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We need to start talking about nuclear war - by Daniel Finkelstein for The Times – 08.03.22

Putin’s aggression has revealed Cold War assumptions of deterrence to be compromised and in urgent need of a revamp.

I’ll tell you what has been keeping me awake at night. It’s this: what if Sting is wrong? In 1985, Sting had a hit with a song called Russians. A reflection on the Cold War and nuclear weapons, Russians argued against the “hysteria” of President Reagan and the former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. And it finished with these words: “We share the same biology, regardless of ideology/ But what might save us, me and you/ Is if the Russians love their children too.”

Sting had captured brilliantly — perhaps accidentally — the logic of Cold War deterrence. If we have enough weapons to wipe each other out, we won’t end up firing them. Because if we did, their children would die and ours would too, and we all love our children.

But what if he, and by extension the entire Cold War theory of deterrence, is wrong?

It’s a possibility we need to keep in mind as we contemplate the terrible war in Ukraine. It’s obviously right that the Russians love their children, too. But what if they have a different idea of what loving them might mean? What if they think loving them might involve some distorted ideas of honour or pride being more important than their lives? Or what if they love their children, but wrongly think their children are under attack? Or what if they love their children but don’t have any control over their government — which doesn’t love their children?

If Sting is wrong, it means the risk of a confrontation with Russia, and indeed other rogue states, involving nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction is much higher than we consider it to be.

The history of warfare strongly suggests that leaders often take their countries into wars that appear unwinnable. Wars their opponents didn’t predict because it seemed so obvious that an attack would end in disaster. Roosevelt, for instance, was assured Japan would not start a war with the United States because it would have calamitous consequences for the Japanese.

Truman was wrongly told the Chinese wouldn’t enter the Korean War for fear of a global conflict. Bush’s advisers were confident Saddam Hussein wouldn’t invade Kuwait.

Loving children can also be overshadowed by other priorities. Hitler’s Nero orders, when he unsuccessfully instructed his military to destroy Germany’s infrastructure no matter what happened to its population, were based on his idea that the Germans no longer deserved to live, having let the Third Reich down. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara urged the Soviets to launch a first nuclear strike against the US because such a conflict was “the final aim of communism”.

Many strategists have commented that President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine seems, to put it politely, unreasonable. Yet many of the same people seem to believe he might be completely reasonable with his weapons of mass destruction.

On Monday General Sir Chris Deverell, former commander of the joint forces command, spoke in favour of a no-fly zone over Ukraine, and ground troops if necessary. He accepts that Putin will respond with nuclear threats. “But there is no fundamental reason why these are more useful to Putin than they are to Nato. Our logic has to be that his threats are meaningless. Whatever he can do to us, we can do to him.” He acknowledges the risk that Putin is “mad” before dismissing it.

I think this places much more confidence in Cold War deterrence policy — in the efficacy of mutually assured destruction — than is merited. It assumes that Putin and his regime view things as we do. It assumes they think success in Ukraine isn’t worth sacrificing millions of people in a nuclear war. And I think that is a very brave assumption.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine should force us to return with a seriousness which we haven’t shown for at least 20 years to the subject of nuclear deterrence. During discussion about Ukraine it has become perfectly obvious that we have effectively extended a nuclear security guarantee to lots of countries — Latvia, for instance — with little political discussion. It was based on a relaxed view that such promises would never be called upon. We were making a consequential promise, one I support, but a more rigorous debate was called for.

When the SNP’s Ian Blackford proposed we abandon our independent nuclear deterrent, I thought him completely wrong and even eccentric. But at least he was talking about the right topic. If we are going to be involved in wars with nuclear armed countries, we might at least discuss the whole subject of weapons, don’t you think?

First, we might consider this. If mutually assured destruction may not deter Putin, what might? In his book The Fallacies of Cold War Deterrence and a New Direction, the nuclear strategist Keith Payne argues that if we were able to defend ourselves against missile attack more effectively, we could better deter other nuclear powers from aggression. They would realise they couldn’t rely on us to stay out of any conflict.

Other strategists believe enhanced missile defence systems to be too expensive and unreliable to be a priority. But they agree that our protections against biological warfare are insufficient and that improving them would send the message that we would be hard to defeat. And even if such preparations do not send a message, they have another purpose, unfortunately. They might be needed.

Given the number of aggressive leaders who may not fear the death of their children, the horrific truth is that one day we may be subject to an attack with weapons of mass destruction. This is unthinkable, and yet we have to think about it. Millions of people might die in such an attack, but millions wouldn’t. What would they do? Where would they live? How would they eat? These are things we must plan for. And not only that. These are things we must discuss publicly.

In the 1970s the government prepared an information campaign, Protect and Survive, to be launched in the case of a nuclear emergency. It became public and helped fuel a serious debate about nuclear weapons. I strongly opposed the politics of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and unilateralism. And I still do. But I did think the intensity of the political argument we then had was appropriate to the subject. Of course we should discuss our approach to weaponry that might kill millions, that could even make the Earth uninhabitable. We have recently fought three elections while hardly discussing nuclear policy.

Perhaps the violent challenge from Putin will wake us from our slumbers.

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We need to start talking about nuclear war - article by Daniel Finkelstein for The Times –
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