of Deterrence: A Modern Zen Koan
by David Krieger*, April 7, 2000
"The sound of one finger pressing the button
is the sound of a deeper silence, brought about by unrelenting
What is the sound of one hand clapping? What is
the sound of one finger pressing the button? Surely the concept
of deterrence is more enigmatic and perplexing than a Zen Koan!
The concept of deterrence, which underlies the
nuclear weapons policies of the United States and other nuclear
weapons states, presupposes human rationality in all cases. It
is based upon the proposition that a rational person will not
attack you if he understands that his country will be subject
to unacceptable damage by retaliation.
What rational person would want his country to
be exposed to unacceptable damage? Perhaps one who miscalculates.
A rational person could believe that he could take action X, and
that would not be sufficient for you to retaliate. Saddam Hussein,
for example, believed that he could invade Kuwait without retaliation
from the United States. He miscalculated, in part because he had
been misled by the American Ambassador to Iraq who informed him
that the US would not retaliate. Misinformation, misunderstanding,
or misconstruing information could lead a rational person to miscalculate.
We don't always get our information straight, and we seldom have
all of the facts.
Deterrence is a Fool's Game
Even more detrimental to the theory of deterrence
is irrationality. Can anyone seriously believe that humans always
act rationally? Of course not. We are creatures who are affected
by emotions and passions as well as intellect. Rationality is
not to be relied upon. People do not always act in their own best
interests. Examples abound. Almost everyone knows that smoking
causes terrible diseases and horrible deaths, and yet hundreds
of millions of people continue to smoke. We know that the stock
markets are driven by passions as much as they are by rationality.
The odds are against winning at the gambling tables in Las Vegas,
and yet millions of people accept the odds, believing that they
can win despite the odds.
Nuclear deterrence is based on rationality -- the
belief that a rational leader will not attack a country with nuclear
weapons for fear of retaliation. And yet, it is clearly irrational
to believe that rationality will always prevail. Let me put it
another way. Isn't it irrational for a nation to rely upon deterrence,
which is based upon humans always acting rationally (which they
don't), to provide for its national security? Those who champion
deterrence appear rational, but in fact prove their irrationality
by their unfounded faith in human rationality.
With nuclear deterrence, the deterring country
threatens to retaliate with nuclear weapons if it is attacked.
What if a country is attacked by nuclear weapons, but is unable
to identify the source of the attack? How does it retaliate? Obviously,
it either guesses, retaliates against an innocent country, or
doesn't retaliate. So much for deterrence. What if a national
leader or terrorist with a nuclear weapon believed he could attack
without being identified? It doesn't matter whether he is right
or wrong. It is his belief that he is unidentifiable that matters.
So much for deterrence. What if a leader of a country doesn't
care if his country is retaliated against? What if he believes
he has nothing more to lose, like a nuclear-armed Hitler in his
bunker? So much for deterrence!
It takes only minimal analysis to realize that
nuclear deterrence is a fool's game. The unfortunate corollary
is that those who propound nuclear deterrence are fools in wise
men's garb. The further corollary is that we have entrusted the
future of the human species to a small group of fools. These include
the political and military leaders, the corporate executives who
support them and profit from building the weapons systems, and
the academics and other intellectuals like Henry Kissinger, who
provide the theoretical underpinnings for the concept of deterrence.
The Immorality of Nuclear Weapons
Eleven years after the fall of the Berlin Wall
and the end of the Cold War, we continue to live in a world in
which a small number of nations rely upon the theory of deterrence
to provide for their national security. In doing so, they threaten
to kill tens of millions or perhaps hundreds of millions of innocent
people by retaliation should deterrence fail. To perhaps state
what should be obvious, but doesn't appear to our leaders to be:
This is highly immoral. It also sets an extremely bad example
for other states, whose leaders just might be thinking: If the
strongest nations in the world are continuing to rely upon nuclear
weapons for their national security, shouldn't we be doing so
also? Fortunately, most leaders in most countries are concluding
that they should not.
There is only one way out of the dilemma we are
in, and that is to begin immediately to abolish nuclear weapons.
This happens also to be required by international law as stated
in Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and as decided unanimously
in the 1996 opinion of the International Court of Justice: "There
exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion
negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects
under strict and effective international control."
Morality, the law, and rationality converge in
the need to rid the world of nuclear weapons. This is the greatest
challenge of our time. The will of the people on this issue is
being blocked by only a few leaders in a few countries. As the
world's most powerful nation, leadership should fall most naturally
to the United States. Unfortunately, the policies of the United
States have been driven by irrationality to the detriment of our
own national security and the future of life on our planet. This
is unlikely to change until the people of the United States exercise
their democratic rights and demand policies that will end the
nuclear threat to humanity. These include: negotiating a multilateral
treaty for the phased elimination of nuclear weapons under strict
and effective international control; de-alerting nuclear weapons
and separating warheads from delivery vehicles; making pledges
of No First Use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances; stopping
all nuclear testing and ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty;
reaffirming the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; and applying
strict international safeguards to all weapons-grade fissile materials
and agreeing to no further production of such materials.
A Call to Action
The sound of one hand clapping is silence. That
is the sound of most people in most places in response to the
nuclear weapons policies of the nuclear weapons states. While
they do not applaud these policies with both hands, they also
do not raise their voices to oppose them.
The sound of one finger pressing the button is
the sound of a deeper silence, brought about by unrelenting apathy.
It is the sound of the silence before a more final silence. It
is an unbearable silence `for its consequences are beyond our
power to repair. It is a silent death knell for humanity. We must
raise our voices now with passion and commitment to prevent this
pervasive silence from becoming the sound of our world.
* David Krieger is President
of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.