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Mutually Assured Destruction

With the conflict between India and Pakistan reaching a point of crisis, the threat of nuclear war is once again on the minds of many. Duncan Richter, Dylan Suzanne and Robert M. Martin discuss the logic behind the Cold War and the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction.

To many the idea of mutually assured destruction never made any sense. Now that it seems to be coming back with the resurgence of hostility between India and Pakistan, it is worth trying to make sense of it.

For a policy called MAD it is perhaps not surprising that there is little logic behind the argument in its defence. This is not to say that it is a bad policy however. It is a policy based on psychology rather than logic. The idea is that you create a situation whereby if one side attacks the other it will inevitably be attacked itself. Given that the attacks in question are massive and nuclear, any first strike would destroy not only the enemy but one’s own side too. All bombing would in effect be suicide bombing. So, the argument goes, this would deter states from bombing each other. Logically, this argument is a disaster of course. Suicide bombing can and does occur, but psychologically it makes a certain amount of sense. This applies if one is dealing with non-fanatics, which cannot always be guaranteed but seemed to be the case of each side during much of the Cold War.

The ethics of Mutually Assured Destruction can appear to be very simple. On the one hand, it is argued that any policy that deliberately makes the destruction of the entire planet possible must be evil. End of story. On the other hand, defenders of MAD point out that it works, or at least has not failed so far. They would add probably that it is naïve to expect all others to get rid of all their nuclear weapons, and that the only possible defence against a nuclear-armed potential enemy is the unappealing policy known as MAD.

This debate has been dramatized for us by Martin Amis in his autobiographical book Experience. According to Martin Amis, in a “nuclearised world … the state puts one’s family in the front line” and thus “entirely undoes” the “apparent verity” that we should be loyal to the state because it protects one’s family (as argued by Allan Bloom, following Hobbes and Locke). [Amis p.225 footnote] Kingsley Amis, though, looked down on those who, like his son, were “against” nuclear weapons (the sneer quotes are his). The issue for him was not whether to be for or against nuclear weapons, but what to do about them. Given their existence on both sides in the Cold War, simply dumping one’s own weapons would remove the risk of global destruction but increase the risk of one’s own side losing any ‘merely’ conventional war. Since the idea of a cold war is the idea of a stand-off, any imbalance might indeed be expected to make such a war more likely. Any advantage, especially if considered only temporary, is liable to be pressed. So the ethical issues raised by MAD are really: what may we risk?, what may we intend?, and how should we weigh the risks of global destruction and international communism? Is the state protecting one’s family if it deliberately puts them at risk of global nuclear war? Is it protecting them if it deliberately increases the risk of global conventional war followed, quite possibly, by international communism of the Soviet variety?

The answers are not simple, and are likely to depend on how much one dislikes the idea of communism (or, indeed, of capitalism if one takes the other point of view). Kingsley Amis was more opposed to communism than his son Martin. Even now that the Cold War is over, the answers are not clear. MAD seemed to work, but was it worth the risk? Could Russia really have won a conventional war? And if it had, would communism have lasted any longer in a conquered West than it did in the Soviet Union? We will never know. At least we are alive to think about it, but the weapons stockpiled during the Cold War have not been completly destroyed and could yet be used by terrorists or others.

We may still have to give up some of our freedom as citizens of independent nations if we are to be free from the threat of nuclear destruction. As Jonathan Glover writes in Humanity: “The dangers of not having international control of nuclear weapons were frighteningly apparent during the nuclear arms race of the Cold War. When that arms race ended, many people relaxed about the issue. But, since the end of the Cold War, the proliferation of nuclear-armed nation-states keeps the danger alive in a different form.” (p.112). The policy of MAD might no longer seem relevant to people in Europe and America, but the possibility of mass destruction and the question of what to do about it have not gone away.

© Duncan Richter 2002

Duncan Richter teaches at the Virginia Military Institute.

Dylan Suzanne

As we consider mutually assured destruction anew, we may be surprised to note how much the world has changed since the end of the Cold War, and it seems possible that we may even view mutually assured destruction with a kind of nostalgia. Mutually assured destruction is possible only in a very particular political situation that is becoming increasingly impossible: all parties must be identified and monitored, means of mass destruction must be anticipated, and destruction must be a similarly unacceptable loss to all parties. In the absence of any of these conditions mutually assured destruction is not possible, and we find ourselves now in a situation wherein each of these conditions has recently been made uncertain. This offers us an unusual opportunity to gain a new understanding of the logic of mutually assured destruction, its intuitive ethical appeal, and the ephemeral nature of its deterrent efficacy.

First, mutually assured destruction is presumably only a real deterrent if the destruction that both sides are threatened with is of a sufficiently devastating scale, for a trivial loss will not motivate much reticence. What constitutes a ‘sufficiently devastating scale,’ is, however, not a simple matter. Risk of even a minimum of loss is unacceptable when nothing is thereby gained, but even a certain and heavy loss may begin to seem acceptable as the threat to the enemy becomes increasingly severe and unavoidable. Regardless of what is acceptable to whom and in what circumstances, mutually assured destruction can only serve as an effective deterrent in those cases in which the degree of loss faced by each party involved is at least unacceptable, if not total.

Even though the threat faced by the parties involved may not be entirely equivalent, if we are speaking of only cases in which an unacceptable degree of destruction is assured there is nevertheless a guarantee that no advantage can be gained at a price worth paying. This can be reasonably called an assurance of a kind of justice, for neither combatant can bring destruction upon the other without suffering a similar fate. The assurance of immediate, assured, and severe reciprocation has a certain strong intuitive ethical appeal, for where violence cannot be prevented, it is thereby at least assured that one reaps what one sows.

For a number of different reasons, mutually assured destruction is becoming increasingly difficult to guarantee. First, it is important to note that one can only assure mutual destruction in the case that either one can determine that a weapon of mass destruction has been launched prior to its effect or one can ensure that one’s offensive capability will survive a weapon of mass destruction. The former is a much more secure guarantee, and is indeed the way in which the mutually assured destruction of the Cold War was established. The problem with this strategy is that as technical abilities and technological resources increase and become increasingly widespread, the parties able to wield a weapon of mass destruction become ever more numerous and, therefore, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify and monitor threats to the extent necessary to assure mutual destruction.

Additionally, as our knowledge and technical abilities increase, there are ever a greater number of methods of causing an opposed party to suffer an unacceptable loss. The identification and monitoring of hostile parties necessary to assure mutual destruction must also anticipate the means of destruction which may be brought to bear, and without this, monitoring can serve little purpose. It was much easier to guarantee mutually assured destruction when the only weapons of mass destruction were ballistic; now we must attend to biological and chemical agents, and to any number of means of delivery.

A third difficulty which may rob mutually assured destruction of its deterrent efficacy has to do, not with ensuring that the attack can be foreseen in order to allow reciprocation, but instead with the possibility that a group may find even total destruction to be an acceptable loss. As the varieties of weapons of mass destruction increase in number, and as our abilities to produce and employ them become ever more widespread, ever smaller groups with ever fewer resources will be able to produce and employ such weapons. As weapons of mass destruction fall under the control of small organizations rather than nations, it becomes increasingly likely that there should be such a group which is both able to wield such a weapon and which is willing to consider complete destruction an acceptable loss.

The deterrent force of mutually assured destruction does not emerge merely from the threat of death, but is dependent upon a responsibility which a state has to protect its citizens. If an organization with no such responsibility, a group perhaps formed only in order to destroy, should be able to wield a weapon of mass destruction, it need not find mutually assured destruction as a deterrent consequence. Furthermore, even if a small organization should view its own destruction as an unacceptable loss, an unacceptable loss to a small organization cannot be viewed as comparable to the unacceptable loss which they might be able to incur upon a nation, both because of the vast disparity in the scale of death and destruction, but also because those who will suffer and die due to military engagements will be, in the case of a small organization, much more likely to approve of the military action and much more likely to consider their own death an acceptable outcome.

For these reasons, mutually assured destruction is steadily becoming an ineffectual deterrent strategy. The number of potential combatants is ever greater, the means of mass destruction ever more varied, and the combatants ever smaller, and therefore more likely to be willing to suffer destruction in order to reach their goals. In this process, mutually destruction becomes much more difficult to assure, and that assurance, when possible, becomes of less consequence. It is then not surprising that we should look upon mutually assured destruction with a kind of nostalgia, for we can no longer feel assured that a kind of justice should be carried out even in the worst case scenario. None of this, of course, lessens the horrors which might be wrought by a weapon of mass destruction, and despite the danger and uncertainty which is presented by terrorism, those living under the more structured and foreseeable threat of mutually assured destruction can in no way be envied.

© D. E. Suzanne 2002

Dylan Suzanne is a doctoral student at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

Robert M. Martin

During the late 1950s, Bertrand Russell was a founder of the large and influential movement called the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in Britain, and one of the most vocal opponents of the Cold War nuclear buildup. He asked, during a famous ban-the-bomb talk on the BBC, whether we were “so destitute of wisdom, so incapable of impartial love, so blind even to the simplest dictates of self-preservation,” that we would carry out “the extermination of all life on our planet.” Many philosophers joined him in his views in those days, when there was a real possibility of an unspeakably horrible nuclear holocaust.

But you can always find philosophers taking the other side of any argument. The other side in this debate wasn’t in favour of nuclear Armageddon, of course. They pointed out that almost always in history big hostile powers had gone to war, and argued that it was only the threat of massive nuclear retaliation – the situation called Mutually Assured Destruction – that had kept things comparatively peaceful this time.

The basic reasoning on both sides of this debate was fairly obvious, but twists in the arguments have added some philosophical surprises. They’re called Paradoxes of Deterrence. Here’s how they go.

Imagine you’re the U.S. President during the Cold War. You want to keep from going to Hot War with the Soviets, and you think that your threat of nuclear retaliation is the only way to do this, and is very likely to succeed. But then you do some strategic “what-if” thinking, as follows: Suppose your threat didn’t work, and the Soviets, for some unknown reason, fired nuclear missiles on several US cities. What would you do then? You could wipe out some Soviet cities in return, as you had threatened, but what would the point of that be? Your cities would have already been destroyed, and retaliation couldn’t do anything about that. The Soviets would have used up their missiles, so there’d be nothing left to deter. Retaliation would just bring about an enormous amount of additional havoc, destruction, suffering and death. The only person who’d want to retaliate would be someone driven crazy by an irrational urge for pointless revenge, someone immoral enough not to care about all that additional death and suffering. You’re neither crazy or immoral. At that point, you wouldn’t retaliate.

Notice the paradox here: your missiles are useful just in case it’s not necessary to use them. If they had to be used, they’d be useless.

But, you think further, the Soviet Premier knows you and realises you’re neither crazy nor immoral. So he knows you wouldn’t retaliate if he struck first and destroyed some of your cities. So he knows your threat of retaliation is empty, and he might strike first.

How can you persuade him that your threat is real? Well, one thing you could do would be to build a ‘Doomsday Machine.’ This thing (described in Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove) is a machine that would detect a nuclear firststrike anywhere in the U.S. and automatically launch retaliatory strikes on the Soviet Union. It’s important that this process be unstoppable: as we’ve seen above, you’d want not to retaliate after a first strike, and if you could stop the Doomsday Process you would; so the retaliation threat would again be empty. But an unstoppable Doomsday Machine would convince the Soviet Premier that you’re really serious about this retaliation business – that it really would happen. That would make your nuclear threat real, and would make war very unlikely – which is your aim.

More paradox: it appears to be rational and morally right to build a machine to do something that, at the time of use, would be useless and horribly immoral.

But now imagine that, with the Doomsday Machine in place, the Soviet Premier launches a first strike anyway. (Maybe he’s gone crazy). So the Doomsday Machine is going to wipe out several Russian cities – just what you intended it to do. But that’s just doubling the tragedy; it’s horrible and useless! You wish you could stop it, but you can’t. Oh no! you cry, how did this happen? But you know the answer: you set it up so there would be exactly this result, unavoidably, if they struck first. You did it, knowingly, on purpose, and you were morally right to do so!

Here’s an alternative way you could try to get the Soviets to take your threat of retaliation seriously. They think you wouldn’t retaliate because they know you’re rational and moral, but what if you convinced them you were irrational enough to retaliate uselessly? If you only pretended to be irrational, they wouldn’t be fooled. So what you should do is really to go nuts, say by eating a great deal of LSD. Then they’d have to be careful! Paradoxically, this appears to be a situation in which it’s rational to be irrational – in which it’s sane to be crazy.

© Robert M. Martin 2002

Robert M. Martin is a professor in the Philosophy Department at Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia.

• Several paradoxes of deterrence are discussed by Gregory S. Kavka in ‘Some Paradoxes of Deterrence,’ The Journal of Philosophy 75, no. 6 (June 1978).

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