This week President Donald Trump got angry. With his arms folded across his chest, his eyes darting around the room, you can feel the emotion behind his words: “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” The president’s remarks were clear evidence of a danger that must be addressed.
Not the danger of this particular crisis—there is little we can do about that. For now, US law puts no impediments—no checks or balances—on the president’s ability to launch a nuclear war. Instead, what the president’s words highlighted was the inevitable failure, over the long run, of nuclear deterrence.
For decades, US security policy has relied on a theory, an idea about how human beings are likely to behave. And we, as a nation, have agreed to run risks based on this idea that the threat of mass destruction can prevent attacks. Nuclear deterrence seems sensible enough. Who, after all, would be crazy enough to start a nuclear war? And, for the most part, our presidents seemed to confirm that nuclear weapons were secure in American hands.
As former UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon is fond of saying, there are no right hands for nuclear weapons. The problem is the need for perfection. A single slip-up could lead to catastrophe. The instruments of deterrence are inherently fallible. I’m not talking about the computers that control our arsenal and its early-warning systems, though Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control does an admirable job of explaining the risks inherent in keeping thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert. But the machines are not the main problem—we are.
Nuclear deterrence is not a computer that purrs quietly in a corner on its own. Human beings are intimately involved at every step. As the president is so vividly demonstrating, people lose their tempers, overreact, and get overwhelmed by emotion. People can lose their sanity—raving and acting at random.
Nuclear advocates have said for decades that nuclear weapons can’t be gotten rid of, because they “can’t be disinvented.” This is undeniably true, but also entirely specious. No technology is ever disinvented. Who disinvented the PalmPilot? Who disinvented black and white TV? Who disinvented the Hiller VZ-1—a flying platform designed to lift a single soldier 10 to 20 feet up into the air? These technologies weren’t “disinvented,” they were abandoned, either because better technology came along (as with PalmPilots and black and white TVs), or because people simply realized the original technologies weren’t all that useful (like the Hiller VZ-1—why would you put a soldier in a position where the person’s both especially noticeable and entirely vulnerable?) Nuclear weapons fall into the second category. They’re just not very good for anything, except slaughtering civilians en masse.