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Consequences of Nuclear Deterrence — Seen at Age 19 and Age 59

When I was 19 I thought and wrote about the future from the standpoint of a would-be “hard” science-fiction writer.

My basic thinking was to explore the long-term consequences of the nuclear balance of terror. I did not believe that the balance was truly stable (events have since proved me correct). I thought there actually would be a general nuclear war, and that it would leave survivors at least in the southern hemisphere, and that some of those survivors would still have nuclear weapons. In fact, the survivors either would have a monopoly on nuclear weapons, or they would keep on fighting until they had won such a monopoly. They would then spy on everyone using computer technology in order to keep that monopoly. They would become corrupt and brutal, and they would be very difficult to get rid of. I thought there would be no riddance of these dictators until we returned to frontier conditions by colonizing outer space. I felt (and still do) that the familiar science-fictional picture of a world pushed back into the dark ages by a nuclear war, affording survivors a test of virtue and a “fresh start”, is a romantic fantasy that ducks the hard questions.

We have not had a nuclear war — thank God.

But we have had several nasty near misses. And now, we have nuclear proliferation plus a great deal more surveillance than used to be possible. In fact, the logic underlying my original thinking still seems quite sound. Nuclear weapons (along with other factors) do seem to be pushing us into a world of widespread and frequent surveillance. It will, most likely, be an unofficial empire or, more likely, a co-dominium of great powers dedicated to preventing something like a nuclear war between Israel and Muslims that happens to kill a few hundred million people outside of the war zone, not to mention severe environmental consequences such as a decade of global cooling. If there is a co-dominium, then competition between the ruling powers, who are very unlikely to love each other, plus the resentment of the ruled, will create large zones containing what amounts to a dark age. Again, in spite of the increasing (although fragile) prosperity and health of the world on average, such zones do appear to be growing — Maoist sections of India, Nigeria, Congo, various drug-producing boondocks.

To possess true weapons of mass destruction — nuclear weapons or plagues — is completely irrational beyond the level of the absolute minimum required for deterrence. Once you have accomplished deterrence, additional weapons can only mean your own country, your own children, will be hit that much harder if the hammer comes down. To use such weapons would be even more irrational.

If the probability of their use does not decline to a very low level with time, then they will eventually be used. Any use will slam the world into a very bad place. Think 9/11 to the 10th power.

Answer me honestly now, using ordinary common sense: is the probability of use falling, or rising?

There is a nightmarish, “frozen” quality to this scenario. Nuclear deterrence makes it very difficult to actually win a large conflict. Conflicts, and even more the root causes of conflic, can continue to fester for long periods.

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