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Russian roulette with…

The War That Must Not Occcur
NUCLEAR WEAPONS / The experts say the danger of nuclear war has never been greater than right now. The danger of accidents, nuclear weapons going astray, cyber infiltration and misunderstandings has increased. Here comes a deep dialogue with the nuclear weapons philosophy, where intellectuals have tried to get a grip on the incomprehensible: the threat of the annihilation of the world. And what does Sergej A. Karaganov, foreign policy and military strategic adviser to Putin's government, say? Is the only thing we can do is to postpone the apocalypse, to avert it again and again?


With the book The War That Must Not Occcur Stanford philosopher Jean Pierre-Dupuy has written a book that could hardly be more important – or more timely. It comes out in September, almost at the same time as Christopher Nolan's creepy film about atomic bombso-called far, J. Robert Oppenheimer. The film itself comes off as a marketable, but chillingly serious apropos of an easily inflammable world situation. Dupuy's book is characterized by a deep dialogue with philosophy about nuclear weapons, where French, German and American intellectuals in particular have tried to get a grip on the incomprehensible: the threat of the annihilation of the world – not as a fictional notion, but as an intrusive political reality. Dupuy has been an adviser on nuclear safety in France and has written a number of books on the relationship between politics and violence, future and present, predictions and disasters.

The doomsday bell is striking

The doomsday clock, which gives an indication of how great the danger is of full nuclear war, is an information forum created by The Bulletin of Nuclear Scientists in 1947. At that time, the clock was set to 7 minutes to midnight – and the hand crept ever closer as the rockets became more and negotiations continued to break down during the Cold War. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the world held its breath. The doomsday bell was set by the Nuclear Weapons Panel at two minutes before midnight as Khrushchev and Kennedy pushed for strategic supremacy, with the world at stake.

As Dupuy recounts in the book, it later became known that the end of the world could actually have occurred due to a frantic misunderstanding in a Russian nuclear submarine that was surrounded by American warships outside Cuba just a few days after the crisis was officially over. In the exposed submarine, which the Americans did not know was armed with nuclear missiles, the officers believed that they were under attack, and that they were thus obliged to fire a nuclear weapon at the Americans. Only a formality in the Russian Navy rank system, which was open to interpretation, saved us all from World War III.

The doomsday clock was reset to 17 minutes to midnight after the fall of the Iron Curtain, only to be moved back to 7 minutes from midnight after September 11, 2001. Today, after the invasion of Ukraine, the experts have declared it to be 90 seconds to midnight. We are officially closer to armageddon than ever before in history.

"What is the world worth without Russia?"

As a philosopher, Dupuy is not looking to calculate the danger of nuclear war, but to understand the risk and deal with it. The book The War That Must Not Occur is translated from the 2019 French original with a new foreword on Putin and the invasion of Ukraine from January 2023. Although some critics of nuclear weapons have argued that weapons of mass destruction have become strategically obsolete, there is much to the contrary – and in politics there are threats of the use of nuclear weapons is far from taboo. Already in 2018 philosophizing Putin as follows in an address to the people: “[The use of nuclear weapons] would be a global catastrophe for mankind. For the planet, it would also be a global disaster. But as a citizen of our country and head of the Russian state, I would like to ask the following question: What is the world worth without Russia?"

Military strategic advisor to Putin's government

Since Dupuy wrote his foreword, developments in Russia became increasingly worrying: Sergej A. Karaganov, who is a foreign policy and military strategy adviser to Putin's government, published in June this year the highly provocative article "A difficult but necessary decision". Here he continues with the idea that Russia's fate is probably as important as the rest of the world's future. He advocates that nuclear weapons have been given to mankind by God because we modern people have forgotten to fear the torments of hell. The fear of armageddon must be fully mobilized: "What will be decided on the battlefields of Ukraine is not only, and not primarily, what Russia and a future world order will look like, but mainly whether there will be any world left at all, or whether the planet will be turned into radioactive ruins that poison what remains of humanity.”

Karaganov advocates that Russia should lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons and drop a deterrent bomb.

Despite the fact that he initially evokes a well-founded fear of the end of the world, it soon becomes clear that the doomsday scenarios are intended to emphasize Russia's world-historical role, as God's chosen nation. Karaganov advocates that Russia should lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons and drop a deterrent bomb, for example over Poland. The rationale is that the US will not choose to "exchange a possible Boston for a possible Poznań" anyway. According to Karaganov, the logic of the Cold War, in which the danger of mutual annihilation makes the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons extremely high, is no longer credible – and for Russia it would be beneficial to lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. Deterrence must be freed from its peacekeeping function, and Russia must free itself from what he ironically refers to as 'peace-loving' ideologies. Deterrence must be used as a means of force. An anticipatory (preemptive) nuclear attack, according to Karaganov, will end "the West's five-hundred-year domination" and "liberate humanity". By the West being frightened, it will too man the probability of total nuclear war, says Karaganov.

The rhetoric is turned up – and the insinuation of turning Kiev into a new Hiroshima that forces the enemy to surrender rests on a dangerously fragile logic. That even the suspect ideologue and philosopher Aleksandr Dugin – who has been described as the mastermind behind the Ukraine invasion – warns against Karaganov, has its say. In any case, it is extremely disturbing that a high-profile political adviser gets such opinions published and discussed in the Russian public. Strategic provocations become a form of Russian roulette with the whole world at stake.

Trump's nuclear threat

With a hint of irony, Dupuy opens his book with a surprisingly thoughtful but also disturbing quote by Donald Trump from 1990, from long before he entered politics. Trump says: "I have always thought about the problem of nuclear war: It is a very important element in my thought processes. It is the ultimate, the ultimate catastrophe, the greatest problem this world has, and no one pays attention to the mechanisms at play. It's a bit like a disease. People don't think they will get sick until it happens. Nobody wants to talk about it. I think the greatest of all idiocies is people's belief that it will never happen because people know how devastating it will be, so no one uses the weapons. What bullshit.”

While there is a cautionary seriousness to Trump's rejection of nuclear peace, this brooding cynicism turned to an extremely reckless celebration of nuclear weapons as a means of power when he became president nearly 30 years later. In his rivalry with Kim Jong-un, he put world peace at stake with arguments no less subtle than Karaganov's. Directly quoted: “I also have a nuke button, and it's bigger and stronger than yours. And my button works.” Quite apart from the infantilism, it can be interpreted as a variant of Nixon's "mad-man theory", where behaving as totally unpredictable is used as a means of intimidation, as an integral part of the deterrence strategy that nuclear weapons invite. In a forthcoming book, Miles Taylor writes of the shock waves these statements sent through the administration and the military: “In the world of security policy, everything to do with nuclear weapons is treated as extremely sensitive—well planned and carefully directed. But what Trump might say at any moment, we had no control over.” In principle, a comment on Twitter will be enough to put the defense in alarm mode and escalate the conflict.

The paradoxes of escalation

The escalation is embedded as part of the threat, and the constant danger that the entire nuclear arsenal will be mobilized in a counter-attack is also used as an argument for a nervous nuclear peace, based on the balance of terror. The prevailing narrative of the Cold War is that nuclear weapons were the only thing that prevented—and could prevent—a third world war between the Soviet Union and the United States. The nuclear peace is a paradoxical narrative and constellation with a peculiar logic. The main concern in Dupuy's book is to challenge this logic – and thus this narrative – on the blade. If everything rests on a strategic chess game where the opponent's moves are anticipated, we should expect a watertight logic. But Dupuy shows that the arguments in practice fell apart from the start.

The nuclear peace is a paradoxical story with a strange logic.

The ability to strike back no matter how large the attack is is a major component of the MAD (mutual-assured-destruction) doctrine, as it was developed and put forward by Thomas Schelling and other game theorists at the RAND think tank in California in the 1950s. As Dupuy says, these dry analyzes give the impression that we are dealing with the highest of human rationality – when in fact it is about man's greatest madness. But even from the arguments' own logic, problems arise. The idea is that both parties know that the other party will strike back with its full nuclear arsenal even after an initial, devastating attack, since weapons hidden in submarines and secured silos will remain operational. That is the threat of such a thing second strike which will make the enemy refrain from attacking: The deterrence strategy implies that the counterattack is inevitable, and that the first attack should therefore be out of the question – in principle.

Criticism of the pure madness

The problem – as Dupuy borrows it from the anti-nuclear Jonathan Instant – is this: What motivation would the leader of a country where all major cities have been destroyed really have for a counterattack – after the entire country he or she was supposed to defend has been made unlivable? "You cannot reliably ward off a first attack with a second strike if purpose dissolves the moment the first attack takes place.” It's a bit like saying, "If you kill my whole family, I'll have no choice but to kill you and your whole family." The problem is that if your entire family is killed first, you no longer have anything to defend; the tragedy is a fact. If the rational motivation for the action that constitutes the averting threat falls away already in an imagined scenario, how credible is the threat itself? And if it is an empty threat, what happens to the balance that deterrence is supposed to guarantee?

Revenge is neither rational nor strategic, it is a passion.

One motive that remains is, of course, revenge. But revenge is neither rational nor strategic, it is a passion. The icy rationality of the MAD doctrine thus turns out to be a rabid rationality, which must include vindictiveness as a pseudo-rational motive. It becomes rational to convince your opponent that you really are crazy, as with Nixon and Trump. The madness does not diminish if the erasure of a continent and the murder of hundreds of millions of innocent people is made a matter of principle. The rationality of the MAD doctrine appears to be almost as fragile as Karaganov (and Trump) assume.

The solution does not necessarily lie in being more rational. As Dupuy slyly points out, it is rather the conviction that the rational is something exalted and worthy of aspiration, the crown of civilization, that stands for the downfall. Even reason can go mad. Even the simplest decision theory or utilitarian calculus would recommend that we sacrifice a completely innocent person if it can save a greater number of people, or sacrifice a large number of civilians to save a greater number of civilians: The rational unrestrainedness of Truman's deliberations before Hiroshima and Nagasaki was already spread through the firebombing of Tokyo in the last year of the war, and we could here add to the bombing of Dresden.

Panic decisions or automatic alternatives

How are heads of state to decide in less than five minutes whether to start a nuclear war, when they know that they themselves – personally – are probably the target of the attack and will hardly survive anyway? Even with conventional rockets, it is impossible to know whether a rocket carries nuclear weapons or not. Consequently, Russia has now decided to treat any missile that enters its airspace as a nuclear attack. The research rocket that was launched from Andøya in 1995, and which received Yeltsin to retrieve the briefcase with the nuclear keys that could trigger the third world War, is an event that has been described as the most dangerous moment in world history. It would today – in principle – end with the end of the world.

Russia has now decided to treat any missile that enters its airspace as a nuclear attack.

Dupuy does not mention this incident, but touches on a similarly embarrassing episode from 2018, where all military personnel in Hawaii were told that they were under attack. An officer had misunderstood, thought they were under attack, pushed the wrong button. So what does it take to feel confident enough? Would anyone even ever dare to launch nuclear missiles and start a nuclear war?

The concern that the other party will assume that you yourself are too 'cowardly' to launch a counterattack is an assumption that is crucial in Karaganov's rhetoric. As is known, this can be counteracted by, like Thomas Schelling proposed, to automate the counterattack in the form of a 'doomsday machine'. Let's gag ourselves and leave the power to technology! One then schematically or fully automatically completely removes the possibility of human deliberation, ethical choice and grace. The rationale is that the other party will thus not attack first.

Delegated power

The automation, whether mechanical, digital or doctrinal, is a means of avoiding what is known as a beheading attack, in which the head of state and the government are erased in the first
the attack. That such an opportunity can be far greater with hypersoniske weapons, reveals, as Dupuy points out, an obvious weakness in the apparently reassuring model where only the head of state has the codes for the nuclear weapons. This is obviously also the case for military strategists. Therefore, the power to respond is highly likely – and in all secrecy – delegated to generals and officers in the field or to automated systems. The response mechanism must be like a hydra with many heads, which keep growing with each beheading.

This solution creates new problems, because the more people and mechanisms that can trigger nuclear weapons, the greater the risk of personal or technical failure. It is therefore in the nature of the matter that the management refuses to reveal how fragile the system really is. The truth is more complicated than we get the impression when the former president ceremoniously hands over the codes for the nuclear arsenal to the new one. Dupuy describes a well-known fear among senior officers and military leaders that it will become apparent why they are afraid that the truth about the security procedures will become known.

Paradoxes in line

Technical, strategic, logical, ethical and metaphysical arguments flow into each other in Dupuy's arguments for peace and against nuclear weapons. The nuclear arsenals suggest humanity's self-annihilation. We should fundamentally think pessimistically that it is a matter of time: The only thing we can do is to postpone the apocalypse, to fend it off again and again. For all its weaknesses, the logic of deterrence is and remains decisive. According to Dupuy, we must stick to the assumption that total destruction will be the consequence of an attack with nuclear weapons, which Trump in the nineties rejected as self-delusion, and which Karaganov ridicules.

When Trump, Putin, Karaganov or, for that matter, Kim Jong-un lower the threshold for nuclear attack and fantasize about a regional and limited attack war that can actually be won, the apocalyptic horizon also disappears. When the fear of Armageddon diminishes, paradoxically, the probability of the total catastrophe occurring increases.

In Dupuy's book, the paradoxes line up, but they don't really stem from his own sometimes convoluted analysis – they stem from the strategists who control the fate of the world, and their critics. In the deepest sense, the paradoxes spring from the situation itself. Nobody wants the destruction of the world, but according to the experts and the doomsday clock, it is becoming increasingly likely.

The unthinkable

Perhaps we are trapped by the technologies, strategies and systems, but there is still much more we can and should do to minimize the likelihood of armageddon. That nuclear peace is largely a self-delusion perhaps shows us something decisive: that the will for peace is not something that can be threatened. With a genuine agreement and full disarmament, we could turn back the doomsday clock by hours.

Dupuy points out the irony in that Köningsberg, where Lace in 1795 wrote The eternal peace, today is located in the Russian enclave of Kalingrad Oblast, where the density of nuclear warheads is higher than anywhere else. Perhaps sometime in the future we will forget the whole nuclear weapons nightmare. But before we can dream of something like this, we must consciously take in the situation as it is. Dupuy's book is a good help to think through the unthinkable.

Technology and destiny

The logic of deterrence must be made into a metaphysical and ethical argument, which is not built on the enemy's fear, but on our own. No matter how small the risk of a full nuclear war, we must realize that nuclear peace is temporary. The best we can do is minimize the possibility of the apocalypse. So far, deterrence is based on mutual threats, but it also presupposes one mutual vulnerability. That the vulnerability is just as important as the threat in the balance of terror is made clear by the fact that the US was forced to cancel plans for a missile shield in the 1980s – and had to tell Russia that it would be careful to remain defenseless against nuclear attack.

Disarmament as a solution is otherwise relatively little discussed in Dupuy's book, since the logic of mutual threat stands in the way of such pious hopes. Dupuy builds here on the works of nuclear threatone's perhaps most important philosopher, the Heidegger pupil Günther Other, who in the wake of Hiroshima wrote his pitch-black work The obsolescence of man (1956/1980). For Anders, the nuclear race was the clearest sign that man's products have taken control of us. We allow ourselves to be dictated by things and systems that have gained almost unlimited power over us.

What is first invented cannot easily be invented. In a world where nuclear weapons are first invented, we will never be safe from a full nuclear war, not even if the nuclear powers disarm. New nuclear arsenals will always be able to be built up, and so the technology becomes a destiny, more than a choice. Here we could point to Dupuy's colleague at Stanford, the archaeologist Ian hodder, as in the book Where Are We Headed (2018) indicate that the fate of man is entangled with technologydevelopment, with inventions, with things and systems, which we cannot simply opt out of again or untangle ourselves from. He calls this 'trace dependence' (path-dependency). Technologywhich first presented itself as an opportunity, turns into a necessity, a compelling factor in human life, something we cannot avoid.

We might add that hypersonic rockets are now the big concern that RAND Corporation today warns against and has advocated for a multilateral moratorium to be introduced, without it thus being a western part of the public debate. Hyper-fast, navigable missiles are currently being developed by both the USA, Russia and China – with a greater possibility of panic response and imbalance between hyperpowers and other nuclear nations.





1 For the announcement of the 90 seconds, see:
2 The chronicle was originally printed in Profile Magazine and has since been published
June 13, 2023 i Russia in Global Affairs:
3 Miles Taylor. Blowback: A Warning to Save Democracy from the Next Trump

Anders Dunk
Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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