"We have some great news from Vienna. After 44 states called for a prohibition on nuclear weapons at the Third Conference on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, Austria delivered an "Austrian Pledge" at the closing of the meeting.
Austria called on all states to "fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons" and pledged to "cooperate with all stakeholders to achieve this goal".
This is an extremely exciting development for our campaign, and now it's time for all states committed to nuclear disarmament to join the Austrian pledge to work towards filling that legal gap by negotiating a treaty banning nuclear weapons. We want Austria to know we appreciate their courage and will push other governments to do the same".
They ask for letters of encouragement. Here is mine, sent today:
Dear Foreign Minister Kurz,
I am writing to say how much I welcome your country’s leadership in hosting the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons.
The discussions in Vienna give us great hope for the essential next step - starting work on negotiations to ban them all. Austria’s firm pledge to support this is courageous and inspiring. It would start with all those states ready to take part. But even this will put tremendous political pressure on those few states who are holding the rest of us hostage with their insistence that nuclear weapons actually defend them. Austria is now in an excellent position to give the lead we need.
The matter will of course be highly contentious. Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) have a huge investment in the status quo, including financial, emotional and political motivations. They will defend their position tenaciously, and I would like to anticipate the arguments that you will meet. I apologise that this letter is rather long.
The Insurance Policy Argument
First, they will argue that posession of Nuclear Weapons of Mass Destruction (NWMD) constitutes an insurance policy.This is a powerful argument at the emotional level; after all, who would like to go into an uncertain future without insurance of some kind? Insurance is good and sensible.
But does the insurance metaphor stand up to scrutiny?
With insurance, we pay a certain amount of money regularly into a common fund. The fund increases, and if in time something untoward happens to one of those paying into the fund, that person receives an amount of money from the fund which enables them to make good the loss that they have sustained.
It is impossible to see how this analogy obtains with NWMD. The NWS does make payments for their weapons, but it is not a common fund in the sense that any number of other nations pay into it. It is only a fund for the NWS itself. If a nuclear attack is made on an NWS, the state does not get an amount of money to make good the damage done. Instead, all they get is the dubious satisfaction that the person or persons who launched the nuclear attack will suffer just as much death, injury, burns, destruction, disruption, disease, misery and cancer as the first state have suffered. So NWMD posession is in no way analogous to an insurance policy, and in describing it as such, heads of NWS are trying to delude themselves and their audience.
The logic of infinite destruction and greater than zero probability
We should bring clear and simple logic to a debate that is prone to become confused and emotional.
Let us start with a simple general proposition that is unassailable:
If the consequences of the failure of a system would be infinitely destructive to civilisation, it is reasonable to use that system if, and only if, the probability of its failure are zero.
Applying that statement to the NWMD case, the argument is that there is a greater than zero chance of nuclear deterrence leading to nuclear war, and if that war would be infinitely destructive of human civilisation, then the world needs to scrap nuclear weapons absolutely and completely.
The possession of nuclear weapons by a number of states in the international community does constitute a system, that is, a group of interrelated parts forming a whole.
Can the system fail? Nuclear deterrence is a complex arrangement of electronic sensors embedded in a command and control network composed of humans working to hard protocols that are interwoven with pattern judgments and valuations which are affected by the emotional state of the individuals and groups that make the judgments. The groups themselves, particularly the supreme decision making groups, are isolated from the common body of humanity, and are known to be susceptible to a condition known as group think – defined as A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.[i] Moreover, the interplay of decision makers is now far more complex than in the days of the cold war, with players coming on to the field who might not view the destruction of the prevailing world civilisation as a thing to be avoided at all costs, and other players already on the scene who believe that nuclear weapons could be used tactically without risking a strategic exchange.
In conclusion, it is entirely reasonable to judge that the probability of failure of the nuclear deterrence system is greater than zero. [ii]
Now to the second question: Would the breakdown of nuclear deterrence be infinitely destructive of human civilisation?
This is a point that must be settled by a value judgment.
First, would it be possible to get away with a limited exchange, or would one nuclear detonation inevitably escalate into an all out global nuclear war?
It is impossible to give a definitive answer to that question, but the safest assumption to make is that if one weapon is detonated, they will all be fired. The reason for this lies in the doctrine of first strike, which aims to destroy the opponent’s weapons before they can be fired. Once it is known that an opponent has detonated a nuclear weapon, the pressure will be on for supreme commanders to fire all their nuclear weapons before they lose them to a first strike. In view of this, although we cannot say that any exchange would inevitably lead to a first strike, it would be the height of folly for anyone to assume that they could use weapons in a limited tactical strike and believe that matters would then be allowed to rest by the opposition.
Unfortunately this limited tactical strike idea is the prevailing nuclear doctrine of the United States of America. They consider that nuclear weapons could be used tactically, as an extension of a conventional military campaign. In doing so, they may trigger an all-out nuclear war.
Now, would an all-out strategic nuclear exchange be infinitely destructive? There are estimated to be at least 27,000 nuclear weapons in the world held by at least eight countries, 96 percent of them in the possession of the United States and Russia. [iii]
The effects of all-out nuclear war were well studied in the 1980s. Physically, the most interesting possible effect is the so-called Nuclear Winter, where atmospheric soot cuts off sunlight for a period of weeks or months.[iv] When the sunlight returns, the effects of city and forest fires will have been to increase the atmospheric CO2 load, thus exacerbating global warming. Species loss will increase, secondary to habitat loss. Of these, the loss of bees will be most important, since cessation of their pollination services will lead to failure of such crops as survivors may try to plant. Ironically, rats and cockroaches are resistant to radiation, and so will flourish, given the plentiful quantities of human and animal carrion available.
To say the least, economic growth after a nuclear war would be unlikely. In fact a global economic depression is almost inevitable. The surviving peoples will depend on a survival economy based around obtaining water, food, warmth and shelter for local groups as best they can. Life will be short, and cancers plentiful, but health services would be rudimentary, and analgesics in short supply. Gangsterism, like the rats, will flourish, and self interest is likely to become the ethical norm.
Self esteem, as members of a species that has made such a catastrophic error, will generally be very low. Post traumatic stress disorder and depression are most likely to be the psychological norm.
In summary, it is entirely reasonable to expect that an all out nuclear exchange would lead to the end of western civilisation.
In terms of the model set out at the beginning, the consequences of the failure of a nuclear deterrence system would indeed be infinitely destructive to our civilisation, the probability of its failure is greater than zero, and therefore it is illogical for our civilisation to use that system.
Since the syllogism contains a value judgment, and since there is such commitment to NWMD, as noted above, there will inevitably be those who take a different view. However, they are compelled to argue either that the deterrence system is perfectly safe, which is manifestly not the case, or that a tactical weapon would not lead to an all-out nuclear war, which is clearly not provable, or that an all-out nuclear war would not destroy civilisation, which is clearly unreasonable.
In the circumstances, however, because of the uncertainties involved, it is safer to take a precautionary view. The great majority of humanity view the possibility of all out nuclear war with a great deal of distaste. They should be helped to understand that the nuclear deterrence system is not infallible, and that these weapons are quite capable of being used in anger. This should then motivate them to exercise their democratic right and duty to remove from political office anyone who believes that it is reasonable for any state to possess nuclear weapons.
Once more, Foreign Minister, I thank you most sincerely for your initiative, and I hope that the above will be of some small help to your endeavour.
Dr Richard Lawson
[i] Janis, Irving L. Victims of Groupthink. Boston. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972, page 9.
[ii] Lachlan Forrow and others, "Accidental Nuclear War --A Post Cold War Assessment," NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE Vol. 338, No. 18 (April 30, 1998), pgs. 1326-1331
[iii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_weapons (4 June 2007)
[iv] Nuclear winter: Physics and physical mechanisms," R. P. Turco, O. B. Toon, T. P. Ackerman, J. B. Pollack and C. Sagan, Ann. Rev. Earth and Planet. Sci., 19, 383-422 (1991).