March 24, 2010

Major Kong's Last Mission

Presidents Obama and Medvedev, of the United States and Russia, respectively(note to Tea Baggers: only the second is an actual former Commie), expect to sign a new strategic arms treaty in Prague next month, a pact replacing the expired START treaty of 1991. Essentially, the new deal will reduce each side's deployed nuclear missiles to 1,600 from the present level of 2,200, and halve the number of strategic bombers each side has loaded and ready to go (down to about 800 each).

This sort of news doesn't have quite the hopeful impact it once did, back in the days of Carl Sagan's "nuclear winter" and Jonathan Schell's "Fate of the Earth." Those were the days, huh? I think one of the really reassuring things about the old days of Mutual Assured Destruction was that our opposite number, the USSR, was a nation of godless Communists. It was for that very reason that I trusted them not to do anything too crazy, such as destroy all human life on Earth. If anything, they were less of a risk to do so than the United States, because it's this country which exhibits the powerful influence of Millenialist, Rapture-befuddled thinking. Not so the Commies: I figured their favorite American soap was "One Life to Live," and they were living it right here on the third rock from the sun. So what was in it for them to engage in a virtually certain act of suicide by an attack on the United States with nuclear weapons?

I suppose you could say I'm a sort of Mystic, in that I do wonder about the origins of Reality but never get anywhere, there being nowhere to get. I have no answer to Gottfried Leibniz's very old question, why is there something instead of nothing? Other than to say, of course, ya got me, Herr Leibniz. It got him, too, and he's the one who came up with the notations for differential and integral calculus. However, my outlook is a minority view in this country, where millions and millions of my fellow citizens have a clear, definite understanding of the origins of the Universe, and many of them are not convinced at all that this life on Earth is really the main event. I do, actually, so I'm in no hurry to see it end "prematurely."

Reducing our stockpiles of nuclear weapons doesn't really reduce the danger of nuclear war, because there was no real danger of nuclear war with Russia, anyway, not unless someone like Sarah Palin is elected President, and if that happens we might welcome a nuclear war just to distract us from the other catastrophes. With the end of the Cold War, we've seen extensive nuclear proliferation, with the cases of Iran and North Korea being the most problematic to date. With such countries, the prospect of nuclear arms reductions through negotiations doesn't look too promising. They want nuclear arsenals so they don't have to negotiate.

So we've entered the era where nuclear arms reductions are more likely to be carried out by preemptive attack to destroy nuclear capability than by meetings around green baize tables. It's part of the gruesome logic of the very existence of nuclear weapons. If they're in the "wrong hands" (the hands of people who might really use them), what do you do? I've made reference before to the University of Colorado study that an exchange of 40-50 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs (say, of the kind that would probably happen between Pakistan and India), if dropped on urban centers where "dirt fountains" would be thrown into the high atmosphere, would probably destroy enough ozone in the Northern Hemisphere to wipe out everyone living there. We're in a time where there isn't much margin of error, and the nuclear reductions of the USA vis-a-vis Russia only serve the purpose of improving the "good faith" argument the USA can use as a reason to enforce nonproliferation against the "rogue" states.

Iran, Pakistan & India are religiously-minded places, too, of course, like the United States, and the first two, if under the influence of radical Islamic extremists, pose an existential threat to the survival of the world. Like the Christian Millenialists in this country, they see Paradise or Heaven as a shot at a do-over for anything that doesn't work out here, which predisposes a believer to Drop the Big One. India is mostly Buddhist and Hindu, which means they don't believe that even this life is real. I'm not sure how that one cuts re: nuclear war.

So good for Prez O, and Prague should be lovely in April, but we haven't really figured a way out of the nuclear maze, which just seems to get more complicated with the passing years. The existence of nuclear weapons anywhere imposes a kind of implacable logic of necessary responses. I'm sure at some point we'll get around to bombing Iran's nuclear development sites, and I assume the real reason we remain in Afghanistan, nine years after the event to which Afghanistan probably had only a tangential relationship, is so we can rush across the border into Pakistan and seize their nuclear facilities if things get too wacky there for our perceived interests.

This is the sort of nightmare which J. Robert Oppenheimer was worried about in letting the nuclear genie out of the bottle, yet for his troubles he was also called a "godless Communist." If only godless Communists were our only worry.

1 comment:

  1. It seems to me that there are two main reasons why a country wants nukes:
    1. Their enemy has nukes or might get them soon(see the US vs. Germany, India vs. Pakistan, the Soviet Union vs. the US);
    2. They are afraid somebody will invade them (see Iran vs. the US, North Korea vs. the US, Israel vs. the Arab world);

    Other countries that want nukes just want them for status (the U.K., France, Brazil, Libya, etc.) Most of these countries are not really serious about having the nukes, and usually can be persuaded not to get them, or to give them up if they have them.

    So it also seems to me that negotiations would be useful in both cases: In case 1, by lowering the fears of the invadees by reducing the incentive for the invaders to invade and in case 2 by pointing out the expense and pointlessness of having nukes.

    Unfortunately, effective negotiations by the US are probably impossible now because of our huge overstock of nukes and because the Tea Baggers will go ballistic at the thought of reducing our overstock.