A commentator identified as “anonymous” adverted to an earlier debate on this blog with a link to a video by Professor Stephen Cohen. “Matt” responded and linked to a piece by Masha Gessen. I urge those who are interested to follow the links to the video and the essay. Rather than enter that debate directly, I should like to provide some context, the effect of which will be to reinforce my assertion that Donald J. Trump poses a very much greater threat of nuclear war than Hillary Rodham Clinton. I hesitate to re-enter this dispute, because, quite honestly, I find arguing about the subject stressful, but this matter is so important – so transcendently important, if I may advert to my Kant studies – that I think I should make what may be a useful contribution to the discussion.
The invention and spread of nuclear weapons completely changed a fundamental concept of military strategy and foreign policy that had formed the centerpiece of military thinking for ten thousand years, namely the concept of defense. The history of military strategy was, until the 1950’s, a story of the see-saw relationship between offense and defense. Clubs and swords, strong offensive weapons, were countered with shields and body armor, strong defensive weapons. Shields and body armor prompted the invention of spears and bows and arrows, which made it possible to launch attacks from a distance beyond the reach of clubs and swords. Mounted warriors overwhelmed foot soldiers, castles and moats defended against mounted soldiers, catapults, ladders, and movable towers threatened castles, and so on and on to tanks, artillery, bombers, fighter planes, and antiaircraft batteries. The balance between offense and defense continually shifted, with now one and now the other temporarily getting the upper hand.
Inasmuch as actual battlefield experience was far and away the best source of specific practical knowledge about the relative strengths of offensive and defensive weaponry, strategic planners tended to be senior military officers with battlefield credentials. One consequence of this fact, much commented upon, was that the generals were forever fighting the last war because only a handful of them at any moment were capable of envisioning the strategy-changing consequences of new weapons or weapons delivery systems.
All of this completely changed with the invention of nuclear weapons. Even the relatively small fission bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by American pilots – only one bomb in each instance – destroyed the targets and killed more than a hundred thousand people. The next generation of fusion bombs were quite literally one thousand times more destructive – measured in millions of tons rather than thousands of tons of TNT. A single thermonuclear weapon – an H-Bomb, so-called – was and is capable of completely obliterating a large city and killing millions of people.
Conventional bombs, even large bombs containing a ton or more of explosive, can be delivered by manned bombers. But each bomb by itself is not capable of destroying even a village. It is necessary to send fleets of bombers carrying hundreds of bombs to have a significant effect in an all-out war. Now, no defense can shoot down all of the attacking bombers in a raid, but that is not necessary, militarily. A kill rate as high as twenty or thirty percent is devastating for the attacking force over the course of a bombing campaign because the planes are scarce, and the pilots even scarcer. An effective air defense can make a bombing campaign unsustainable. But because of the destructive power of nuclear weapons, anything less than an impossible to achieve one hundred percent defense is a loser. The invention of intercontinental ballistic missiles, which cannot be defended against at all, completed the transformation of military strategy.
The only practical response to the threat of a nuclear attack is to deter the enemy from even launching the attack. In short, the age-old concept of defense gave way to the radically new concept of deterrence. Now, defense is a military concept, but deterrence is a psychological concept. Furthermore, no one had ever had any experience of a war fought on both sides with nuclear weapons. Consequently, battlefield experience is useless in devising policies designed to deter an enemy from launching a nuclear attack. It is for this reason that in the 1960’s and 70’s, the American government began drawing on the supposed professional expertise of academic psychologists, political scientists, and economists collected together in quasi-private organizations referred to as Think Tanks.
Now, combine this development in military weaponry and strategy with the familiar and ancient struggle between contending imperial states, each seeking to extend its imperium and pressing up against states also attempting to extend their spheres of influence and control. Imperial competitors armed with nuclear weapons clearly pose a mortal threat to civilization itself. In a world with two super-powers, each seeking to extend its hegemony as far as possible – in short, in a world dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union – the survival of human life as we know it depended on a Balance of Terror appropriately referred to as Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD.
It is crucially important to understand that if a nation armed with nuclear weapons decides to launch a nuclear attack on another nation, there is absolutely nothing that can be done to stop it. One can threaten a nation-ending retaliatory attack, and one can arrange one’s nuclear weapons and command systems so that they can be used to retaliate even after a nuclear attack. One can warn one’s potential attacker of this. One can even, if need be, admit representatives of one’s enemy to one’s most secret military bases to prove that one has and can deploy this retaliatory force. But if the enemy chooses to commit suicide by attacking nevertheless, there is nothing one can do to stop him or her.
Consequently, all one can do, so long as the world is armed with nuclear weapons, is hope that those in a position to deploy them are rational, well-informed, sufficiently self-disciplined not to act impulsively or irrationally in situations of great stress, and not suicidal.
Under these ideal circumstances [if I may speak ironically], the principal threat is miscalculation. [I leave to one side accidental nuclear war, which is a separate problem.] To take a contemporary example, Barack Obama might mistakenly conclude that Vladimir Putin would not respond to the inclusion of former Soviet Socialist Republics under the NATO umbrella by launching a nuclear attack. Or Vladimir Putin might mistakenly conclude that Barack Obama would back down if Russian troops were to march into Poland. And so forth. In the fairly brief history of nuclear weapons, the world has come to the brink of obliteration only once, in the Fall of 1962. John F. Kennedy is the only American president who has ever really risked nuclear war. We are all fortunate that Khrushchev was somewhat saner and more cautious than Kennedy.
So long as the world is a patchwork of ambitious imperial hegemons each seeking to expand its sphere of influence against its rival hegemons, all armed with nuclear weapons, we live under the threat of nuclear war, each of us relying on the rationality, self-interest, and disciplined self-control of our rivals. It is a self-deluding error to imagine that the United States simply seeks truth, justice, and the American way, to quote Superman. It is equally self-deluding to suppose that Vladimir Putin merely wants to get along and does not wish to be pushed around by America. Russia and America [and China] are nuclear powers with long-settled imperial aims, each seeking to expand its sphere of control and influence as far as possible without risking or actively choosing nuclear war.
Is there an alternative to this state of affairs? Well, that has been my concern [and that of many others wiser and more knowledgeable than I] for the past half century and more. This is not the time to talk about that, save to point out that the structure of the system of hegemonic imperial powers would not alter if America were unilaterally to opt out of it. All that would change would be the identity of the players and the contours of their spheres of power.
All of which brings me to Clinton versus Trump. I have foresworn the use of technical psychological terms in my attempts to characterize the two of them, but I have not ceased to make judgments about their character and abilities based on whatever information I can acquire and whatever understanding of human beings eighty-two years of experience has afforded me. I judge Clinton to be thoroughly committed to the post-war American hegemonic imperial project, as has every single Democratic and Republican presidential nominee since 1945. I also judge her to be intelligent, quite knowledgeable, deliberate and cautious in her decisions, and prepared to seek and to be influenced by the advice of senior members of the American military establishment. She is, in this regard, a perfectly ordinary presidential candidate.
I judge Trump to be ignorant, a slow learner, impulsive, dangerously affected by what he conceives to be insults to his status or prestige, needy for constant reassurances of his personal dominance, and very short on the imagination required to foresee and weigh the consequences of his actions.
I conclude therefore that the danger of a nuclear war is a good deal greater with Trump as president than with Clinton as president. Inasmuch as I said, some while back on this blog, that this consideration alone outweighs lexicographically all other considerations, I conclude that we must do whatever we can to elect Clinton.
Now, may I please get back to the Critique?