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Nuclear War and Scope Neglect

photograph of 'Fallout Shelter' sign in the dark

“Are We Facing Nuclear War?”The New York Times, 3/11/22

“Pope evokes spectre of nuclear war wiping out humanity” — Reuters, 3/17/22

“The fear of nuclear annihilation raises its head once more” — The Independent, 3/18/22

“The threat of nuclear war hangs over the Russia-Ukraine crisis”NPR, 3/18/22

“Vladimir Putin ‘asks Kremlin staff to perform doomsday nuclear attack drill’”The Mirror, 3/19/22

“Demand for iodine tablets surge amid fears of nuclear war”The Telegraph, 3/20/22

“Thinking through the unthinkable”Vox, 3/20/22

The prospect of nuclear war is suddenly back, leading many of us to ask some profound and troubling questions. Just how terrible would a nuclear war be? How much should I fear the risk? To what extent, if any, should I take preparatory action, such as stockpiling food or moving away from urban areas?

These questions are all, fundamentally, questions of scale and proportion. We want our judgments and actions to fit with the reality of the situation — we don’t want to needlessly over-react, but we also don’t want to under-react and suffer an avoidable catastrophe. The problem is that getting our responses in proportion can prove very difficult. And this difficulty has profound moral implications.

Everyone seems to agree that a nuclear war would be a significant moral catastrophe, resulting in the loss of many innocent lives. But just how bad of a catastrophe would it be? “In risk terms, the distinction between a ‘small’ and a ‘large’ nuclear war is important,” explains Seth Baum, a researcher at a U.S.-based think tank, the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute. “Civilization as a whole can readily withstand a war with a single nuclear weapon or a small number of nuclear weapons, just as it did in WW2. At a larger number, civilization’s ability to withstand the effects would be tested. If global civilization fails, then […] the long-term viability of humanity is at stake.”

Let’s think about this large range of possible outcomes in more detail. Writing during the heights of the Cold War, the philosopher Derek Parfit compared the value of:

    1. Peace.
    2. A nuclear war that kills 99% of the world’s existing population.
    3. A nuclear war that kills 100%.

Everyone seems to agree that 2 is worse than 1 and that 3 is worse than 2. “But,” asks Parfit, “which is the greater of these two differences? Most people believe that the greater difference is between 1 and 2. I believe that the difference between 2 and 3 is very much greater.”

Parfit was, it turns out, correct about what most people think. A recent study posing Parfit’s question (lowering the lethality of option 2 to 80% to remove confounders) found that most people thought there is a greater moral difference between 1 and 2 than between 2 and 3. Given the world population is roughly 8 billion, the difference between 1 and 2 is an overwhelming 6.4 billion more lives lost. The difference between 2 and 3 is “only” 1.6 billion more lives lost.

Parfit’s reason for thinking that the difference between 2 and 3 was a greater moral difference was because 3 would result in the total extinction of humanity, while 2 would not. Even after a devastating nuclear war such as that in 2, it is likely that humanity would eventually recover, and we would lead valuable lives once again, potentially for millions or billions of years. All that future potential would be lost with the last 20% (or in Parfit’s original case, the last 1%) of humanity.

If you agree with Parfit’s argument (the study found that most people do, after being reminded of the long-term consequences of total extinction), you probably want an explanation of why most people disagree. Perhaps most people are being irrational or insufficiently imaginative. Perhaps our moral judgments and behavior are systematically faulty. Perhaps humans are victims of a shared psychological bias of some kind. Psychologists have repeatedly found that people aren’t very good at scaling up and down their judgments and responses to fit the size of a problem. They name this cognitive bias “scope neglect.”

The evidence for scope neglect is strong. Another psychological study asked respondents how much they would be willing to donate to prevent migrating birds from drowning in oil ponds — ponds that could, with enough money, be covered by safety nets. Respondents were either told that 2,000, or 20,000, or 200,000 birds are affected each year. The results? Respondents were willing to spend $80, $78, and $88 respectively. The scale of the response had no clear connection with the scale of the issue.

Scope neglect can explain many of the most common faults in our moral reasoning. Consider the quote, often attributed to Josef Stalin, “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.” Psychologist Paul Slovic called this tendency to fail to conceptualize the scope of harms suffered by large numbers of people mass numbing. Mass numbing is a form of scope neglect that helps explain ordinary people standing by passively in the face of mass atrocities, such as the Holocaust. The scale of suffering, distributed so widely, is very difficult for us to understand. And this lack of understanding makes it difficult to respond appropriately.

But there is some good news. Knowing that we suffer from scope neglect allows us to “hack” ourselves into making appropriate moral responses. We can exploit our tendency for scope neglect to our moral advantage.

If you have seen Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, then you will remember a particular figure: The girl in the red coat. The rest of the film is in black and white, and the suffering borders continually on the overwhelming. The only color in the film is the red coat of a young Jewish girl. It is in seeing this particular girl, visually plucked out from the crowd by her red coat, that Schindler confronts the horror of the unfolding Holocaust. And it is this girl who Schindler later spots in a pile of dead bodies.

The girl in the red coat is, of course, just one of the thousands of innocents who die in the film, and one of the millions who died in the historical events the film portrays. The scale and diffusion of the horror put the audience members at risk of mass numbing, losing the capacity to have genuine and appropriately strong moral responses. But using that dab of color is enough for Spielberg to make her an identifiable victim. It is much easier to understand the moral calamity that she is a victim of, and then to scale that response up. The girl in the red coat acts as a moral window, allowing us to glimpse the larger tragedy of which she is a part. Spielberg uses our cognitive bias for scope neglect to help us reach a deeper moral insight, a fuller appreciation of the vast scale of suffering.

Charities also exploit our tendency for scope neglect. The donation-raising advertisements they show on TV tend to focus on one or two individuals. In a sense, this extreme focus makes no sense. If we were perfectly rational and wanted to do the most moral good we could, we would presumably be more interested in how many people our donation could help. But charities know that our moral intuitions do not respond to charts and figures. “The reported numbers of deaths represent dry statistics, ‘human beings with the tears dried off,’ that fail to spark emotion or feeling and thus fail to motivate action,” writes Slovic.

When we endeavor to think about morally profound topics, from the possibility of nuclear war to the Holocaust, we often assume that eliminating psychological bias is the key to good moral judgment. It is certainly true that our biases, such as scope neglect, typically lead us to poor moral conclusions. But our biases can also be a source for good. By becoming more aware of them and how they work, we can use our psychological biases to gain greater moral insight and to motivate better moral actions.

The Nuclear Dice

image of clock showing five minutes to midnight

As I write, Russia is waging a brutal and illegal war against Ukraine. NATO has responded by providing Ukraine with weapons and intelligence, and by enacting sanctions and other measures which are essentially aimed at crashing the Russian economy. 74% of Americans say they believe that NATO should impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine – though it is unclear how many understand that this would require shooting down Russian planes and destroying Russian air defenses. In any event, it seems clear that there is a small but real risk of a larger war breaking out between Russia and the West. And in light of that, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, nuclear war feels like a realistic possibility.

This is not to say that there will be a nuclear war. I think there almost definitely won’t be. But nuclear war would be very, very bad: the greatest catastrophe in the history of human civilization. It could kill hundreds of millions of people immediately, kill billions more through fallout and nuclear winter, and render life much, much worse for the survivors for a very, very long time. And even a very small chance of a very bad outcome must be taken seriously. The theory of expected utility says that we can determine how seriously to take a risk by multiplying how good or bad the relevant thing would be by the probability of that thing happening. So, for instance, if a certain lottery ticket gives me a 1% chance of winning $100, the theory of expected utility says that I should value that ticket at $1 (because 1% of $100 is $1). But the same reasoning suggests that, if a nuclear war would kill billions of people, then even if there is only a 1% chance of a nuclear war happening at some point in the future, we should take that possibility as seriously as a calamity that kills tens of millions of people.

So – in addition, of course, to asking how we can help the people being unjustly harmed in the war right now – it is worth asking how we might reduce the risk of nuclear war. In the immediate future, NATO should obviously be wary of directly going to war with Russia, even if NATO helps Ukraine in other ways. The effect of these other forms of help on the risk of nuclear war is harder to gauge. Their immediate effect is to increase tensions with Russia. But on the other hand, if NATO stood by and did nothing while Putin attacked Ukraine, perhaps he would suppose that NATO was so reluctant to fight him that he could freely attack other countries, including NATO members like Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia. And that would greatly increase the chance of a nuclear war. Suffice to say, the question is difficult.

In the longer term, what could we do? Unfortunately, this question is also difficult. Many people have worked for nuclear disarmament, the elimination of nuclear weapons. But while this may be a good long-term goal, it seems unrealistic for the foreseeable future. Because nuclear weapons can guarantee a nation’s security, they are too valuable to expect everyone to give them up. Ukraine gave up its own nuclear weapons in the 1990’s, and if it hadn’t, it seems quite likely that the current war would not be occurring. Meanwhile, Russia’s nuclear arsenal prevents NATO from using its superior military might to directly intervene in Ukraine. And so on. And if only some nations gave up their nuclear weapons, the risk of nuclear war might well increase. Peace between the USA and the USSR during the Cold War was achieved through the doctrine of mutually assured destruction: each country maintained a nuclear arsenal large enough to destroy the other in the event of a surprise attack. This meant neither side would launch such an attack, since their own country would be destroyed, too. But if one had gotten rid of its nuclear weapons on its own, the other might well have seized the opportunity to eliminate their rival.

However, there may at least be steps we can take to reduce the risk that a nuclear war breaks out due to an accident, or the actions of an irrational leader. For instance, at present, it is a matter of controversy what limits, if any, exist on the ability of the President of the United States to order the use of nuclear weapons. If a president someday orders a nuclear attack on Canada because he doesn’t like maple syrup, presumably those around him would disobey the order. But would there be any legal way to stop him? Some experts say no. Others suggest that those tasked with carrying out the order could reject it as inconsistent with the laws of war. But in any event, there is no reason to leave any confusion. The Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act would ensure that the president could only use nuclear weapons with the permission of Congress, or in response to the use of nuclear weapons by someone else. An alternative proposal would require that any order to use nuclear weapons be confirmed by the next two people in the presidential line of succession (ordinarily, the Vice President and Speaker of the House), perhaps with exceptions in the case of a surprise attack. Policies which might reduce the risk of accidental nuclear war have also been proposed. Advocating for the introduction of policies like these in the U.S. and in other nuclear-armed states might reduce the risk of nuclear war. So might working for a better and more peaceful world in general, since the fewer conflicts, the fewer opportunities for something to escalate into a nuclear exchange. Of course, all of these measures can only do so much. But given the stakes, making nuclear war even slightly less likely is morally urgent.

Pope Francis, Edward Gallagher, and Just War Theory

photograph of armed soldiers in file

In his remarks during a trip to Japan, Pope Francis denounced not only the use, but also the mere possession, of nuclear weapons as morally unacceptable. While this has been Pope Francis’ position throughout his tenure as Pope, it marks a change in the Vatican’s official position toward nuclear weapons from the era of Pope John Paul II, at which time the church merely denounced the actual use of nuclear weapons. Neither of these comments are motivated by a general principle of pacifism on the part of the Catholic Church, which both currently and historically has supported the existence and use of military force. The contemporary Church recognizes war as legitimate only in the context of national self-defense.

Relatedly significant controversy has attended President Donald Trump’s meddling in the case of Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher, who was tried and acquitted of war crimes. The idea of a war crime can itself seem perplexing as to many it is intuitive that the point of war is simply to win quickly and by whatever means necessary. How do nations like the United States, which has actively pursued military means of executing its international agenda, square their activities with idea of a war crime? Are institutions like the United States and the Catholic Church contradicting themselves, or is there actual principle at work?

A good way to understand this is to look into the specific provisions of so-called Just War Theory, the roots of which are in the work of famed (and Catholic) philosopher Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologicae. Far from pacifism, Just War Theory advocates that there is a way to enter into, conduct, and conclude wars which is not merely morally excusable but wholly justified. Nor is this sort of thinking limited to the Catholic tradition. In the Muslim tradition, the concept of jihad is one which prescribes with whom it is morally acceptable to go to war and how it is permissible to prosecute such a war. Similar sentiments can also be found in the writings of the Confucian and Mohist schools of philosophy in Ancient China as well as in Ancient Roman concepts of the laws that govern conduct among nations.

For the sake of simplicity and brevity, let’s stick with Just War Theory. A ban on the use of nuclear weapons would come under the heading of jus in bello, the part of Just War Theory that deals with what counts as prosecuting war in a morally justified fashion. Accounts of the aftermath of the use of nuclear weapons by the United States against Japan in 1945 are harrowing. Those people who survived the initial explosion suffered from extensive and horrible burns as well as a lifetime of health problems due to exposure to intense levels of radiation. These aspects inefficiently achieve the licit goals of military action as allowed by Just War Theory, namely to incapacitate a wrongly aggressing force without excessive damage to civilians and non-military infrastructure. Further, nuclear weapons in general create the possibility of nuclear fallout, which is the transmission of radioactive material throughout the atmosphere by weather patterns. Importantly the spread of nuclear fallout is not in the direct control of those who deploy nuclear weapons in the first instance. Hence the area and number of people affected is indiscriminate, with no clear way of controlling collateral damage.

Both of these features of nuclear weaponry make them a means of conducting war that is arguably male in se, in the terms of Just War Theory. This means that it is a method that is inherently bad, regardless of who uses it and how. Examples of methods that are treated as mala in se without controversy are slavery, pillaging and raping, group punishment as well as chemical and biological weapons (e.g., mustard gas and weaponized infectious agents). Nuclear weapons are not banned, but the similarity of the effects that they have to chemical and biological agents has led many to advocate for disarmament and an international ban on the possession, use, and development of nuclear weapons.

Not only are certain methods of killing and incapacitating enemies and civilians forbidden in Just War Theory, so is certain treatment of prisoners of war. The war crimes accusations against Edward Gallagher concerned the murder of an Islamic State prisoner of war. In general, prisoners of war (and otherwise incapacitated combatants), are not allowed to be killed, tortured, or humiliated. Unlike criminal prisoners, prisoners of war are not being held as a means of punishment for their actions. Even where the captured military personnel are responsible for actions considered international crimes, the ground personnel of the opposing military are not considered legitimately empowered to execute punishment. Here another aspect of Just War Theory enters the picture, jus post bellum, which concerns appropriate behavior upon the conclusion of war. Any prosecution for war crimes must be done by with respect for due process, including full court proceedings, within a court with the appropriate jurisdiction.

Just War Theory attempts to carve out a middle path between two monolithic alternatives. On the one hand there is pacifism, which argues that all violent, military action is morally unacceptable. On the other hand there is so-called realism about war, which argues that war is not immoral but beyond morality. However every nation belonging to any international political or governing body (at least in theory) subjects itself to rules of warfare meant to limit what are seen as moral excesses in the conduct of an otherwise (possibly) justifiable enterprise. The concept of a war crime in general, and the Catholic Church’s evolving position on warfare in particular, both manifest attempts to stay between the twin implausibilities of pacifism and realism concerning war.

Game of Thrones: Dragons, Despots, and Just War

photograph of used Game of Thrones book

** SPOILER WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Game of Thrones up to and including the show’s Season 8 ending.

Game of Thrones, the popular television show based on the book series by George RR Martin, aired its final episode last week. Set in a medieval fantasy world the strength of its appeal is in its exploration of real-world themes of politics, power and war.

For a story infamous for subverting narrative expectations with radical plot twists, in the last two episodes the actions and ultimate fate of Daenerys Targaryen shocked even the most intrepid fans. Hitherto one of the story’s heroines and presumptive savior of Westeros, fans watched in horror as Daenerys chose to burn hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians alive in her quest to ‘build a better world’. What happened? Was this a calculated tactic, and if so, what possible reason or justification can there have been for her to choose the route of extreme violence?

Daenerys Targaryen was one of many contenders for the Iron Throne, the seat of power on the continent of Westeros, and the only one with dragons. In Martin’s fictional world, dragons (which can grow to immense size, and breathe columns of fire so hot it can melt stone and steel) had traditionally been used by the ruling Targaryen family as weapons of war and conquest, but had been extinct for a century prior to events of the story.

As different characters and factions vie for the Iron Throne and the rulership of Westeros, Daenerys Targaryen, living in exile after her father the “Mad King” was deposed by the current ruler(s) during a rebellion, magically hatches three petrified dragon eggs. Already possessed of the belief that the throne belonged to her by right of succession, as her dragons grew to maturity she was also in possession of a formidable military weapon with immense firepower. In a medieval world where weapons of war are swords and arrows, the dragons represent the destructive might of nuclear weapons against the mere capacities of conventional ones.

Despite occasionally displaying the fiery Targaryen temper, Daenerys was to begin with relatively restrained in the use of this significant advantage in pursuing her military goals and achieved her ascendency to ruler of Slaver’s Bay (a region on the continent in which she was in exile) with only sparing use of dragon fire. For most of the story Daenerys seems to be (so to speak) on the right side of history as, in Astapor, Yunkai and Meereen she liberated the large population of slaves and presided over the abolition of the institution and practice of slavery. To this end she was a revolutionary, and styled herself as a liberator and a ruler for the downtrodden on a mission to create a better world.

When she finally turns her gaze to Westeros to retake the Iron Throne even as her advisors, including Tyrion Lannister, implore her to hold back her firepower and not to use her dragons to attack the city of King’s Landing (the seat of her rival, tyrannical and ruthless queen Cersei Lannister and also home to a large civilian population) but to pursue other military options less likely to result in large numbers of civilian casualties, many of her allies (Yara Greyjoy, Ellaria Sand and Olenna Tyrell) encourage her to hit King’s Landing with all of her might.

This is a real ethical dilemma in military tactics. Where one party has a weapon of immense superiority, such as a nuclear weapon, there is a case to be weighed up between using it to obtain swift victory, avoiding a potentially protracted conflict which may eventually lead to a great deal more death and suffering, as against holding back to avoid the possibility of an egregious, even gratuitous, victory born from a one-sided conflict. As such, the debate continues on whether the use of nuclear weapons by the United States on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end WWII was morally justified. One informal, voluntary poll shows that over 50% of respondents believe that it was indeed justified.

Viewers who had followed Daenerys’ ascent from frightened girl to Khaleesi, Mother of Dragons, and Breaker of Chains generally trusted in her, as a flawed but fundamentally good character, to do what was right. But as in the real world, in the world of Game of Thrones, it is not always clear what the right thing is. Even so, one of the things that the Game of Thrones seems to point up is the need for benevolent rulers. When Daenerys responds that: “I am here to free the world from tyrants… not to be queen of the ashes” we seem to instinctively understand that benevolence and indiscriminate violence cannot easily coexist.  

Yet following the failure of other tactics, she finally unleashes the immense firepower of a dragon against the Lannister army, literally incinerating it, and afterwards, presenting the captured soldiers and nobles with a ‘choice’ – to “bend the knee” (accept her as their ruler) “or die.” She executes with dragon-fire those who do not acquiesce. If Daenerys is going to win, if she is going to take the throne and build her better world, she needs some victories – but is this use of firepower, and subsequent refusal of mercy the right thing to do? At this point her advisors, and possibly her supporters, are uneasy.

In our world, the rules of just war have been formulated, and latterly enshrined in international law, in order to regulate, and limit when and how war is waged. Just war theory includes the principles of jus ad bellum and jus in bello.

Jus ad bellum is a set of criteria to be consulted prior to resorting to warfare to determine whether war is permissible, that is, whether it is a just war. This principle has a long history in the western philosophical tradition. In his Summa Theologica, circa 1270 Thomas Aquinas writes: “[we deem as] peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.” One principle of just war, particularly relevant here is the principle of proportionality which stipulates that the violence used in the war must be proportional to the military objectives.

Daenerys does, in accordance with Aquinas’ stipulation, have as her objective the ‘securing of peace’ and ‘uplifting of the good’. Her attack on the Lannister armies, following the exhausting of other tactics, probably passes the test of proportionality – though executing prisoners of war would contravene the Geneva Convention.

However, in the penultimate episode of the series, the worst fears of those who had counselled her against unleashing the full force of her destructive capacities upon a whole city – civilian and military alike, come to pass. Worse still, this action is not taken as a last resort. Using her armies and dragons she has already overcome the enemy’s military. The city has surrendered and the bells of surrender are ringing out as she begins methodically to raze the city to the ground. In this moment she cedes the moral high ground and loses all the moral authority she had earned as a warrior for justice and liberator of the people. But why does she do this?

Daenerys believes that the end will justify the means. She believes that the good of the new world she wants to build will outweigh the suffering caused by the destruction of the old one. She relies on a consequentialist justification here, but if an action can be justified morally by its consequences, then one must know what the consequences will be, and one must know that the resultant good will be certain to morally outweigh the suffering.

Theoretically, if the death of, say, hundreds of thousands prevented the deaths of millions then it could be justified in consequentialist terms. Many philosophers find in such reasoning grounds to reject consequentialist ethics. The reason no one accepts this rationale from Daenerys is that the magnitude of devastation renders it nearly impossible to see it as anything other than utterly, horrifically disproportionate, and the fact that the city had surrendered renders such a justification moot since the immense suffering can not be shown to have been necessary for the better world she claims to be trying to build. As such, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it was gratuitous.

If Daenerys actions cannot be justified as a sacrifice in pursuit of “mercy towards future generations who will never again be held hostage to a tyrant” the other explanation is more sinister – and also more realpolitik. In his book on ruling and the exercise of power, Niccolò Machiavelli wrote: “it is much more safe to be feared than to be loved when you have to choose between the two.

Coming to the bitter realization that she was not going to win the Iron Throne nor hold power in Westeros by virtue of the love of those whom she needed on her side, Daenerys knows that if she is to rule, fear is her only pathway to power. She says as much to Jon Snow before the attack on King’s Landing: “alright then, then let it be fear.” As such, she had made her choice before hand and knew that were the city to surrender she would not pull back, as Tyrion urged her to do, but unleash the full force of her fiery might.

Perhaps Daenerys thought that this was the right thing to do, perhaps, cornered, she thought it was the only thing left for her to do. As Cersei Lannister so prophetically said to Ned Stark in Season One “When you play the game of thrones you win or you die, there is no middle ground.” Is this Machiavellian move compatible with the goal of building a better world? Daenerys had wanted to free the world of tyrants, but what is a tyrant but someone who must rule by fear? Sadly the Khaleesi, Mother of Dragons, and Breaker of Chains in the end became what she despised.

Considering the Consequences: Withdrawing from the INF Treaty

Photograph of Reagan and Gorbachev shaking hands and holding a document

In a very dramatic speech on February 1, 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that the US is suspending its obligations under the INF Treaty effective February 2 due to Russia’s continuous violation of the Article XV of the treaty, which obligates parties “not to produce, possess, or flight-test a ground-launched intermediate-range cruise missile system with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.” Russia followed the US decision just hours after the Secretary Pompeo’s speech.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 in order to prevent both the US and then the Soviet Union from developing an entire class of nuclear weapons, leading to a gradual removal and destruction of more than 2600 missiles. The Treaty was celebrated as one of the most advanced and consequential agreements between the two world powers that aimed to bring more security to the North Atlantic Area, and most importantly to calm down the tensions caused by the Cold War. The purpose of these missiles was to threaten the possibility of nuclear war in Europe, as they were not easily noticeable on radars due to their short flight times and unpredictable flight patterns. Notably, this treaty was not only important for Europe, as it also imposed a ban on using “all types of ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles” anywhere in the world.

The US has first warned about Russia’s violation of the treaty in 2014, and since then has been imposing various policies and sanctions trying to leverage Russia to comply with the treaty. Russia has rebutted those claims, asking that the US provides evidence, while also giving a list of US violations. As time passed the US allies started to increasingly align with the US assessment and ultimately “concluded that Russia has developed and fielded a missile system.” The Euro-American front seemed to be clear in their position towards Russia, but some of the first reactions coming from Europe seem hesitant to completely side with President Trump, as most of those countries view this treaty as a pillar of their security architecture. Several questions arise after the withdrawing from the treaty: what are the major consequences of the withdrawal, and was the decision to withdraw more opportune then the policy of trying to leverage Russia back to compliance?

The array of consequences are still debated, especially the results of this decision on the peace and security in the world. America’s European allies have already expressed their disaffection with President Trump’s decision as they fear that Russia is once again going to be able to target all parts of the European territory. Another fear also accompanies that of the Russian attack: the decoupling of US and European security. European allies have relied for a long time on US interest in keeping Europe safe, but President Trump has often emphasized that this responsibility is now on Europeans themselves. The transatlantic area has been under a strain for a quite some time, and the withdrawal is going to provide just another kick in the already tense relationship. There is a lot of discussion on whether NATO is going to be able to balance between the allies as the new challenges arise, but the next steps have yet to be seen.

Another important factor is that the US will now be free to develop intermediate range missiles as a deterrence mechanism against China, but this might also indicate a beginning of a new arms race. China has not been part of the INF, and as such was not restrained to develop intermediate-range missiles which led to China’s missile arsenal consisting of approximately 95% of intermediate-range systems. However, the fact remains that if US and China commence the arms race, the chances of a potential new INF treaty that would include China, Russia, and European allies seems less likely especially as the US will need to ensure support both from Europeans and Russians in order to compel China to join.

The previous administration pursued the approach of targeted policy and sanctions to try to convince Russia to get back to compliance to the INF Treaty. Although this approach did not result in Russia’s policy reversal and decision to comply, one question remains open: why did the US withdraw without a readily available alternative, and would remaining a party to the treaty make any future negotiations easier? In case of the START I Treaty, Russia and US readily replaced the expiring treaty with its refreshed version New START, just half a year after its expiry. Exiting the treaty obligations while the treaty was still in force, despite the fact it had been violated by one party, makes it much harder to renegotiate as it opens space for potential disagreements on things that the previous agreement had established and clarified, and most importantly allows for a period of arms race before any new potential agreement is reached. Consequently, one must take into account the long lasting process that goes into negotiating any kind of arms deal, especially between two world powers. In evaluating the consequences of the withdrawal one ought to take into account the possibility of renegotiating the status quo.

The full range of consequences of the US and Russian withdrawal are not yet clear, but we can only hope that we are not going to repeat the mistakes of our past.

The Iran Deal: Shaky Future, Uncertain Repercussions

Photograph of President Trump and President Macron walking outside the White House, Macron speaking and gesturing with his hand

Earlier this year, I wrote about the violations of human rights by the Iranian regime and its impacts on the “Iran Deal” as a framework to restrain Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons. The conclusion of that analysis was to push leaders to start delving into question of what will achieve security and safety for all on the global stage. Today, I will revisit with a different approach, through examining the impacts of the long discussions regarding the future of Iran Nuclear Deal. Two questions arise: Why are the European allies devoting so much attention to the future of the deal, and what are the implications of backing out from the agreement? Continue reading “The Iran Deal: Shaky Future, Uncertain Repercussions”

In the Iran Nuclear Deal, Decoupling Human Rights and International Security

Two gloved hands holding a circular plate of uranium.

Following a January 2 tweet by the President of the United States, the world has turned its attention once again to Iran. Recent weeks have been marked by increasing anti-government and pro-government protests clashing on the streets of Tehran. The celebration of the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration and European allies now seems like a distant past. Seemingly, these two events are not strongly intertwined, but when we dig deeper, one might be surprised by the influence of the protests on the outcomes and success of the nuclear deal. This raises the question: is it possible to isolate the current protests from the security benefits that the nuclear deal provides to the international community, and would this mean giving in to the Iran regime’s treatment of its own people?

Continue reading “In the Iran Nuclear Deal, Decoupling Human Rights and International Security”

If North Korea Launches a Nuclear Attack, How Should the U.S. Respond?

A photo of the North Korean-South Korean border

North Korea’s regime has taken a bolder step in its confrontation with the United States: it has threatened to launch an attack against Guam, a US territory in the Pacific. Then, it walked it back. But, we have seen this kind of behavior in Kim Jong Un many times, so we may foresee that, sooner or later, he will again threaten to attack Hawaii, Guam, South Korea, or any other target within North Korea’s range. If such an attack takes place, and it is a nuclear attack, how should the U.S. ethically respond?

Continue reading “If North Korea Launches a Nuclear Attack, How Should the U.S. Respond?”

In Las Vegas, Trump’s Policies Worry a Former Nuclear Test Site Employee

Throughout his campaign to become President, Donald Trump has thrived on unpredictability. He has turned press conferences into makeshift advertisements for his hotels. He has invited Bill Clinton’s sexual assault accusers to a Presidential debate, in an effort to force the former President to shake their hands as they filed past him. And in Wednesday’s Las Vegas debate, he refused to recognize the fairness of the U.S. electoral system, promising that he would keep the American public “in suspense” until after the ballots are counted.

Continue reading “In Las Vegas, Trump’s Policies Worry a Former Nuclear Test Site Employee”

The Hiroshima Bombing: Was it Terrorism?

Terrorism is a word often associated with its modern context. When we think of terrorists, we think of masked gunmen attacking shopping malls and beaches, or planes flying into the World Trade Center on September 11th. Rarely do we consider events that predate the 21th century – events that may have taken place before the modern notion of terrorism arose, but that also relied heavily on the killing of civilians and fear to accomplish their aims.

Continue reading “The Hiroshima Bombing: Was it Terrorism?”