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Why Mutually Assured Destruction Can No Longer Keep the World from Annihilation
The strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) that kept the world safe for over 50 years may no longer matter in the modern world.
At the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) kept the two sides from taking the conflict nuclear. The idea behind MAD is that if both sides were to fight a full-scale war with nuclear weapons, there would be no winners and both would be mutually annihilated. This understanding has so far kept the world from erupting into another all-encompassing war but is it relevant in the modern context of international relations? Would the prospect of complete destruction to all sides keep us away from war with North Korea?
The idea behind MAD is based on the theory of deterrence, a military strategy which holds that the threat of annihilation would keep opponents at bay. If North Korea was to launch a first nuclear strike, it would surely perish in immediate retaliation strikes by the United States.
Thomas Schelling, an American foreign policy and national security expert, argued in his 1966 book “Arms and Influence” that modern military strategy must include coercion, intimidation and deterrence. The goal of attaining military victory is almost too simplistic in the current state of international affairs. You can influence another state by making it anticipate the violence your nation can inflict upon it.
US marines watch the mushroom cloud from an atomic explosion rise above the Yucca flats, Nevada during a 1945 US nuclear weapons test. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Judging by the lack of direct armed conflict between nuclear nations since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, it can be said that the idea of nuclear deterrence based on MAD has worked relatively well. But is this type of uneasy peace going to last?
One way nuclear nations confront each other without resorting to all-out mutual annihilation is through proxy wars and indirect confrontation, maintains the international relations theory of the stability-instability paradox. We are talking about wars in Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, Nicaragua, Afghanistan and other hot spots around the world where the Soviet Union and the United States were able to push against each other’s ambitions by supporting already fighting sides rather than battling each other head on.
In the modern arena, Syria, Ukraine and North Korea present such a setup, with larger players jockeying for position and influence. As recent events have shown, these types of regional fights have a way of creating tensions where larger parties may rattle their sabers but generally prefer to disengage.
President Trump’s order to attack a Syrian airbase after an alleged chemical attack did not lead to further escalation with Russia, a staunch ally of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Neither did Russian President Putin’s use of so-called “little green men” - mercenaries or unofficial Russian military fighting in Ukraine for Russia’s interests, with Russia being able to maintain deniability of its involvement.
Russian paramilitary surround a Ukrainian military base on March 19, 2014 in Perevalnoe, Ukraine. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Cyberwarfare is another form of off-the-books conflict that has gained effectiveness and state support in new military doctrines. Russia’s attempts to influence the U.S. election in 2016 is a prime example of such an approach. Damage can be caused to institutions and morale of an opponent without firing a single shot.
While the competing nation states find other ways to wound their geopolitical opponents, deterrence theory may also not work if one of the players is not rational or will pursue goals that benefit from widespread destruction - for example, ISIS may use any nuclear weapon it gets a hold of to cause maximum damage and havoc.
In a 2010 film “Nuclear Tipping Point,” the legendary former secretary of state Henry Kissinger pointed out the limitations of deterrence in a world of suicide bombers:
“The classical notion of deterrence was that there was some consequences before which aggressors and evildoers would recoil. In a world of suicide bombers, that calculation doesn't operate in any comparable way,” said Kissinger.
People watch a news report on North Korea's first hydrogen bomb test at a railroad station in Seoul on January 6, 2016. (Photo credit: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
There have also been questions raised about the mental stability of both Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator and President Donald Trump. If people pushing the buttons are not acting rationally, deterrence may also not work.
Notably, the U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster has publicly doubted whether classical deterrence would have influence with Kim Jong Un because of the perceived irrationality of the regime.
“The classical deterrence theory, how does that apply to a regime like the regime in North Korea?” said McMaster in an appearance on “This Week” on ABC News. “A regime that engages in unspeakable brutality against its own people? A regime that poses a continuous threat to the its neighbors in the region and now may pose a threat, direct threat, to the United States with weapons of mass destruction? A regime that imprisons and murders anyone who seems to oppose that regime, including members of his own family, using sarin nerve gase (sic) -- gas in a public airport?”
“During the Cold War we relied on mutually assured destruction (MAD) to keep American and Soviet nukes in their silos, wrote May. Is that doctrine adequate to constrain Kim Jong-un, a dictator whose grasp on rationality is difficult to gauge? What happens if Iran’s next supreme leader believes that to bring about the return of the 12th Imam, the Shia messiah, requires an apocalypse? Bernard Lewis, the esteemed scholar of Islam, famously said that for those who hold such beliefs — former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was among them — 'MAD is not a deterrent, but an inducement.'"
He sees extreme sanctions and non-nuclear military options as being necessary to influence the behavior of such recalcitrant adversaries.
An explosion rocks Syrian city of Kobani during a reported suicide car bomb attack by the militants of Islamic State (ISIS) group on a People's Protection Unit (YPG) position in the city center of Kobani, as seen from the outskirts of Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border, October 20, 2014 in Sanliurfa province, Turkey. (Photo by Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images)
Another big risk to the effectiveness of Mutually Assured Destruction - proliferation of nuclear sides. If North Korea is willing to use its nukes, should South Korea get them? And if Iran gets them, wouldn’t Saudi Arabia follow suit? With a greater number of players, the risks of miscalculations and conflicts of interests grow substantially.
The only way forward, to create a world that cannot be immediately annihilated based on the insecurities and whims of its leaders, is to push for compete nuclear disarmament. Such is the position of the Doomsday clock scientists, who meet every year to determine how close the world is to total annihilation. This year, they set the clock closest to midnight since 1953. The group includes 15 Nobel Prize laureates who are clearly not bullish on the future.
The idea of 'absolute time' is an illusion. Physics and subjective experience reveal why.
- Since Einstein posited his theory of general relativity, we've understood that gravity has the power to warp space and time.
- This "time dilation" effect occurs even at small levels.
- Outside of physics, we experience distortions in how we perceive time — sometimes to a startling extent.
Physics without time<p>In his book "The Order of Time," Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that our perception of time — our sense that time is forever flowing forward — could be a highly subjective projection. After all, when you look at reality on the smallest scale (using equations of quantum gravity, at least), time vanishes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If I observe the microscopic state of things," writes Rovelli, "then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between 'cause' and 'effect.'"</p><p>So, why do we perceive time as flowing <em>forward</em>? Rovelli notes that, although time disappears on extremely small scales, we still obviously perceive events occur sequentially in reality. In other words, we observe entropy: Order changing into disorder; an egg cracking and getting scrambled.</p><p>Rovelli says key aspects of time are described by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat always passes from hot to cold. This is a one-way street. For example, an ice cube melts into a hot cup of tea, never the reverse. Rovelli suggests a similar phenomenon might explain why we're only able to perceive the past and not the future.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Any time the future is definitely distinguishable from the past, there is something like heat involved," Rovelli wrote for the <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/ce6ef7b8-429a-11e8-93cf-67ac3a6482fd" target="_blank"><em>Financial Times</em></a>. "Thermodynamics traces the direction of time to something called the 'low entropy of the past', a still mysterious phenomenon on which discussions rage."</p>
The strange subjectivity of time<p>Time moves differently atop a mountain than it does on a beach. But you don't need to travel any distance at all to experience strange distortions in your perception of time. In moments of life-or-death fear, for example, your brain would release large amounts of adrenaline, which would speed up your internal clock, causing you to perceive the outside world as moving slowly.<br></p><p>Another common distortion occurs when we focus our attention in particular ways.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If you're thinking about how time is <em>currently</em> passing by, the biggest factor influencing your time perception is attention," Aaron Sackett, associate professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas, told <em><a href="https://gizmodo.com/why-does-time-slow-down-and-speed-up-1840133782" target="_blank">Gizmodo</a></em>.<em> "</em>The more attention you give to the passage of time, the slower it tends to go. As you become distracted from time's passing—perhaps by something interesting happening nearby, or a good daydreaming session—you're more likely to lose track of time, giving you the feeling that it's slipping by more quickly than before. "Time flies when you're having fun," they say, but really, it's more like "time flies when you're thinking about other things." That's why time will also often fly by when you're definitely <em>not</em> having fun—like when you're having a heated argument or are terrified about an upcoming presentation."</p><p>One of the most mysterious ways people experience time-perception distortions is through psychedelic drugs. In an interview with <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/14/carlo-rovelli-exploding-commonsense-notions-order-of-time-interview" target="_blank"><em>The Guardian</em></a>, Rovelli described a time he experimented with LSD.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually," he said. "Among the strange phenomena was the sense of time stopping. Things were happening in my mind but the clock was not going ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality."<br></p><p>It seems few scientists or philosophers believe time is completely an illusion.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"What we call <em>time</em> is a rich, stratified concept; it has many layers," Rovelli told <em><a href="https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.6.4.20190219a/full/" target="_blank">Physics Today</a>.</em> "Some of time's layers apply only at limited scales within limited domains. This does not make them illusions."</p>What <em>is</em> an illusion is the idea that time flows at an absolute rate. The river of time might be flowing forever forward, but it moves at different speeds, between people, and even within your own mind.
The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
- Conflict and violence cost the world more than $14 trillion a year.
- That's the equivalent of $5 a day for every person on the planet.
- Research shows that peace brings prosperity, lower inflation and more jobs.
- Just a 2% reduction in conflict would free up as much money as the global aid budget.
- Report urges governments to improve peacefulness, especially amid COVID-19.
The lush biodiversity of South America's rainforests is rooted in one of the most cataclysmic events that ever struck Earth.
- One especially mysterious thing about the asteroid impact, which killed the dinosaurs, is how it transformed Earth's tropical rainforests.
- A recent study analyzed ancient fossils collected in modern-day Colombia to determine how tropical rainforests changed after the bolide impact.
- The results highlight how nature is able to recover from cataclysmic events, though it may take millions of years.