In a recent article that I wrote, “British Petroleum, Imagination and Nuclear Catastrophe,” I argued we should use the occasion of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to imagine scenarios in which a nuclear catastrophe could take place. The reason for imagining such scenarios should be obvious: to keep them from occurring.
Here is a proposition: Continued offshore oil drilling runs the risk of future offshore oil leak catastrophes that will destroy large aquatic and shoreline habitats. Applied to nuclear weapons, the proposition could be restated in this way: Continued reliance on nuclear weapons runs the risk of future nuclear catastrophes that will destroy cities, countries and civilization.
In my article, I proposed four of many possible scenarios that could be envisioned. These scenarios involved a terrorist bomb on a major city somewhere in the world; an Indo-Pakistan nuclear war; an accidental nuclear launch by Russia, leading to a nuclear exchange with the US; and a nuclear attack by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il on Japan and South Korea.
These scenarios elicited responses that I would like to share. The first response, from South Korea, expressed the opinion that Kim Jong-Il would not make a preemptive nuclear attack. The writer said, “I agree with your imagined scenarios except for the following: …Kim Jong-Il is not so irrational that he would attack Japan and South Korea for not receiving development assistance. He and North Korean officials usually say that they would attack only in the case of being attacked….” This may be true, but it remains difficult to predict which leaders will act rationally and which will not. It seems certain, though, that all leaders will not act rationally at all times with regard to nuclear weapons, and that deterrence theory, at a minimum, requires rational decision makers.
The second and third responses imagine other scenarios. The second response focuses on Israel: “You forget one other horrible scenario: Israel decides to preemptively bomb Tehran and Isfahan, because they ‘fear for their own safety.’ Armed with nukes, and in the name of ‘Civil Defense,’ rogue Israel thumbs its nose at the world again and takes out parts of Iran….” Would Israel initiate a nuclear attack under certain circumstances, such as a major threat from Arab countries? The truth is that we do not know under what conditions Israel, or any other nuclear weapon state, would initiate such an attack.
The third response, from South Africa, focuses on the possibility of a US initiated nuclear attack: “In your scenarios you do not imagine the US pressing the nuclear button. The United States is beyond question the most aggressive nation in the world and remains among the most recalcitrant in signing peace and environmental protocols. As a person who lives outside the United States, I feel most threatened by the US. The US does not negotiate, at the heart of which is compromise for the greater good. Narrow interests are pursued relentlessly – even to the detriment of US citizens.”
The response continued, “I was appalled to receive by email photos of a US warship recently launched. It was built from the scrap metal of the Twin Towers and named ‘Never Forget’ or some such title. I don’t believe that honors the lives lost. What would have honored them would be a ship custom built to deliver aid, medical services, etc. to disaster areas and developing countries. I do believe citizens in the US, so many of whom are brought up on the myth that the US is always in the right, should recognize their own potential to be the ultimate aggressors in the use of nuclear weapons. They use every other weapon of destruction – Agent Orange, cluster bombs, etc. Why should they hold back on nuclear weapons?”
Would the US initiate a nuclear attack? The answer is the same for the US or any other nuclear weapon state: We don’t know. What we do know is that the leaders of countries that possess nuclear weapons are essentially holding the world, including their own citizens, hostage to the potential catastrophic consequences of using these weapons.
Deterrence can fail in many ways, some of which we cannot foresee, and it may be the unforeseeable scenarios that are most dangerous. We don’t know what the trigger may be, only that we are playing with nuclear fire. The Gulf of Mexico recovery from the British Petroleum oil spill may take decades. For civilization to recover from nuclear war could take centuries and might not be possible. The oil spill in the Gulf has provided us an opportunity to awaken to the nuclear dangers that confront us and to act. The question remains: Will we seize this opportunity?