multiple occasions both before and after the Cold War. Why? Because MAD assumes that the people in charge of the nuclear arsenals are both rational and fully in control of them, with complete and accurate information about the status quo assumptions that are fatally flawed.
The human mind can certainly behave rationally at times, but it also has the capacity for arbitrary and violent action. In our present era, after all, the world is filled with political leaders who proudly declare that God speaks to them directly, with many casting themselves as central players in an Armageddon-like battle between good and evil. If they were to decide to “hasten” this process along with a nuclear launch, what would restrain them? The answer, as demonstrated above, is nothing. Even more hazardous than the fallacious rationality assumption is the control assumption. In real-world situations with time pressures involved, we frequently lack an adequate and accurate picture of the situation confronting us, and to base such fundamental decisions no less than an order to wipe out civilization itself on such inherently flawed data sets, in such a short amount of time, is to invite an almost certain catastrophe. To make matters worse, in our day and age, even the semblance of two-power stability has been lost, since nuclear arms are now proliferating across the world with ever increasing doubts about their control. A terrorist’s use of a nuclear bomb against the U.S. or Russia could very well provide the spark that would launch a nuclear war, since there is so little time to thoroughly evaluate the threat as worst-case scenarios swirl through the strategic forces’ command centers.
The Founding Fathers were well aware of these pitfalls when they drafted the the U.S. Constitution. They were well-versed in the witty works of Enlightenment philosophers and scientists (“natural philosophers” in their time) such as Montesquieu, Locke, Hobbes, Descartes, and Leibniz, and of course in that foundation stone of Anglo-Saxon power limitation, the Magna Carta. They had internalized the immutable fact that humans, no matter what our intentions, are inherently fallible. We can never assume that a single individual or a small group of highly placed people will act rationally or knowledgeably, so the extensive checks and balances in our constitutional system provide the wherewithal to restrain the arbitrary use of power.
Yet the MAD doctrine assumes a level of rationality and situational knowledge that do not exist. Furthermore, as suggested by Gen. Lee Butler (USAF, ret.), a bitter critic of our nuclear doctrine who was no less than the commander of our strategic nuclear forces in the early 1990s, a confluence of baser motives has arisen to perpetuate the fatally flawed nuclear regime under which we live. Moreover, this menace has managed to hide in plain sight, concealed only by the false sense of security stemming from the end of the Cold War and the long dormancy of nuclear weapons.
How to restore the checks and balances the Founding Fathers so wisely instituted centuries ago? There are many steps that can be taken, and they must not fall victim to petty partisan sniping. Indeed, our current nuclear mess has resulted from the failures of presidents from both parties; both Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress failed to take advantage of a crucial window of opportunity after 1991, and the recent policies of George W. Bush’s administration have grossly exacerbated the problem.
There are, however, six basic steps that we could readily undertake to preclude the threat of an accidental nuclear exchange, as well as to rein in and check the power of a single political figure to arbitrarily issue launch orders. In brief, these involve, first, bilateral and sharp reductions in the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals to at most 300 warheads total and several dozen land- or sea-based missiles, similar to the levels of Britain and France, which have a defensive deterrent value well below an offensive, hair-trigger, first-strike threshold.
Second, we should remove our nuclear arsenal off launch-on-warning status (as advocated by prominent nuclear critics such as Dr. Bruce Blair, himself a former Minuteman missile launch officer in the 1970s) and introduce a robust inspections regime.
Third, we should reinstitute the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, from which the United States withdrew in December 2001. This would not only reduce bilateral U.S.-Russian tensions, but infuse greater credibility into our global anti-proliferation efforts; we appear hypocritical by demanding the cessation of nuclear programs by other nations, while maintaining and expanding our own civilization-destroying arsenal.
Fourth, there must be a renunciation of any offensive, first-strike use of our arsenal; this is not an area for ambiguity, which encourages the dissemination of nuclear capabilities across the world as deterrents.
Fifth, we should again consider the admission of the G-4 nations to the UN Security Council as permanent members Brazil, Japan, Germany, and India. The first three are non-nuclear nations, and their addition to the Council would deliver a sorely needed signal that nations need not possess a nuclear arsenal to gain respect on the world stage. India, while a nuclear power, is too large and important to be denied a seat in this forum, and in any case such a position could help mollify further sentiments toward South Asian proliferation by providing another forum for those countries to exert influence in global affairs.
Finally, in the U.S., there must be a frank reexamination of the virtually unchecked power held by the executive branch in the domain of nuclear weapons and the absolute, virtually dictatorial power of the president in this regard. The citizens of Britain, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, and Turkey, countries whose governments have allowed U.S. warheads to be placed within their territories as part of the NATO pact, must revisit this decision, since they too would be vulnerable to annihilation in the event of a U.S.-Russian nuclear exchange. The people of the U.S., Russia, and Western Europe must take control of their fates in the nuclear age and not allow such tremendous power to concentrate in the hands of a few elites. To do otherwise would be to abdicate our rights, and our duties, as citizens of our respective republics.