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How America Solves Problems

By Taylor Marvin

Sarah Palin (via Andrew Sullivan) on the latest Wikileaks release:

“Inexplicable: I recently won in court to stop my book ‘America by Heart’ from being leaked,but US Govt can’t stop Wikileaks’ treasonous act?”

Yes, Ms. Palin. A foreign national’s public release of illegally obtained classified US government documents through an international, decentralized distribution network is exactly like someone leaking passages of your book to a gossip site. Hey, why don’t we just sue Julian Assange and be done with it! Now that you mention it though, Iran’s been acting pretty treasonous lately. Why don’t we sue them too? Inexplicable really is the word here.

Nuclear Ambition in Iran and North Korea


By Taylor Marvin

Conservative Max Boot believes that the military impunity of nuclear-armed North Korea shows just how dangerous a nuclear Iran could be:

“Even now, North Korea could be planning to export nuclear know-how or uranium to Iran. If so, what are we going to do about it? My guess: not much. That is an argument for stopping Iran by any means necessary before it crosses the nuclear threshold and becomes as dangerous as North Korea.”

Boot is arguing that an Iranian nuclear bomb would give the country unacceptable policy freedom by deterring any attempt to punish its actions. The problem with this argument is that Iran probably already possesses a sufficient military deterrent to discourage a US attack on its nuclear program. While much of Iranian air defense infrastructure is antiquated the Iranians still have the advantage of knowing exactly where a US attack would occur, and have had years to prepare. Despite the vast disparity between USAF strike and Iranian air defense capabilities this advantage is probably sufficient to make a US strike on Iranian enrichment plants costly. A US strike package would have to penetrate heavily defended airspace around multiple nuclear facilities deep inside Iran; even with the USAF’s stealth aircraft advantage it isn’t reasonable to expect any attack plan to perform flawlessly. We’ve experienced this before- while not a perfect metaphor the USAF’s experience over North Vietnam did demonstrate just how biased a modern conflict is towards a well prepared air defense, even one armed with less than state of the art missiles. However, Iran’s ability to shoot down some US bombers and take American pilots prisoner isn’t the core of its military deterrence. In most situations the ability to inflict some casualties against a vastly superior force doesn’t effect the strictly military balance of the engagement. Instead, it’s the US’s aversion to causalities that provides Iran security. It’s hard to imagine Obama choosing to be the president that ordered a strike against Iran that resulted in dead and captured US airmen. While the American public has been tolerant of high infantry casualties in the long wars of the past decades the highly public losses from an air campaign over Iran would be different- endless cable news coverage of an American airman in captivity in Iran would be extremely costly to the President politically. The fact that most Americans support some type of strike against Iran doesn’t matter- it’s public opinion after suffering embarrassing public losses that’s important to presidential popularity.

This loss is worsened by the fact that a air campaign over Iran wouldn’t be successful at preventing Iran’s eventual acquisition of a nuclear bomb. It’s unlikely that the United States could destroy enough Iranian research sites to inflict real harm to the Iranian development effort without a sustained air campaign, one that the US public probably doesn’t have the patience for. Even if the US could destroy every Iranian nuclear site war with Iran would be politically counterproductive. Iran is currently a divided country marked by political factionalism and a very public debate over the future of the country. This is very good for both the US and Israel- the best long-term outcome of the Iranian problem is a gradual moderation of the Iranian government led by the growing influence of Iran’s young and middle class. Bombing Iran makes this reform less likely. A campaign against Iran’s nuclear program would justify the Iranian theocracy’s hostile worldview, vindicate the need for an Iranian nuclear deterrent, and publicly disenfranchise moderates. The Iranian nuclear program would recover from US strikes in a few years while the political damage to Iran’s moderates would be much more severe. A strike against Iran doesn’t make tactical or strategic sense, and President Obama has little practical incentive to pursue it. This doesn’t apply to only Obama- any US president aware of the political price of a costly and highly public military operation just doesn’t have a strong enough incentive to make the decision to act. If it comes to a choice between ordering a likely embarrassing and globally unpopular operation and continued toleration of Iranian nuclear ambition presidents have a strong motivation to error on the side of caution- the last three presidencies demonstrate that.

However, this logic doesn’t apply to Israel. Unlike Americans the majority of the Israeli population regards the prospects of an Iranian nuclear capability as an existential threat to their country. This doesn’t seem likely- there is very little evidence to support the conservative talking point that Iran is a suicidal state whose desire to destroy Israel wouldn’t be deterred by the Israeli nuclear capability. On top is this is the evidence that Iran is a security, not ideologically, motivated actor; the Iran-Iraq war ended in compromise, something that an Iran motivated only be Shia rage wouldn’t accept. However, Israeli fears of Iran’s nuclear ambition don’t have to be strictly rational to be both real and justified. Under these assumptions even a costly Israeli strike would be politically popular and long-term concerns about military action’s damage to eventual Iranian political moderation probably won’t play a significant role in public debate. That’s why an eventual Israeli strike against Iran is much more likely than an American one. While both nations face similarly dim prospects of strategic successful military action the political market in Israel would reward a politician who ordered a strike while an American making the same decision would be punished. This doesn’t change the unfavorable calculus of military action- strikes against Iran would be costly to both countries- but it’s the balance of the political marketplace, not long term rationality, that determines policy. This has frightening implication for the future of both Iran and Israel.

This is really the weakness of any antagonistic policy towards Iran. Both Israel and the United States have an enormous interest in the eventual emergence of a moderate, wealthy Iran. Policies designed to punish Iran move us away from this goal. Military strikes and even sanctions disproportionally punish the Iranian urban middle class who are the most moderate voices in the country. The US should do everything it can to encourage the economic growth and commercial opening of Iranian society because in the long term that’s our best hope for a desirable outcome. This isn’t popular- it’s very hard to accept that essentially rewarding Iran for its bad behavior is in the best interests of the US- but it is the right answer to the Iranian problem. This also highlights the differences between Iran and North Korea. Iran is a moderately developed nation with strong internal political debate and a moderate, young middle class. North Korea is an impoverished totalitarian state with zero prospects of economic growth and a population that’s probably too poor and brainwashed for any hopes of democratic reform or even eventual integration into South Korean society. The US would benefit from economic growth and the enfranchisement of moderate voices in Iran, which are both impossible in North Korea. There’s no room for a conciliatory approach in Korea because there probably aren’t moderate domestic actors in the North we could hope to empower with any type of diplomatic rewards. However in Iran this isn’t true, and an attempt to end economic sanctions, though not morally pleasant, is our best long term option. We need to recognize that North Korean and Iranian belligerence are vastly different situations. They demand different answers.

Quote for the Day

By Taylor Marvin

Kevin Drum reads Ahmed Rashid’s interview with Afghan President Hamid Karzai:

“From the U.S. point of view, of course, they key thing isn’t whether Karzai is tired or delusional or getting bad advice. What really matters is that over the past year he’s apparently come to the firm conclusion that a continued U.S. presence is unhelpful. This pretty plainly makes our military efforts in Afghanistan pointless. As Gen. Petraeus and his counterinsurgency gurus continually tell us, political support is crucial to eventual success. If we don’t have it — and it’s now about as clear as it can be that we don’t — then all the Lisbon conferences in the world won’t produce a plan for victory. It’s about time for Barack Obama to start leveling with the American public about this.”

Democracy and Individual Interest

By Taylor Marvin

Matt Yglesias doesn’t buy into the idea that Americans have a deep skepticism in the ability of the government to run itself effectively:

“That broad-based skepticism of government is, of course, why the Obama Era has also witnessed a broad-based public backlash against unrestrained government surveillance powers, the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, public demands that Obama cut Medicare benefits more sharply. That’s why a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana passed easily in California, and public momentum is growing to get Big Government off our southern borders and let people travel back and forth more easily.

I would say the main story of the Obama years has to do with people’s trust in other people. Most Americans are white, most Americans have health insurance, most Americans are native-born citizens, most Americans aren’t Muslims, and over the course of the Great Recession most Americans have become more suspicious that they live in a zero-sum world where any effort to improve the condition of other people will come at their expense.”

This is a bit simplistic. There really isn’t a logical contradiction between people supporting a reduction in the size of the federal government yet happily spending their Medicare and Social Security entitlements. People, with good reason, define good governance by what improves their individual welfare the most. Personal government transfers clearly do, and under simple, mostly emotional analysis policies that enhance social welfare like open international trade, reduction of government debt through entitlement cuts, and de-escalating the drug war don’t. Under this logic citizens have much more of an incentive to lobby for the continuation of policies that they believe directly affect them rather than, say, closing Guantanamo Bay. Of course this isn’t logical if individuals care about the welfare of the country over themselves, but there isn’t necessarily a contradiction in supporting policies that benefit yourself at the expense of the wider country. This isn’t an incentive that will go away, and is part of the reason why democracies have so much trouble eliminating the types of focused entitlements that are costly to society as a whole but benefit specific constituencies- agriculture subsidies are a good example of this. Policies that benefit specific groups aren’t always in the net benefit of society, and policies that a benefit everyone almost never exist. People act and vote in their own interest, and for policies to be successful democratic politicians have to design them so they appeal to voters’ personal interests as much as possible. Of course this is rarely practical. The incentive to act in your individual interest is probably the greatest strength of a market economy and the great weakness of democratic government- the contradiction in this is what makes democracy so fascinating.

Friday’s Reading List

Bay of Balos, Crete.

Bay of Balos, Crete. Photo by Wolfgang Staudt.

By Taylor Marvin

The best links of the week:

How foreign aid encourages corruption and political oppression in Ethiopia (New York Times Review of Books).

Personal vs. service industry hospitality (Same Facts).

A convincing defense of invasive TSA scanning (Marginal Revolution).

Drum agrees, and attacks specific criticisms of the TSA (Kevin Drum).

Given recent escalation on the Korea Peninsula, now might be a good time to review the current state of missile defense (Greg Goebel).

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Is Intelligence Common in the Universe?

By Taylor Marvin

Enough policy, here’s something completely different:

How common is intelligent life in the universe?

This question reduces to four possibilities: that all forms of life are rare in the universe and Earth’s life is the result of extraordinary circumstances, that simple life is commonly found but the complex life we are most familiar with is very rare, that both simple and complex life are common, and finally that intelligent life is found throughout the universe.

It’s important to remember that this question and the entire field of exobiology is extremely speculative by definition. Many of the field’s core ideas and claims can’t be falsified or even observed. For the most part, the lens through which we view life is very limited. The only examples of life that we can observe are those found on Earth, which all share a common ancestor and are fundamentally similar. All of Earth’s species share a system of coding genetic information in DNA molecules and similar metabolisms. We don’t know if this is the only possible structure of life or even if this is the only type that evolved on Earth; it’s entirely possible that another alternate biochemistry arose on the early Earth and disappeared without a trace. What is true is if a form of extraterrestrial life is based on the same class of biochemistry found here it would share its broad environmental requirements with the life we’re familiar with. This is interesting- because we can investigate how common Earth-like environmental conditions are in the galaxy it’s possible to make educated guesses about the frequency of extraterrestrial life chemically similar to that found here. For life dissimilar to that of Earth its impossible to say. It’s easy to imagine some exotic form of life radically different than anything we have ever encountered- interesting to be sure, but this is ultimately speculation without any real scientific backing. Any discussion of the frequency of extraterrestrial intelligence is limited to life broadly similar to what we are familiar with here on Earth because the environmental requirements of hypothetical exotic forms of life are too far beyond our comprehension even to guess at. For this reason all estimates of intelligence in the universe are inherently conservative.

The first possibility is that life of any form is very rare in our universe and the Earth is exceptional. It’s entirely possible that life of any kind simply doesn’t exist beyond Earth. Many solar systems and even galaxies are fundamentally incompatible with life. Any form of life we can understand requires a terrestrial surface, and older stars and galaxies are so metal-poor that they don’t support this type of body. Additionally, large regions of our galaxy appear too hostile for life to exist. The outer rim of the galaxy is too poor in heavy elements to allow terrestrial planets to form, and the inner regions seem to be too saturated with dangerous radiation to support life. Additionally, because stars are so close together in the galactic core planet sterilizing stellar disasters like supernovas would be much more common, imperiling any life that did evolve there.

The view that all life is extremely rare is also supported by the uncertainty surrounding the origins of life on Earth. Life is an extremely complicated chemical process and scientist are unsure of the exact conditions necessary for its inception. Certainly an element of chance is present; there could be millions of worlds with the conditions that would permit the inception of life but where it never actually begins. Unfortunately our uncertainty about just how life begins is so great that questions about how frequently any type of life arises remain pure speculation.

One other possibility that would indicate a lack of life in the wider universe would be that while the conditions that allow life to begin are common they don’t last. In our solar system both Mars and Venus had climates similar to Earth in their early histories but changing solar and atmospheric conditions slowly transformed Venus into a burning hell and Mars into a dry cold desert. If this is a common path of planetary evolution many early biospheres could become more and more inhospitable, slowly suffocating their inhabitants and greatly reducing the total number of life-bearing planets in the galaxy.

Let’s consider the second possibility: perhaps simple life is common in the universe but complex multicellular life is not. After all, simple life like bacteria and archaea have much less strict environmental requirements than complex life like animals and plants. On Earth, simple organisms are found in all extreme environments. Microscopic extremophiles thrive in very acidic or basic environments or extreme heat or cold. Simple life is also found deep underground or at the hostile ocean bottom, using chemical sources for energy in the absence of the sun. It’s very hard to kill bacteria- it’s likely that some varieties of Earth’s microorganisms could survive on Mars, and bacteria have been demonstrated to be able to survive in the vacuum of space. These types of simple life could the survive hard radiation or drastic environmental changes that are the most common survival challenges in the universe. In fact, most varieties of simple life seem capable of enduring asteroid impacts, changes in solar energy, and nearby gamma-ray bursts, all of which are the greatest threats to nascent life’s long term survival.

For complex life, environmental requirements are much more stringent. Plant and animal-like life broadly similar to Earth’s would require a planet with a thick atmosphere and fairly constant environmental conditions. This rules out most of the galaxy; the inner core with its dense concentrations of stars suffers from high radiation and gravitation perturbations that increase the danger from asteroid impacts while the outer regions lack the heavier elements necessary for terrestrial planets or moons. In fact entire types of galaxies, notably globular clusters, are unfit from terrestrial-like life. Even worse, these conditions are not constant. Stars move through their galaxies in long orbits, and if a potentially life-supporting solar system’s movement brought it too close to an inhospitable galactic region its life would be extinguished. Also, the need for a constant climate excludes many types of stars; any star with a variable output or giant stars with short life spans would be incompatible with the emergence of advanced life. While terrestrial rocky planets seem to be common in our galaxy the specific conditions complex life requires would exclude many extraterrestrial planets. A life-bearing rocky planet cannot be too small: below a certain size a planet cannot gravitationally retain a significant atmosphere and will quickly exhaust its core’s heat necessary for the plate tectonics that stimulate evolutionary development. A life-bearing planet cannot be too close or too far away from its star- because all forms of biochemistry as we know it require a liquid solvent a planet’s climate must allow either liquid water or another exotic solvent, like ammonium.

While it is possible to imagine many exotic life forms able to thrive in environmental conditions very different from Earth’s it is clear that there are many more environments in the universe suitable for simple rather than complex life.

Just because the conditions that would permit the development of complex life are common does not imply that the life itself is. Complexity, like intelligence, is an evolutionary adaption and is not guaranteed to ever arise even on a fertile planet. Life first arose on Earth about four billion years ago, while animals only in the last 600 million years. It is entirely possible that a planet teeming with simple life would never experience the conditions or chance that sparked the emergence of more complex, familiar life.

A third possibility to our question is that, despite formidable environmental challenges, multicellular, complex life is common in the universe. This view is most supported by the size of the galaxy: the Milky Way contains hundreds of billions of stars, a sizable percentage of which host rocky planets. Supporters of this idea argue that it’s wrong to believe that the Earth is the only planet out of hundreds of millions to develop complex life. Furthermore, the specific environmental conditions found on Earth aren’t as rare as commonly thought. Mars certainly could have supported some form of life early in its history and other bodies in our solar system like the moons Titan and Europa offer tantalizing clues to their potential habitability. Astronomer have also discovered at least one extrasolar planet, Gliese 581 g, with surface temperatures that could support liquid water, a prerequisite for Earth-like biochemistry. In spite of its specific environmental requirements and vulnerability to varied environmental threats complex life could be common, an assertion that is ultimately best supported by the sheer size of the universe.

Just because multicellular life is common in the universe does not mean intelligence is. On Earth animal life existed for 600 million before the emergence of intelligent humans. What is important to understand is that the history of life is not a grand structured procession towards intelligence; rather, human intelligence is an evolutionary adaption that arose in response to specific environmental pressures. It foolish to expect an extraterrestrial world, after 600 million years of complex life, to suddenly see the emergence of consciousness. We have a poor understanding of exactly what conditions favored the beginning of advanced intelligence among early humans- it’s entirely possible that an extraterrestrial equivalent of the great apes could face different environmental pressures and would never evolve the extraordinary cognitive abilities that define us. Intelligence is only a tool for survival and if opportunity and environmental conditions don’t select for it advanced cognition won’t emerge.

However, there are plausible theories that support the notion that if complex life is common in the universe intelligence could be as well. One of the strongest arguments to support this idea is the history of human development here on Earth. On the surface, human intelligence seems excessive; while toolmaking and complex communications certainly had valuable evolutionary utility it is harder to imagine what environmental pressures would select for, say, the human preferences for visual art or music. Moreover, our intelligence comes at a high cost. Humans’ long vulnerable childhoods and need for large amounts of parental care is directly due to our intelligence: human babies must be born relatively premature so that infants’ large brain-cases can pass through women’s hip structure. Even then, human childbirth is uniquely dangerous; it’s rare in the animal world for so many mothers to die is such a fundamental activity. What then could have led to the emergence of humans’ fantastic intelligence in spite of its cost?

One of the most convincing theories, the ecological dominance-social competition model, holds that early humans grew so dominant over their environment that competition from other humans in a social group, not outside environmental pressures, became the single greatest determinant of reproductive success. In this environment it was the humans with greater intelligence and accompanying social skills needed to navigate increasingly complex group dynamics, not the strongest or most aggressive, that spread their genes the farthest. This led to intense reproductive competition that favored cognition and social abilities far beyond any pressure from the natural environment. Complex social structures, language, and the rest of otherwise superfluous human cognition all evolved due to social selection, rather than the pressures of a specific natural environment. What’s most interesting about this theory is that it appears to apply universally- any extraterrestrial social animal that achieved dominance over its natural habitat would experience the same slow shift from environmentally to socially driven evolutionary pressures and possibly subsequent runaway cognitive development.

There is another possibility. Perhaps intelligence is rare in the universe not because it rarely arises but because it is short lived. Most species survive for only a few million years before becoming extinct, and the natural world holds many hazards intelligent life is not immune too. Changing climates, asteroid impacts or a nearby supernova could all randomly end a extraterrestrial intelligence in its infancy. This threat is closer than most of us think; on Earth natural disasters have almost drove humans to extinction. 75,000 years ago a huge volcano on the Indonesian island of Sumatra erupted, lowering global temperatures and possibly reducing the human population to as few as 1,000 reproducing pairs. Such a close call wouldn’t be unique to humans and there is no reason to suspect another intelligent race would be so lucky.

More likely is the threat posed by intelligent species to themselves. Humans are the only species in the history of the world to have the power to terminate their own existence. Intelligence brings a high level of control of the natural environment- this presents a long-term danger. In the last century our civilization has developed technologies that have the potential to end much of life on Earth, and these same capabilities would be available to any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial civilization. Acquiring potentially destructive technologies like nuclear weapons or bioengineering is a natural byproduct of scientific development and would probably be quite common to all intelligent species. It could be that civilizations as a rule don’t survive long after developing this armageddon capability; after all, humans have only managed to survive 60 years of nuclear armaments with several close calls, and we still have plenty of time to destroy ourselves. However, there is reason to hope: the technologies to develop world-ending weapons and advanced space travel are linked. It seems that most civilizations that survive their first few centuries of nuclear power would be able to spread their species over nearby worlds and greatly reduce their vulnerability to one species-ending disaster.

Of course, any attempt to answer the question of extraterrestrial intelligence is ultimately just and interesting exercise- informative and based in science, but ultimately no better than pure speculation. We simply don’t know enough about the universe or life itself to have any idea of what’s possible. However, this is one of the most fundamental questions people can ask, and one that has been a subject of human curiosity for millennia. From angels to modern science fiction the possibility of alien intelligence is universally fascinating. There are worse questions we can wonder about.

Note: This post borrows heavily from the excellent book Rare Earth. Other sources include:

Alexander, R. D. How did humans evolve? Reflections on the uniquely unique species. Museum of Zoology (Special Publication No. 1). Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan, 1990.

Ambrose, Stanley H. “Late Pleistocene human population bottlenecks, volcanic winter, and differentiation of modern humans.” Journal of Human Evolution Volume 34, Issue 6. June 1998, 623-651.

The Long Gamble

By Taylor Marvin

Testing of an American Peacekeeper ICBM. The white lines are the missiles multiple warheads reentering the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. If the warheads were live each line could represent the deaths of ten million people.

Testing of an American Peacekeeper ICBM. The white lines are the missile's multiple warheads reentering the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. If the warheads were live each line could represent the deaths of ten million people. Photo by US Army.

Recently, the public debate over the ratification of the new START arms control treaty between the US and Russia brought nuclear weapons stockpiles and American-Russian relations to the public consciousness for the first time in years. This is an issue too long forgotten — while fears of nuclear destruction are often mocked as an antiquated relic of the Cold War they are real, and are by far the most severe threat facing human civilization. Very few events have the potential to end the human race: an asteroid impact, unprecedented pandemic disease, nearby supernova, or nuclear warfare, and the threat of a global nuclear conflict is by far the most likely. But the recent renewed focus on nuclear arms control begs an interesting question: is the eventual eradication of nuclear weapons a realistic goal?

Reducing and ultimately eradicating nuclear weapons stockpiles is the stated goal of the US government. From President Obama’s 2009 nuclear proliferation speech in Prague:

“Some argue that the spread of these weapons cannot be stopped, cannot be checked — that we are destined to live in a world where more nations and more people possess the ultimate tools of destruction. Such fatalism is a deadly adversary, for if we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable.

Just as we stood for freedom in the 20th century, we must stand together for the right of people everywhere to live free from fear in the 21st century. And as nuclear power — as a nuclear power, as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it.

So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I’m not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly — perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, ‘Yes, we can.'”

Of course, this isn’t a realistic goal. Most countries that possess nuclear weapons don’t have any real incentive to unilaterally disarm. While there are exceptions — small countries that don’t face any pressing security challenges or that comfortably reside under the American nuclear umbrella could judge the budget saving and international goodwill of abandoning their nuclear forces to be worth the political costs — disarmament doesn’t make political sense for most countries. The benefits that most individual nations would gain from disarmament are only worth sacrificing a nuclear deterrent if every other nuclear power sacrificed theirs as well. This is the collective action problem — global disarmament is only possible if every country on Earth trusted each other enough to, from their perspective, unilaterally disarm — that makes this type of global disarmament implausible. Individual nations simply don’t have the incentive to disarm when they don’t have a completely reliable way of verifying that their counterparts are as well, especially when other nuclear powers have a huge incentive to claim to disarm while actually retaining their weapons, giving then a powerful monopoly over nuclear weapons.

But what would a world without nuclear weapons actually look like, and is it a world worth striving for? Let’s imagine that, say, an unprecedented era of peace and trust among the world’s nuclear powers leads to universal disarmament without any nations secretly retaining their weapons. For at least some time the world is nuclear weapon free. Unfortunately, this global disarmament would likely have dangerous consequences. The deterrent power of nuclear weapons is a force for peace that shouldn’t be underestimated — it’s hard to believe that tensions between the US and USSR during the Cold War wouldn’t have escalated to a global shooting war if each country’s nuclear weapons stocks made the guaranteed costs of any war much, much greater than any potential gains. The logic of mutually assured destruction is less relevant today, but while global economic interconnectedness likely makes a major power modern global war too costly for any country eying the expected cost/benefit ratio of potential conquests the ultimate threat of global nuclear warfare is still a significant factor in the preservation of international peace.

The dream of global disarmament is an illusion because it simply wouldn’t last. It’s impossible to uninvent nuclear technology — any organization with sufficient funds and technical ability will be able develop nuclear weapons until the end of human history. Additionally, if the world’s major powers did decide to dispose of their nuclear arsenals small states would have an extreme incentive to develop nuclear technology. In the absence of a global nuclear deterrence a small state that possessed a monopoly over nuclear force would enjoy a powerful position on the world stage, able to essentially dictate terms to the global community without any real consequences. This incentive ensures that nuclear weapons will always exist: large nuclear powers have no incentive to completely disarm, and if they did smaller countries would quickly fill the void. Nuclear weapons will be with humanity until our end.

However, just because nuclear weapons will always be with us does not mean that the threat of global annihilation is. For a nuclear war to truly end civilization it requires a large exchange of warheads, likely in the hundreds. Despite their destructive power, bringing about the end of all human societies would require many nuclear detonations to kick enough dust and soot into the upper atmosphere to create sufficient global cooling to end human agriculture. This doesn’t mean a smaller nuclear war wouldn’t be horribly destructive. A smaller nuclear exchange would be an unprecedented disaster that would immediately kill millions, and potentially billions indirectly in the long term. A limited nuclear war involving dozens of warheads between India and Pakistan would likely spread enough radioactive fallout to depopulate much of South Asia, create sufficient global cooling to disrupt global agriculture and cause mass starvation for decades, and dramatically increase global cancer rates through radioactive fallout and atmospheric ozone destruction.  This limited exchange would be the largest catastrophe in human history. However, it’s important to remember that this limited war wouldn’t involve all of India and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons — the authors of the studies demonstrating limited nuclear warfare’s effects modeled 50 small nuclear detonation, while the combined arsenals of India and Pakistan could be over 150 weapons. A full-scale exchange between the two belligerents would be unimaginably devastating.

Despite its truly unprecedented destruction, a nuclear exchange between belligerents with comparatively small arsenals would be a survivable calamity for humanity. Billions would likely die from starvation or radiation induced cancer in the decades after a small nuclear war, but human civilization would eventually recover. The same isn’t true for a nuclear war between adversaries with large arsenals. In the modern world this means five states: China, the UK, and France, all of which possess under 300 warheads, and the US and Russia, both with much larger arsenals. Though the American and Russian arsenals have been greatly reduced since the Cold War, each nations’ active warheads possess a destructive capacity to end most macroscopic surface life on Earth many times over. A nuclear war between nations with arsenals in the hundreds would certainly not be survivable for human civilization and possibly for our species itself.

Russian and US nuclear arsenals.

Russian and US nuclear arsenals. Image by Wikimedia user Fastfission.

Moreover, these five nations that possess the technology most likely to start an accidental nuclear war. Most of these nations’ strategic nuclear forces are mounted on ICBMs, the intercontinental missiles with the ability to deliver multiple warheads across the globe in a half hour. The destructive capacity of one missile is unimaginable — one mistaken launch could murder ten million people, and once a missile has launched there’s literally no way to stop it. Most of these missiles are still armed and targeted, and every single day these weapons exist there is a chance, if a small one, of some mistake or accident sparking the end of humanity. It could be a mistaken computer that warns Americans of an incoming Russian attack that doesn’t exist. Caught in this situation the officers in an Air Force command bunker would face enormous pressure to launch their own missiles before verifying if the Russian ones were even real. If the officers hesitated their own missiles could be destroyed on the ground, preventing a full American response. It’s this perverse logic that makes accidental nuclear destruction a real risk. Even small mistakes — a faulty computer program, garbled communications, a rouge officer — could easily escalate into a full exchange. The whole delicate logic of the entire nuclear balance makes this a frighteningly likely outcome. Sure, there are safeguards. But everyday nuclear arsenals exist this risk exists, however small, and every single day we gamble the future of humanity. President Obama posed the admission of nuclear weapons’ permanence as an admission of the inevitability of their eventual use. Unfortunately he’s likely right. Because nuclear weapons will be with humanity into the distant future it is likely that, over a long enough time frame, one day they will be launched because the small likelihood of an accidental of intentional nuclear exchange becomes more and more probable the longer nuclear weapons exist. But this admission of some kind of future nuclear war isn’t an admission of the inevitability of humanity’s destruction. A limited nuclear war would be survivable. A large one wouldn’t, and that’s the type of apocalyptic exchange we should work hardest to prevent.

This is the fundamental calculus of nuclear destruction. The extinction of humanity requires multiple nations to have large nuclear arsenals because the complete end of human society requires a certain minimum number of nuclear detonations, enough to spark a nuclear winter that ends agriculture and wipes out most of the Earth’s biosphere. This requires large arsenals, probably bigger than those of India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea. Together these countries’ destructive capabilities could probably end humanity but their smaller, separate arsenals greatly reduce this risk. A higher total number of nuclear powers do increase the risk of a regional nuclear conflict, but it is the large arsenals of the US, Russia, China, and the Europeans that poses the greatest threat of human extinction. These are the arsenals we need to immediately reduce. This is possible — the number of warheads needed for an effective nuclear deterrent is less than the minimum that risks the end of humanity. That’s why the new START treaty was so important. Nuclear weapons will always be with us, and some form of nuclear conflict will probably threaten our descendants’ future. But even small reductions in the arsenals of the US and Russia reduce the chances of an exchange devastating enough to end human civilization. Every chance we get to reduce this risk is one we have a responsibility to take. This is a gamble we can’t afford forever.

What’s the Value of Defense-Funded Technological Research?

By Taylor Marvin

Matt Yglesias worries that America’s massive defense industry crowds out more socially useful civilian technological innovations by attracting the best engineers to military development projects:

“The guys who are building these cool military exoskeletons, for example, are obviously very talented. And the supply of talented engineers isn’t all that elastic. When they supply their talents to defense-related projects, the civilian economy is starved of talent… Sometimes this makes sense. The Manhattan Project involved a huge proportion of the world’s finest scientific minds and rightly so. But undertaking that kind of civilian to military brain drain all the time can be very harmful.”

Yglesias has a point- it is true that every engineer working in the defense industry is an engineer not working to develop green technology or a better car or a more efficient toaster, all things that are ultimately much more beneficial to America’s welfare than a more advanced cruise missile. However, Yglesias misses the obvious point. While most extra military spending has a very low marginal benefit to American society, especially in an age where the US faces no real major threats deterred by the might of our armed forces, most technological advancements of the last half century or more have been driven by military R&D spending. The technological basis of information technology, air travel, long-range shipping, satellites, and even velcro were all either invented or initially adopted with government funds, either in military or space research programs. Of course, many areas of military research, say railguns or ballistic missile defense, aren’t likely to ever have any civilian applications. But it’s impossible to deny that government R&D funding, mostly driven by defense concerns, along with strong economic incentives for private research are the roots of America’s innovation and technological success. This isn’t a reason to give the military an essentially blank check- if we decide the main social benefit of high defense spending is the products of military research it would be both cheaper and more effective to just take the money and give it  to university and industrial research labs- but it’s foolish to claim that the fact that much of American technological development is originally funded by the military rather than civilians is very harmful to the welfare of the United States.

Friday’s Reading List

Edward Burne, Jones Going to the Battle

Edward Burne, Jones Going to the Battle.

By Taylor Marvin

The best links of the week:

The growth of South Korean naval power (The Diplomat).

The irrelevance of reality (Democracy in America).

How would you fix the budget? (The New York Times).

Sanctions don’t work, and would weaken the possibility of democratic reform in Iran (Muftah).

What time of year are breakups most common?- the evidence from Facebook (David McCandless).

America: Freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom to drink whatever florescent beverage you want, freedom from government bureaucrats touching your junk.

What to Cut- Military Edition

By Taylor Marvin

If you accept the necessity of American defense cuts to balance the federal budget, the next question is what services should see the most and the least budget reductions. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot but really aren’t informed about to come to a well-reasoned conclusion. My gut feeling is that the Army and the Air Force should see the majority of budget cuts. Why? For the Army- the United States faces close to zero prospects for a future conventional ground war and after the trauma of Iraq and Afghanistan we probably won’t be looking to get into another long counterinsurgency nation-building campaign anytime soon. Of course I could be wrong: Vietnam and Somalia certainly were traumatic, but that didn’t stop the United States from stumbling into a counterinsurgency campaign in some form about twice a decade for the last 20 years. The Air Force also seems ripe for cost-effective cuts. It really has no major domestic air defense mission in the modern world, and with its dependence on large foreign bases is less flexible than naval aviation. However, I tend to think that the Air Force’s strategic airlift mission is important, particularly for humanitarian missions, and should be preserved. The Navy seems to be the most important current arm of American power. It’s the most flexible, and America’s future rivalry with China, our most realistic future near-peer competitor, will be a maritime competition. Our best responses to potential threats like Iran and North Korea are mostly naval assets, and the Navy offers a needed, if often overhyped, capacity to protect the world’s shipping lanes. The Marines are a tougher question- many observers are right to question the value of a service the does much the same thing as the nation’s dedicated air, sea, and land services at a smaller scale. However, I tend to think that an expeditionary force is a valuable tool, one that the Navy and Army can’t match alone. The Marines should lose some of their dedicated weapons- I think a gradual shift away from Marine aviation wouldn’t greatly hurt US capabilities and would be real savings.

However, this is an issue I’m really not too sure about. There are a lot of smart people out there- what do you think? What services do you think provide the greatest cost-benefit to US security, and what programs would you cut?