☢ How close are we to nuclear war?
And if things are so dangerous, how comes the Doomsday Clock hasn't moved?
How might Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — already a humanitarian, economic, and geopolitical crisis — turn into something much worse? Helpfully, I suppose, former CIA Director and US Army General David Petraeus has sketched us an outline. Appearing on ABC's This Week last Sunday, Petraeus said that if Russia used nuclear weapons in Ukraine, America would lead a devastating NATO response. As he told host Jonathan Karl:
Petraeus: I mean, just to give you a hypothetical, we would respond by leading a NATO, a collective effort, that would take out every Russian conventional force that we can see and identify on the battlefield in Ukraine and also in Crimea and every ship in the Black Sea …
Karl: So it would bring America and NATO into the war? I mean — it would be an Article 5 situation basically.
Petraeus: Not an Article 5 because they're not part of NATO — it would be a U.S. and NATO response to something that is absolutely …
Karl: The radiation would extend into NATO countries, it effectively would be an attack on NATO.
Petraeus: Yes. And perhaps you can make that case. The other case is that this is so horrific that there has to be a response, it cannot go unanswered. But it doesn't expand, it doesn’t — it’s not nuclear for nuclear. You don't want to, again, get into a nuclear escalation here. But you have to show that this cannot be accepted in any way.
And then what might happen? Petraeus didn’t speculate further or expand upon his alarming hypothetical. But war planners and theorists have spent decades thinking about how a direct military conflict between the US/NATO and Russia might begin and eventually go nuclear. Perhaps the most widely known theory of escalation comes from Herman Kahn, someone who’s popped up occasionally in this newsletter. While I typically mention Kahn for his later-career efforts as a pro-progress conservative futurist, he’s more famous to the general public as a Cold War nuclear theorist, including as the partial inspiration for the maniacal title character in the Stanley Kubrick film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
Climbing the ladder of nuclear escalation
Escalation scenarios generally advance from peacetime to “shows of force, limited conventional conflict, full-blown conventional war, limited nuclear warfare, and—at the top of the ladder—an all-out strategic nuclear exchange,” notes the Rand Corporation in a 2008 analysis. But in Kahn’s 1965 book, On Escalation, he builds an escalation ladder of 44 rungs, half of which involve some use of nuclear weapons, including accidental. Here’s Kahn’s ladder of the apocalypse:
And where are we on that ladder right now? Let’s look at the current state of play:
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