You Should Be Scared of Nuclear War Again
The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from a Cold War-era nuclear missile treaty will put us all in renewed danger
Mutually Assured Destruction has a bad name. I mean that literally — all three of those words are terrifying. Put them together, and they mean that annihilation is kept at bay by the fact that the two main nuclear powers — the United States and Russia — have thousands of warheads on land, sea, and in the air, targeted at each other and ready to launch, should one of them decide to fire first.
But what’s scarier than Mutually Assured Destruction in a world where an estimated nine countries have nuclear weapons and others want to join the club? Pretty much nothing.
That’s why the Trump Administration’s formal withdrawal of the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty on Friday is so worrying. The pact, which was signed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, eliminated stocks of ground-based ballistic missiles capable of traveling between 500 and 5,500 km, otherwise known as tactical arms. The existence of these weapons was inherently destabilizing.
Nuclear weapons are dangerous not just because of their destructive power, but because of their speed. Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) can travel between Russia and the United States — and vice versa — in around 30 minutes. This means that in the event of a suspected launch, the leaders of the targeted country would have less than the length of an average sitcom to decide whether the launch was real and how to respond. That is an insanely compressed timeframe to decide whether or not to take an action that could plausibly result in the end of human civilization.
If tactical nuclear missiles are on the board, however, that time frame is contracted even more. It’s why the United States reacted so strongly after it discovered in 1963 that Soviet advisers were placing short-range nuclear missiles in Cuba, 100 miles away from the tip of Florida. The Cuban Missile Crisis that followed was likely the closest the world has ever come to all-out nuclear war, a fate that was avoided — or perhaps just postponed — by a mix of statesmanship and blind luck.
It’s the difference between a sniper having a bead on you from a distance and someone putting a gun right in front of your face. And now the Trump Administration — goaded, in part, by Russia — wants to take us back to those dark days.
Even worse, actually. Because short-range tactical nuclear weapons are less powerful than ICBMs, they implicitly lower the threshold for deploying an atomic bomb. They are seen as “gateway drugs” to nuclear war, blurring what should be very sharp lines. Any rational leader would blanch before launching an all-out nuclear attack that could ultimately kill billions of people. But firing off a single, tactical nuke might seem a lot closer to ordering conventional air strikes — something American presidents rarely hesitate to do when confronted with a range of threats that all fall short of the existential.
It’s the difference between a sniper having a bead on you from a distance, and someone putting a gun right in front of your face. And now the Trump Administration wants to take us back to those dark days.
Once the nuclear seal has been broken, though — even by what seems like a comparatively minor bomb — no one knows what will happen next. “Once you start using nuclear weapons,” Joe Cirincione, the president of the Ploughshares Fund, an antinuclear nonprofit, told me last year, “that is not a stable situation.”
The Trump administration’s stated reasoning for withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty is that Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, has been effectively cheating on the treaty for years. This is largely true, but by unilaterally withdrawing from the treaty rather than punishing Russia over its violations, the United States effectively closes the door to future arms-control treaties, while also raising the possibility of a new arms race between the two countries to develop low-yield, tactical nukes.
And this should terrify all of us.
I spent more than two years working on a book called End Times about existential risk that will be published at the end of August. Existential risks represent global-scale threats that could plausibly result in the end of humanity, or something close to it. These range from cosmic or Earth-bound natural threats, like major asteroid strikes or supervolcano eruptions, to emerging technological threats that we can’t quite control, like synthetic biology and artificial intelligence. They are the ends that could lead us to the end times.
I knew nuclear war would be included in the book. The missiles, after all, are still there, still waiting to be launched at a moment’s notice. But I also assumed that the risk was far less than it had been during the worst days of the Cold War. Washington and Moscow, after all, were no longer avowed ideological enemies, and the thousands of warheads on both sides had been destroyed, thanks to a series of arms control treaties. The Cold War itself, after all, was over. I knew that my son, born in 2017, would live under the shadow of climate change and other new existential threats. But the nuclear nightmare — hadn’t we all awakened from it?
But the truth is that we’re still asleep. Climate change is the risk that looms largest over the decades and even centuries ahead, and biotechnology — the ability to engineer pathogens far worse than anything nature could cook up — poses the sharpest threat in the near future. But if the world ends today, or tomorrow, it would be due to a nuclear war. It could be started by intention, or by accident, as nearly happened countless times during the second half of the 20th century. It wouldn’t matter. What matters is that it can happen, and rather than attempting to minimize that risk, leaders in both Washington and Moscow seem to be actively courting it.
Nuclear peace relies on stability, and moves like Trump’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty degrade that stability.
Martin Hellman, an electrical engineer and cryptologist at Stanford University, has run the odds and compares the probability of nuclear war to a game of Russian roulette. Every nuclear crisis — every point of geopolitical tension between two atomic powers, every accidental close call with nuclear weapons that could lead to an exchange — represents a pull of the trigger. Inevitably — unless we choose to pull back from the brink — we’ll fire the chamber with the bullet.
In a 2009 paper, Hellman put the annual probability of a “Cuban Missile–type Crisis” producing nuclear war at 0.2% to 1%. That seems reassuringly low, but every year that passes compounds those odds, so much so that Hellman estimated there was a minimum 10% chance that a child born in 2009 would suffer an early death in a nuclear war. Other experts have come up with higher or lower estimates, but the point is that as long as nuclear weapons exist, they will remain an intolerable, existential risk. As the report from the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, an international panel on the future of atomic warfare, stated in 1997, “The proposition that nuclear weapons can be retained in perpetuity and never used — accidentally or by decision — defies credibility.”
William Perry lived through the Cold War as an analyst, and served in nearly every important position in national defense. He ended his career in government as President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Defense between 1994 and 1997, at a time when the risk of nuclear war seemed lower than it had been since Hiroshima. But now, at 91, Perry is spending his final years raising the alarm about the renewed danger of nuclear war for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the group that runs the famous Doomsday Clock. “I couldn’t imagine how we could go back to a Cold War again and a nuclear arms race again,” Perry told me last year. “But I was wrong.”
We were all wrong. And if our leaders keep making decisions like the one made today by the Trump Administration, we will all eventually pay the price.