The Nuclear Threat Returns

Transpartisan Note #67

by A. Lawrence Chickering and James S. Turner

William J. Perry, U.S. Secretary of Defense (1994-1997) says ‘The gravest security threat of our time is the danger of a nuclear weapon being detonated in one of our cities.’  Lifelong cold warrior, Stanford emeritus Engineering professor and Hoover Institution fellow, Perry currently leads The William J. Perry Project, which he created, to work towards a world in which nuclear weapons are never used again.

Fear of nuclear weapons dates from 1949, when the USSR joined the United States as the second nuclear power, and the nuclear adversaries started threatening Doomsday.  This fear was a defining element of the 1950s, with public and private bomb shelters, doomsday literature (On the Beach, 1957), and a narrative of terror that touched even small children.

Today’s North Korean maneuvering brings back the fear.  Perry’s project, with speaking, writing and courses by some of the world’s most credentialed security professionals, offers every citizen a chance to overcome the fear.  The current course, ‘The Threat of Nuclear Terrorism’, begins October 17th.  The course is offered in collaboration with Stanford Online and is FREE, no pre-requisites—anyone can take it. The previous course, ‘Living at the Nuclear Brink’, remains active until 1-1-23.  We urge you to enroll in either or both courses.  The project also includes a dialogue blog and a news service with articles from everywhere.

The 1962 Cuban missile crisis brought the first live threat of doomsday.  When that threat passed, Perry thought it permanently over.  Now 89, Mr. Perry spends his time warning about and seeking to diffuse the threat.  He says ‘I believe that the likelihood of a nuclear catastrophe is greater today than it was during the Cold War.  So I’ve set off on a mission to educate people on how serious the problem is.  Only then can we develop the policies that are appropriate for the danger we face.’

Warning about the Nuclear Threat stirs powerful transpartisan interest.  Perry coauthored articles with prominent Democrats and Republicans Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, and Sam Nunn advocating abandonment of the missile leg of the Triad (missiles, bombers and submarines), which they judge most vulnerable to nuclear accidents.

The issue is about survival of the species.  It obviously deserves widespread attention.  Yet it is almost invisible in a debate preoccupied by trivialities.  In this age of partisan conflict, is it cursed by widespread agreement, which the media think makes poor theater for the evening news?  Big agreements make less ‘news’ than trivial controversies.

A transpartisan perspective on the issue should consider a possible developmental sequence of threats.

First stage: Intentional aggression.  Fear of annihilation involves intentional uses of weapons and responses.  In the Cuban Missile crisis everyone came to understand that no one would ever ‘WIN’ a nuclear war.  Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) worked as a deterrent because it was insane.  Nuclear aggression would become an act of suicide.  Assuming the rationality of adversaries, observers including Secretary Perry concluded that the issue was behind us.

Second stage: Mistakes.  Mistakes go beyond intention even though some mistakes can be interpreted as intentional acts.  A single mistake will cause massive destruction, but without a response, the consequences will be contained.

Third stage: The Madman.  The current conflict between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump is ‘special’ not because Kim’s irrationality seems unique, but because Trump’s rationality is so widely questioned.  If Kim is thought more rational, it is because he is not assumed suicidal, while Trump, who doesn’t have to fear suicide,  creates vulnerability through deliberate confusion.

Fourth stage: where deterrence failsMAD only deters when the adversary is rational, known, and visible.  It fails when he is irrational (and like today’s terrorists open to suicide), unknown or invisible.  This is the greatest fear—the invisible terrorist group getting the bomb.

This threat is no longer essentially objective; it is disturbed and subjective.  We believe that an important element of it is isolation, and the most powerful antidote is a strategy that connects people.  This is one of the most important themes in our transpartisan vision, and we will continue exploring it.

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