Imagine two men, John and Nick, standing at the edge of a precipice. They are chained together at the ankle by a heavy chain such that if one falls over the edge (or throws himself off the edge), the other will fall with him, and both will die. John is trying to coerce Nick into giving him something — for convenience, let’s call it a MacGuffin. John has the strength to throw Nick off the cliff, but does not have the strength to simply seize the MacGuffin from Nick — he can only have it if it is willingly given away. Let us also imagine that John values the MacGuffin more than Nick does.
The question is this: By threatening to throw himself off the cliff, can John convince Nick to surrender his MacGuffin?
In the layman understanding of mutually assured destruction (MAD), the answer is no. Nick knows that John will not throw himself off the cliff — if John did so, he would die, and in any case would not receive the MacGuffin. John can threaten and cajole to his heart’s content — no matter how badly John wants the MacGuffin, even if he values it more than his life itself, Nick knows that it is never in John’s interest to take the jump.
This is the pop logic of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) — that no matter what the differences between nations, no matter what their clash of interests, so long as no state values harming another as an end in and of itself, none will ever use their nuclear weapons against a fellow nuclear state.
Unfortunately, this logic is deeply flawed. While it is true that “winning” a nuclear war is nearly as absurd as the idea of John “winning” the fall to the rocks below, it still remains that John can coerce Nick successfully. John may never have the incentive to leap into the abyss, but he is willing to accept a higher risk of death than Nick is in order to possess the MacGuffin.
To coerce Nick, John begins dancing near the brink. He dances erratically, and slowly increases the wildness of his motions. As he increases his energy, the probability of a mistake, of a sudden miscalculation that will cause him to accidentally slip and fall off the edge, rises.
Eventually, Nick capitulates. John may be able to tolerate the continued risk of mutual destruction if it obtains him his desire, but to Nick, it is not worth the MacGuffin.
MAD, as a statement of the world we live in, is accurate. It is impossible to imagine the United States executing a nuclear strike against Russia and not suffering intolerable destruction in return. But it does not follow that rational actors will never use nuclear weapons against each other. History is full of American and Russian leaders doing dance-offs while their terrified societies look on. Whether it is Dwight and Joe tango-ing over Berlin, or John and Nick doing a furious jig in Cuba, by putting themselves in situations that were not wholly under their control, nuclear states have enhanced their positions in the world vis-a-vis their rivals.
Ideally, taking such risks would be unnecessary. There is little need to generate nuclear risks to prove to Russia that we, for example, value ownership of Alaska more than they do. Through common sense and dialogue, states can often settle their affairs without needing to provide potentially costly demonstrations.
However, we do not live in an ideal world. Statesmen mis-communicate. They underestimate the values that their rivals attach to objects. They have different perceptions of the risks that are being generated. As these human errors in action and judgment stochastically crop up, they will sometimes cross a threshold and require a demonstration to resolve. Occasionally, these demonstrations of risk-taking will produce a nuclear war. Every pair of nuclear states, every set of conflicting interests over which nuclear states vie, produces a steady stream of risks to human civilization.
In this context, nuclear weapons are quite valuable to the society that owns them. They grant admission to a high-stakes coercion game. Nuclear weapons even go a long way in justifying the presence of many pieces of modern conventional military equipment. It is not enough to have nuclear weapons; a society needs to carefully craft its risk offerings toward other states, and conventional arms are largely how such dances are performed. Are the risks of nuclear war so intolerable that we would be better off in a nuclear free world than the one we have right now? I’m not convinced either way, but we should not regard the acquisition of nuclear weapons by countries like Iran or North Korea with the blasé attitude that many Americans take. It is not that these states are somehow irrational or incapable of securely holding their weapons — the real reason why the acquisition of nuclear weapons by these states is so alarming is that these states have massive conflicts of interest with other states. The risk of misperception and confrontation is too great. Will Ayatollah Khamenei knowingly initiate a nuclear war against Israel? Probably not. Are Israel and Iran likely to have confrontations with each other in which a false alarm or mistake could produce an exchange of arms? Absolutely.
We live in a MAD world. But a MAD world is not the same as a safe world. The nuclear risks that we as a society face, and as altruists should endeavor to reduce, have been largely ignored. Arms control arrangements, even those as inoffensive as New START, have little popular energy to fuel their passage. Proliferation is viewed through a skewed prism — we focus obsessively on preventing madmen from obtaining nuclear weapons, when we forget that the weapons themselves are what drive us to madness. We continue to design foreign policies and grand strategies that do not account for the realities of the nuclear age, and continue to set priorities that relegate non-proliferation to secondary importance.
This is a dangerous world, and it is growing more dangerous. We must demand better.