Deterrence in an Age of Decline

November 15, 2012

There are times, and this is one of them, when I wonder if somewhere in the last few weeks we all somehow got teleported into an alternate universe where nothing works quite the same way as were used to. That feeling may be a bit easier to understand when I mention that I’ve just been praised on the air by Glenn Beck. Yes, that Glenn Beck. He was commenting on an interview I did not long ago with Chris Martenson on his Peak Prosperity podcast, which is not a thing I’d normally expect someone like Beck to find congenial. Oh, and Beck noted in the same broadcast that of course there are hard limits on energy and resources.

If that hasn’t set your brain spinning, dear reader, consider this. In the midst of all the handwaving about a new age of US energy independence, the Atlantic Monthly has published an article pointing out that the United States won’t be energy independent even if we do end up producing more oil than Saudi Arabia. Now of course anyone who’s run the numbers knows this already; for several years now, Saudi Arabia has been the second largest petroleum producer in the world, right behind Russia, and #3 has long been—drumroll, please—the United States. It’s a measure of the sheer wasteful extravagance with which we use petroleum in this country that the world’s third largest petroleum producer still has to import around 2/3 of the oil it consumes each year.

Again, this isn’t news, or it wouldn’t be if Americans were by and large interested in dealing with the real world. It’s not even out of character for the Atlantic Monthly to run an article so unsympathetic to our national delusion du jour. What makes this startling, at least to me, is that the article in question has been splashed all over the internet. It’s almost as though people are actually starting to grapple with the hard reality of the predicament facing industrial society—and that does rather suggest that we’ve arrived in a universe very different from the one we’ve inhabited for the last three decades.

That being the case, I’m going to take the risk of discussing a few topics that I would normally leave alone, even though they have a great deal of relevance to the overall project of this blog and to the specific project of the last year or so of posts here on The Archdruid Report, the end of America’s age of empire. This isn’t because I have nothing to say about them; quite the contrary. It’s because they are the sort of hot-button topics that reliably make otherwise sane people go barking mad.

You’ll understand this a little better when I mention that the first of these topics, the one I mean to discuss this week, is the role of nuclear weapons in the decline and fall of America’s empire, and more generally in the twilight years of industrial civilization.

Those who doubt that this is a subject that inspires raving lunacy need only recall those thrilling days of yesteryear, when crude oil was spewing from a wrecked wellhead deep under the Gulf of Mexico and the words “Deepwater Horizon” were on everyone’s lips. On an astonishing number of internet forums, people were loudly insisting that the only way to solve the problem was to use a nuclear weapon on the well. I don’t recall anyone explaining exactly what good would be done by vaporizing the last impediments to the flow of oil and sending a fifty foot high tsunami of oily, radioactive water crashing into the shores of the Gulf. For that matter, I don’t recall many cases in which anyone even brought up those far from minor points.

It’s remarkable how many people seem to forget that a nuclear weapon is simply an explosive. It’s a very powerful explosive, and one that produces some dangerous residues when it blows up, but it’s still just an explosive. It doesn’t, say, open a rift in the fabric of reality, through which inconvenient or unwanted things can be thrust out into the primal void; all it can do is blow things to smithereens, and unless your problem can be solved by blowing something to smithereens—or, please note, threatening to do so—a nuclear weapon will do you no good at all. You’d have a hard time figuring that out from the way nuclear weapons get discussed in this country, though. By and large, once the prospect of using a nuclear weapon enters the discussion, even the most basic sort of rational thought waves goodbye and sends back a forwarding address from another state.

Now it’s only fair to say that not all the dubious reasoning that goes on around nuclear weapons is quite so florid as the example I’ve just given. For examples of the less colorful sort of nuclear folly, I’m going to pick on two recent commenters on this blog. One of them, partway through last month’s narrative fiction about the fall of America, argued that a US president facing a Chinese military response like the one I outlined in the second episode would simply order a first strike on China’s nuclear arsenal, destroy it on the ground, and proceed to deal with the crisis in a stronger position. The other, commenting on the finished narrative, insisted that I should have left out all the military stuff since we are, she claimed, evolving beyond war; in the discussion that followed, she noted plaintively that nobody wants a nuclear war and yet we’ve got nuclear weapons, and isn’t that crazy?

Well, no, it’s not, since clearly some people—my first commenter is an example—do think that nuclear war can be a good idea. (A successful first strike with nuclear warheads on someone else’s arsenal is still a nuclear war.) Still, let’s start with the first commenter’s suggestion, because it provides a useful example of one kind of nuclear irrationality that’s fairly common these days.

Let’s suppose that a US president, faced with a military crisis overseas, does in fact order a nuclear first strike on China’s strategic nuclear arsenal. Let’s also suppose that, ignoring all the rules of strategy from Sun Tsu on down, the Chinese haven’t anticipated the possibility, don’t have their arsenal ready to launch, and haven’t informed the US that the bombs will go up and the boom will come down the moment an American missile crosses into Chinese airspace. We’ll say that the US strike is enormously, unrealistically effective; of the 175 or so Chinese nuclear weapons, 174 of them are vaporized on the ground along with their launch systems, and only one missile, with a single 100-kiloton warhead on the business end, arcs through the ionosphere and explodes in a low air burst over San Francisco.

The result? The United States has just suffered the greatest disaster in its history. The death toll from that one warhead would likely exceed the 600,000 military deaths in the Civil War, our nation’s bloodiest conflict to date. Hundreds of billions of dollars of immediate damage would deliver a body blow to the nation’s economy, and a galaxy of long-term costs could well raise the final cost by an order of magnitude or more. The impact of Hurricane Sandy on the east coast, or Katrina on New Orleans? A puny fraction of what we’re discussing here.

Now ask yourself this: what has the United States gained in exchange for those huge losses? In the narrative under discussion, a better military position vis-a-vis the Chinese and, if all goes well, a drop in the price of oil. That is to say, not much compared to the cost.

That’s the rarely discussed logic behind nuclear deterrence. None of the concrete gains a nation can achieve by launching a nuclear strike on another nation comes anywhere near the scale of the costs that would be inflicted by even the feeblest nuclear response. If the US first strike just described does not quite turn out to be quite so improbably flawless, in turn, the costs go up accordingly; ten mushroom clouds over large American cities would leave the US economy as crippled as the economies of Europe were after the Second World War, with no Marshall Plan in sight; the impact of the full Chinese arsenal, small as it is by American or Russian standards, would likely mean the end of the United States as a functioning First World nation. Sure, much of China would be pounded into radioactive rubble; what imaginable advantage would this give to whatever was left of the United States?

This is why, in turn, the Peoples Republic of China contents itself with so small a nuclear arsenal. It doesn’t need anything bigger; all that’s necessary is that any other nuclear power that might think of launching a strike on China be faced with utterly unacceptable losses. It’s why Israel clings so tightly to its nuclear weapons, why India and Pakistan have been so much more polite to each other since both became nuclear powers, and why Iran will inevitably join the nuclear club in the next few years—and the harder the US backs Iran into a corner, by the way, the more overwhelming the pressure on Iran’s leadership will be to assemble and test a warhead, and so provide itself with the one truly effective way of telling hostile countries to back off.

The mistake made by both my commenters can be summed up very simply; they think that nuclear weapons exist to fight nuclear wars. That was true of the first two fission bombs ever made, Little Boy and Fat Man, but it hasn’t been true of any nuclear weapon since that time. They exist not to fight but to threaten. Those people who speculate about when and if nuclear weapons will be used are missing the point; they’re used all the time, with great effectiveness, by everyone who has them, to guarantee national survival and draw hard lines that other nations, and even other nuclear powers, will not cross.

A common objection probably needs to be dealt with at this point. This is the insistence that such logic may be all very well for ordinary leaders and ordinary countries, but what if nuclear weapons get into the hands of a mad dictator? One commenter several posts back, in fact, insisted that the ultimate argument against my logic was contained in the words “George W. Bush.”

It was probably impolite of me to point out to him that Bush had control of the world’s most advanced nuclear arsenal for eight years, and somehow we’re still here. I’ve already discussed, in a post four years ago, the destructive role that the pornography of political fear and hatred spread by both sides of the partisan spectrum plays in our current society, and it didn’t sink in then, either. Still, there’s an even more precise point that can be made here, and that’s the simple fact that nuclear weapons have already fallen into the hands of mad dictators. Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong can hardly be described in any other terms; both were homicidal megalomaniacs who were directly responsible for annihilating tens of millions of the people they ruled, and both of them had nuclear weapons. Once again, we’re still here.

For that matter, let’s look at the mad dictator who comes first in almost everyone’s list, Adolf Hitler. Hitler didn’t have nuclear weapons, but he did have the next best thing, massive stockpiles of three different, highly lethal nerve gases, and delivery systems that could readily have landed decent quantities of them on London and a variety of other military and civilian targets. He never used them, even when the Wehrmacht’s last battalions were fighting Russian troops in the suburbs of Berlin and his own death was staring him in the face. Why? Because the Allies also had them, and could be counted on to retaliate in kind; the military benefits of gassing London, or even the D-Day beaches, paled in contrast to the military impact of Allied nerve gas attacks, say, against German armies on the Eastern Front. That is to say, like most mad dictators, Hitler may have been crazy but he wasn’t stupid.

The same logic, by the way, applies to all weapons of mass destruction. Unless you’re the only nation in a given conflict that has the power to annihilate huge numbers of people with a single weapon, it’s never worth your while to use your weapons of mass destruction, because the retaliation will cost you at least as much as, and usually more than, the use of the weapon will gain you. That’s why the plans to equip infantry divisions with truck-launched nuke-tipped rockets that filled the dreams of US military planners in the 1950s went the way of the Ford Nucleon, a 1957 concept car that was expected to be powered by a pint-sized nuclear reactor, and why the huge multimegaton bombs of the same era were quietly disassembled and replaced by much smaller warheads in the following decades.

It’s very likely, in fact, that in the decade or two before us, an American president will earn a Nobel peace prize—as opposed to being handed one more or less at random, like the current incumbent—by completing the process, and signing a treaty with Russia scrapping most of both sides’ arsenals. 250 warheads each, say, would be more than enough to provide a deterrent against all comers, and the savings in money and resources will be considerable. That latter may turn into a major issue in the decades to come, as the age of cheap abundant energy comes to an end.

One thing about nuclear weapons that’s too rarely remembered is that they are surprisingly delicate devices, and don’t store well. Certain components of hydrogen warheads, for example, have to be replaced every six months or so because the radioactive material in them undergoes normal decay, and enough of it changes into another element that it stops working. Other components have to be remachined at regular intervals, because plutonium is a relatively soft metal and won’t stay within the necessary ultrafine tolerances indefinitely. The missiles and other delivery systems have maintenance issues of their own. The science fiction cliché of abandoned nuclear missiles in forgotten silos, ready to launch far into the future, thus deserves decent burial.

As the industrial age stumbles to its end, in turn, the costs in energy, raw materials, and labor to keep existing nuclear arsenals functioning will be an increasingly large burden. To return yet again to the central theme of this blog, the Long Descent ahead of us will be driven primarily by the inability of political, social, and economic systems created during an age of cheap abundant energy to remain viable during an age of energy and resource scarcity. As resource depletion proceeds, systems dependent on scarce supplies will be forced to compete with one another for what’s left, some will inevitably lose, and each loss marks the disintegration of some part of business as usual in the industrial world. The elaborate arrangement that keeps nuclear weapons and their delivery systems ready for use at any moment is simply one energy- and resource-dependent system among many.

That’s one of the reasons why I confidently expect the treaty mentioned above to be signed at some point in the next couple of decades. Applied more generally, though, the same logic makes nuclear war one of the least likely ways the industrial age could end. As costs mount and industrial infrastructure comes apart, the challenge of maintaining a nuclear arsenal in usable condition will be balanced by the need to maintain the appearance of a credible nuclear threat. The most likely outcome? A strengthening of the logic of deterrence.

Think of it this way. It’s a safe bet that as technological capabilities and access to resources decline, nations that have nuclear weapons will continue to claim that they are ready, willing, and able to blow their adversaries to kingdom come. It’s an equally safe bet in an age of continuing decline that, given the increasingly harsh limits on resources and technology, the ability of any given nation to make good on those threats will fail to keep up with the appearances it projects to the rest of the world. The problem is that, barring a really spectacular intelligence failure, nobody will know just how wide the gap has become in any given case.

Sixty years from now, as a result, the United States (or whatever successor nations inherit a share of its nuclear weapons) will doubtless still appear to have a substantial nuclear arsenal. Just how many of its missiles and bombs can still be counted on to follow gravity’s rainbow and ignite a second sun over an overseas target, though, will be one of the most closely guarded of the nation’s secrets. The same will be true of every other nuclear power. As the industrial age winds down, it’s very likely that we will reach a point when no nation on Earth still has the effective means to wage nuclear war, but every significant power still claims that capacity, and nobody can be quite sure that everyone else is bluffing—after all, what if the other side has managed to maintain a small arsenal in working order?

Now of course it’s entirely possible that a few nuclear weapons will end up being used over the decades ahead. There’s always the risk that terrorists will seize or manufacture one and blow it up somewhere—though it’s only fair to note that most terrorist organizations depend on covert support from nation-states, who are generally not interested in supporting any operation for which the blowback arrives on the business end of an ICBM. (If the people responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US had used a stolen nuclear weapon rather than hijacked aircraft, for example, there’s a significant chance that the blowback might have included the instant thermonuclear annihilation of the city of Kabul; this was presumably not a risk the Taliban would have wanted to run.)

It’s also possible that some conventional war or political crisis might trigger a series of miscalculations that could go nuclear, as (for example) a hypothetical Sino-Japanese war did in one of my earlier bits of post-peak oil fiction. Accidents happen and mistakes are made. Still, that doesn’t justify the repeated insistence in various corners of the internet that a nuclear war has to happen sometime soon—an insistence driven, once you get past the surface layer of rationalization, by the same logic that leads so many true believers to insist that history must shortly end via the catastrophe of their choice.


End of the World of the Week #48

What could be more convincing than a book giving 88 different reasons why the world is going to come to an end on your preferred date? That’s apparently what Edgar Whisenant thought when he published 88 Reasons Why The Rapture Will Be In 1988, which was briefly one of the hottest sellers in the evangelical Christian book field. Whisenant was a retired NASA engineer and a longtime bible student, and insisted that only if the Bible was wrong would the world continue to exist after September 13, 1988. It’s ironic, to use no stronger word, that he failed to take his own logic seriously; when 1988 came and went without benefit of Rapture, Whisenant went on to issue further books, making Rapture predictions for 1989 and 1993, and then predicting global catastrophe via nuclear war in 1994.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not

John Michael Greer

John Michael Greer is a widely read author and blogger whose work focuses on the overlaps between ecology, spirituality, and the future of industrial society. He served twelve years as Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, and currently heads the Druidical Order of the Golden Dawn.

Tags: nuclear power, nuclear war