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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 father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.
- A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
- It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
- The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
Humanity knows surprisingly little about the ocean depths. An often-repeated bit of evidence for this is the fact that humanity has done a better job mapping the surface of Mars than the bottom of the sea. The creatures we find lurking in the watery abyss often surprise even the most dedicated researchers with their unique features and bizarre behavior.
A recent expedition off the coast of Java discovered a new isopod species remarkable for its size and resemblance to Darth Vader.
The ocean depths are home to many creatures that some consider to be unnatural.
According to LiveScience, the Bathynomus genus is sometimes referred to as "Darth Vader of the Seas" because the crustaceans are shaped like the character's menacing helmet. Deemed Bathynomus raksasa ("raksasa" meaning "giant" in Indonesian), this cockroach-like creature can grow to over 30 cm (12 inches). It is one of several known species of giant ocean-going isopod. Like the other members of its order, it has compound eyes, seven body segments, two pairs of antennae, and four sets of jaws.
The incredible size of this species is likely a result of deep-sea gigantism. This is the tendency for creatures that inhabit deeper parts of the ocean to be much larger than closely related species that live in shallower waters. B. raksasa appears to make its home between 950 and 1,260 meters (3,117 and 4,134 ft) below sea level.
Perhaps fittingly for a creature so creepy looking, that is the lower sections of what is commonly called The Twilight Zone, named for the lack of light available at such depths.
It isn't the only giant isopod, far from it. Other species of ocean-going isopod can get up to 50 cm long (20 inches) and also look like they came out of a nightmare. These are the unusual ones, though. Most of the time, isopods stay at much more reasonable sizes.
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During an expedition, there are some animals which you find unexpectedly, while there are others that you hope to find. One of the animal that we hoped to find was a deep sea cockroach affectionately known as Darth Vader Isopod. The staff on our expedition team could not contain their excitement when they finally saw one, holding it triumphantly in the air! #SJADES2018
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What benefit does this find have for science? And is it as evil as it looks?
The discovery of a new species is always a cause for celebration in zoology. That this is the discovery of an animal that inhabits the deeps of the sea, one of the least explored areas humans can get to, is the icing on the cake.
Helen Wong of the National University of Singapore, who co-authored the species' description, explained the importance of the discovery:
"The identification of this new species is an indication of just how little we know about the oceans. There is certainly more for us to explore in terms of biodiversity in the deep sea of our region."
The animal's visual similarity to Darth Vader is a result of its compound eyes and the curious shape of its head. However, given the location of its discovery, the bottom of the remote seas, it may be associated with all manner of horrifically evil Elder Things and Great Old Ones.
It could lead to a massive uptake in those previously hesitant.
A financial shot in the arm could be just what is needed for Americans unsure about vaccination.
On May 12, 2021, the Republican governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine, announced five US$1 million lottery prizes for those who are vaccinated. Meanwhile, in West Virginia, younger citizens are being enticed to get the shot with $100 savings bonds, and a state university in North Carolina is offering students who get vaccinated a chance to win the cost of housing. Many companies are paying vaccinated employees more money through bonuses or extra paid time off.
The push to get as many people vaccinated as possible is laudable and may well work. But leading behavioral scientists are worried that paying people to vaccinate could backfire if it makes people more skeptical of the shots. And ethicists have argued that it would be wrong, citing concerns over fairness and equity.
As a behavioral scientist and ethicist, I draw on an extensive body of research to help answer these questions. It suggests that incentives might work to save lives and, if properly structured, need not trample individual rights or be a huge expense for the government.
In the United States, incentives and disincentives are already used in health care. The U.S. system of privatized health insurance exposes patients to substantial deductibles and copays, not only to cover costs but to cut down on what could be deemed as wasteful health care – the thinking being that putting a cost to an emergency room visit, for example, might deter those who aren't really in need of that level of care.
In practice, this means patients are encouraged to decline both emergency and more routine care, since both are exposed to costs.
Paying for health behaviors
In the case of COVID-19, the vaccines are already free to consumers, which has undoubtedly encouraged people to be immunized. Studies have shown that reducing out-of-pocket costs can improve adherence to life-sustaining drugs, whether to prevent heart attacks or to manage diabetes.
A payment to take a drug goes one step further than simply reducing costs. And if properly designed, such incentives can change health behaviors.
And for vaccination in particular, payments have been successful for human papillomavirus (HPV) in England; hepatitis B in the United States and the United Kingdom; and tetanus toxoid in Nigeria. The effects can be substantial: For example, for one group in the HPV study, the vaccination rate more than doubled with an incentive.
For COVID-19, there are no field studies to date, but several survey experiments, including one my group conducted with 1,000 Americans, find that incentives are likely to work. In our case, the incentive of a tax break was enough to encourage those hesitant about vaccinations to say they would take the shot.
Even if incentives will save lives by increasing vaccinations, there are still other ethical considerations. A key concern is protecting the autonomous choices of people to decide what they put into their own bodies. This may be especially important for the COVID-19 vaccines, which – although authorized as likely safe and effective – are not yet fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
But already people are often paid to participate in clinical trials for drugs that have not yet been approved by the FDA. Ethicists have worried that such payments may be “coercive" if the money is so attractive as to override a person's free choices or make them worse off overall.
One can quibble about whether the term “coercion" applies to offers of payment. But even if offers were coercive, payments may still be reasonable to save lives in a pandemic if they succeed in greater levels of immunization.
During the smallpox epidemic nearly 100 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the power of states to mandate vaccines. Compared with mandating vaccination, the incentives to encourage vaccines seem innocuous.
Exploitation and paternalism
Yet some still worry. Bioethicists Emily Largent and Franklin Miller wrote in a recent paper that a payment might “unfairly" exploit “those U.S. residents who have lost jobs … or slipped into poverty during the pandemic," which could leave them feeling as if they have “no choice but to be vaccinated for cash." Others have noted that vaccine hesitancy is higher in nonwhite communities, where incomes tend to be lower, as is trust in the medical establishment.
Ethicists and policymakers should indeed focus on the poorest members of our community and seek to minimize racial disparities in both health outcomes and wealth. But there is no evidence that offering money is actually detrimental to such populations. Receiving money is a good thing. To suggest that we have to protect adults by denying them offers of money may come across as paternalism.
Some ethicists also argue that the money is better spent elsewhere to increase participation. States could spend the money making sure vaccines are convenient to everyone, for example, by bringing them to community events and churches. Money could also support various efforts to fight misinformation and communicate the importance of getting the shot.
The cost of incentives
Financial incentives could be expensive as a policy solution. As in Ohio, lottery drawings are one way to cap the overall cost of incentives while giving millions of people an additional reason to get their shot.
The tax code could also allow for a no-cost incentive for vaccination. Tax deductions and credits are often designed to encourage behaviors, such as savings or home ownership. Some states now have big budget surpluses and are considering tax relief measures. If a state announced now that such payments would be conditional on being vaccinated, then each person declining the shot would save the government money.
Ultimately, a well-designed vaccination incentive can help save lives and need not keep the ethicists up at night.
Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.