Nuclear Hubris

Wednesday, January 15th, 2020

By Robert C. Koehler

One thing that becomes clear to me when I wander into the world, and the minds, of geopolitical professionals — government people — is how limited and linear their thinking seems to be.

When I do so, an internal distress signal starts beeping and won’t stop, especially when the issue under discussion is war and mass destruction, i.e., suicide by nukes, which has a freshly intense relevance these days as Team Trump plays war with Iran.

The question for me goes well beyond democracy — the right of the public to have a say in what “we” do as a nation — and penetrates the decision-making process itself and the prevailing definition of what matters . . . and what doesn’t. What doesn’t matter, apparently, is any awareness that we live in one world, connected at the core: that the problems confronting this planet transcend the fragmentary “interests” of single, sovereign entities, even if the primary interest is survival itself.

I fear that this country’s geopolitical thinking and decision-making are incapable of stepping beyond the concept of violent (including thermonuclear) self-defense, or even, indeed, acknowledging that consequences emerge from such actions that go well beyond the strategic considerations that summon them.

Recently, for instance, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, keeper of the annually updated Doomsday Clock, which serves as an international warning signal on the state of global danger from nuclear war and climate change, published an essay by James N. Miller, former undersecretary of Defense for Policy in the Obama administration, defending the fact that the U.S. government maintains a policy that allows “first use” of nuclear weapons under certain circumstances.

The issue of the Bulletin itself, which contained an array of viewpoints, focused on the idea that nuclear decision-making should be a focus of the 2020 presidential race, which certainly makes sense, considering that we live in a country with a national media whose raison d’etre is to simplify presidential elections down to the level of a horse race: complex matters not allowed!

But Miller’s essay, titled “No to No First Use — for Now,” set off, as I say, an internal distress signal that wouldn’t shut up, beginning with the fact that the essay addressed simply this country’s self-granted permission to use nuclear weapons first, before the other guy did, under “extreme circumstances,” if it so chose. What was missing from this essay was any suggestion that nuclear disarmament — no use ever — deserved consideration. This was not up for discussion.

This is thinking contained within artificial borders!

It’s not that Miller isn’t looking at real threats. The U.S. allows itself to consider nuclear first-use if its enemy uses biological or cyber weaponry to ravage America. He writes:

“A biological weapons attack by a nuclear-capable country (such as North Korea) that kills hundreds of thousands or even millions of Americans, while seemingly unlikely, is unfortunately a plausible threat in the coming years or decades. In this scenario, a responsible president could reasonably determine that a conventional attack was inadequate, and that it was appropriate to employ nuclear weapons in response.”

Anyone else feel the thought-squeeze? My amazement and despair begin thus: If an attack or any sort kills “hundreds of thousands or even millions” of . . . uh, people . . . their deaths are instantly belittled if the concern here is that they are Americans. If such an attack is in the realm of possibility — against human beings of any and every nationality — there’s a wider hole in the universe than this author is addressing. The first question put out there must be: Why?

Earlier in the essay, Miller discusses the fact that an attack on the country with chemical weapons probably would not merit a nuclear response, pointing out: “The US military has more than sufficient firepower to inflict proportionate damage (and if desired, more than proportionate damage) in response to any plausible chemical weapons use.”

Inflict proportionate damage? This is national security talk? I mean, this is a discussion at the highest level of government, and it’s reducing national security to a matter of killing them back if they try to kill us, and if we kill a sufficient number of them (but not too many), we’re cool. Here’s where I felt my soul freeze.

So let me make an introduction. James Miller, meet Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the organization that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.

“At dozens of locations around the world — in missile silos buried in our earth, on submarines navigating through our oceans, and aboard planes flying high in our sky — lie 15,000 objects of humankind’s destruction,” Fihn said during her acceptance speech. “Perhaps it is the enormity of this fact, perhaps it is the unimaginable scale of the consequences, that leads many to simply accept this grim reality. To go about our daily lives with no thought to the instruments of insanity all around us. . . .

“As fellow Nobel Peace Laureate, Martin Luther King Jr, called them from this very stage in 1964, these weapons are ‘both genocidal and suicidal.’ They are the madman’s gun held permanently to our temple. These weapons were supposed to keep us free, but they deny us our freedoms.

“It’s an affront to democracy to be ruled by these weapons. But they are just weapons. They are just tools. And just as they were created by geopolitical context, they can just as easily be destroyed by placing them in a humanitarian context.”

And I return to that question I posed earlier: Why?

Why is this level of thinking not present at the highest levels of our government? Power is an enormous paradox. We’re the greatest military superpower on the planet, and this fact is consuming our ability to think and act in a rational and humane manner. Power creates hubris; and the United States of America is one of nine nations inflicted with nuclear hubris. We can tell other nations (e.g., Iran) what to do, but we’re not about to do it ourselves.

Feel safe yet?