Transkript: Mattias Kumm: The Problem of Avoiding Nuclear War between great Powers: What Law has to do with it? (Moderation: Harald Wilkoszewski)
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Yeah, good morning from Berlin and welcome to our VZB Berlin Social Science Center online
event series, which we called Unsolvable or Solvable Problems.
And every Friday in the series, we look at social science perspectives on the challenges of our times.
And there are many, unfortunately, of them at the moment. My name is Harald Wykoszewski.
I'm the head of communications at the VZB. And I have the pleasure to be your moderator today.
I shall say greetings from our president Jutta Eimeninger, who would have loved to be with us today,
but she can't because she's currently traveling, but she says hello and wishes us fruitful deliberations.
Today, we will talk about a topic that has a kind of scary word in it, nuclear war.
And this is a threat that probably many of us remember since our childhood days,
and which has become more prominent again.
Not only with the war in Ukraine, but other threats around the globe.
And I'm extremely pleased that Matthias Kum is with us today.
He's research professor at the WZB for global constitutionalism.
And he's also a professor at Harvard University. And right now he's in New York City
and there it is really morning, not like us. We are almost going for lunchtime. He's there at 4 a.m.
Thank you very much Matthias that you're with us at this early time.
And his topic is the problem of avoiding nuclear war between great powers, what law has to do with it.
Very much looking forward to your talk.
And before we start, I will say some rules of housekeeping. We have a back end which supports us during this call.
This is Kaija Krueger and Claudia Roth. Thank you very much for being with us.
All participants are on mute and with no video, so that we have a clean screen.
You see the slides already that will be used during Matthias Krumm's talk.
And there will be the opportunity to ask questions. And we would like to ask you to put these in the chat window,
which you see on the lower right.
And so whenever you come up with a question, please type this question as a text into that window.
And we will have about 20 minutes at the end of the session to read out these questions.
And Matthias Kuhn will take them and answer them. The session will be recorded so that we can put it on our blog.
And I think that's it for housekeeping.
And I guess we are ready to go. The floor is yours.
Yes, good morning. The title of my talk is Avoiding Nuclear Conflict
Between Great Powers, what law has to do with it.
Now, the issue is that I'll be addressing is when we talk about a war between great powers, involving nuclear conflict is what a more what in the in the popular language would be referred to as the probabilities of Armageddon.
On. So if we have a nuclear conflict between great powers,
that would no doubt be the result. So it's that scenario,
the worst case scenario is that I'm focusing on. And with regard to that, you might have you might recall, if you went and
saw the film Oppenheimer this year, that there was the troubling this troubling last scene between Oppenheimer in
conversation with Einstein. And Oppenheimer told Einstein, do you remember when I told you that with a nuclear explosion, we
might set in motion a chain reaction that would destroy the world? And then he added, I think we did. So here, the fear,
the implicit claim is that by having successfully completed the Manhattan Project, which then led, of course,
to nuclear weapons to be built and used first by the United States in Japan to end the war,
that thereby you've set off a motion which.
Would likely destroy the world.
OK, now, in contemporary times, after having survived the Cold War.
There are other very informed assessments, according to which the nuclear weapons will lead to the end of human civilization in the 21st century is very high.
I've cited here the number 96%, which comes from Daniel Ellsberg, who himself was actually a nuclear planner in the Pentagon from the late 1950s to the 1960s.
That means under Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, who always believed that much more important
than the Pentagon Papers, which he leaked about the Vietnam War,
were his, were other papers that he wanted to leak and then ultimately ended up not leaking,
which were about United States nuclear planning in the Cold War, in which he was centrally involved in.
And he took a very dark view with regard to the prospects of human survival
under contemporary conditions, given the threat of nuclear weapons.
Now, that somewhat dark perspective is shared by the Bulletin of Nuclear Scientists.
They have set the doomsday clock to 90 seconds to midnight this year.
And this is as close as it's ever been. That means there was no time during the Cold War
in which the doomsday clock was set to 90 seconds to midnight.
And they refer to the present time as a time of unprecedented danger.
Now, the Bulletin of Nuclear Scientists is not an activist's hub.
It's a bulletin, it's an organization first established by Einstein and many of his colleagues
who were involved in the Manhattan Project in 1945.
And today it evolves as part of its advisory board, 10 Nobel Prize winning scientists,
so a very serious organization.
And they too have a dark perspective on the present.
This August, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres also claimed that the world has entered a time of nuclear danger not seen since the height of the Cold War.
Okay, so here you have a sense of some contemporary assessments with regard to the current threat of a great power war between that will turn nuclear.
Now, the question is, are these fears which are irrational, or is it on the contrary the case,
that those who think this is actually not that pressing a danger, are they in widespread denial?
So that's kind of the question. How high is the risk really? How great is the threat, really?
And so here are a couple of arguments that one might bring and that you do here about why
actually, the threat is not that
serious. First, it is pointed out that there were nuclear weapons weren't used since August 1945.
When they were used by the United States in Roshima, Nagasaki, there is a strong nuclear taboo. Just
this year, there was a declaration of all permanent members of the UN Security Council, which are also
all five legitimate nuclear powers under the non proliferation treaty.
And they all came together and declared that a nuclear war cannot be won and must not be fought.
So, a strong nuclear taboo. Furthermore, that's not all that surprising, one might think, because deterrence works.
So that's the next argument.
Mutually assured destruction is the guarantor that nuclear war between great powers will not happen.
If the response to a nuclear attack by one country will be the definitive destruction of that country by the country that was attacked first, then that's a pretty good reason not to start with the attack in the first place.
At most, and this is then widely admitted, there is a threat, the real nuclear threat.
Is that somehow nuclear weapons are not effectively controlled by the relevant states and that
somehow terrorists might, or other groups, might get a hand on nuclear weapons.
And that is a threat because with regard to those groups, of course, MAD doesn't work.
But as disastrous as all of this might be, and as much of an effort as one might do to
prevent this from happening, and there are considerable efforts in this regard that have
been made and that continue to be made, even if things went wrong, the consequences would be terrible.
And a nuclear device going off in a major metropolitan area anywhere in the world would
be an event that would change human history.
But nonetheless, this is not the kind of scenario that I'm focusing on.
I'm focusing on something more serious even than that.
So, from this perspective, it seems that notwithstanding some residual worries one might have,
ultimately, there is no reason to think of this threat
as significant as those others, from Daniel Ellsberg to the Secretary of State.
Secretary General have thought. Now, I, unfortunately, the core purpose of my talk.
Will be to convince you that the soothers are wrong, and those whom you might regard as the alarmists are mostly right.
So this talk as a whole, I'm afraid, will oscillate between the disturbing and the disappointing.
It will be disturbing because it will suggest that the threat of nuclear war is actually remarkably high.
And it will be disappointing because this is not the kind of talk that starts off by saying, here is a problem,
and then here is the solution.
So instead, this is a talk which starts off, you know that there is a problem,
but I'll tell you that it's a much more grave problem than you might think that it is.
And secondly, actually, I have not all that much to say that is original and creative with regard
to how to resolve that problem.
OK, so why is the threat much greater than presumed? I will start with kind of the less significant arguments
and then go to the ones that get weightier.
So, when we think about the Cold War that we survived without a major nuclear conflagration.
Much of it has to do not just with successful deterrence, but also plenty of luck.
Even then, every once in a while, in all kinds of contexts, the issue of command and control
arose. Now, many of you know the great movie, the great Dr. Strangelove with Peter Sellers
in the main role, the Stanley Kubrick film, which actually ends with the beginning of nuclear war
between the Soviet Union and the United States. It's a comedy, but a very dark comedy,
and a brilliant comedy that actually analyzes the protocols of nuclear warfare in a way that
corresponded very accurately to the practices and protocols of the time. So the question is,
how can we rest assured that there is actually an effective command and control over the nuclear
weapons and that a rogue actor doesn't get access to them and start a nuclear war without authorization?
Now, we have the traditional idea and it's that there is right at the top of the food
chain, the president or the prime minister has something like in the American, the United
States, you know, you think of the nuclear football, the president has this thing that
he can use to begin a nuclear war.
But of course, the idea that it's only the leadership that has the capacity to start
a nuclear war is has always been wrong. It's always been the case that there are also others down the food chain, who effectively.
Have the capacity to start and launch nuclear weapons. And that's organized differently in different kind of militaries.
And the details with regard to contemporary practices are generally top secret. But we have reasons to expect in line
with historical practice, that there are protocols which enable some actors lower down the food chain
to have the capacity to start a nuclear war.
And then the problem is, how can we rest assured that there are no circumstances under which
any of those lowerlings may start a war?
So that's a serious problem. and maybe one way in which nuclear war starts.
Outside of the usual structure. Now, there's also the possibility of suicidal leaders,
leaders that would not, imagine leaders that would not survive a conventionally military defeat.
So there's a military conflict, and one side is about to lose. And in many of these kinds
of constellations, you may be that leader that's on the side of the state that's losing the
the conventional conflict, the loss of that conflict may well mean not just the end of his or her power, but also that they
might be killed. And given that their life is about to end practically anyway, they want to take the world down with them.
So this type of situation leads in contemporary debates, for example, with Russia to emphasize the importance of
off ramps, the possibility always of a way of ending the war in a way that saves face and is not just a resounding
defeat. So on that point, I just want to draw attention to what
John F. Kennedy and his famous American University commencement speech from August 1963, which I strongly advise you should read
it's quite brilliant. So he gave it only a couple of months before he was killed. And in it, he said, above all, while
defending our own vital interests, and nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a
conflict of either a humiliating retreat or nuclear war to adopt that kind of course in the nuclear age would be evidence
only of the bankruptcy of our policy or a collective death wish for the world. Okay, so that's one scenario. So think
about this kind of scenario. If, if Hitler had nuclear weapons in his bunker in April 1945, he would definitely have used them.
Now, there's also the possibility of just misunderstandings and, and accidental launches. And here, I
just want to briefly tell two quite dramatic stories from the
Cold War. These two young gentlemen here, Vasily Arkhipov and Stanislav Petrov, have literally, with some degree of
probability, saved the world. And we then they're basically not publicly known, but they are two great unsung heroes of the Cold War.
So to begin with Vasily Arkhipov, he's a...
A Soviet naval officer, who effectively prevented a Soviet nuclear torpedo launch during the Cuban missile crisis.
So here was the situation. This was October 27, 1962. So at the height of the Cuban missile crisis.
And he was on board a submarine as a flotilla, flotilla Commodore.
And what had happened was that the United States had imposed a blockade against Cuba after they discovered that Cuba was being supplied with nuclear weapons.
So, it was a moment of high drama. And the United States, in the context of that blockade, wanted to make sure that no ships, no submarines crossed certain line.
And they identified this submarine, and they wanted this submarine to come up to identify itself, just to make sure, you know, that everybody knew what was going on and that it would not slip through somehow the blockade.
Now, for that purpose, the United States used signaling depth charges just to basically
communicate to the submarine that it should come up.
And before they did that, just to make sure there wouldn't be a misunderstanding, they
sent a signal, the United States sent a signal to Moscow and said, look, we're going to make
your submarines come up, and we're going to use these depth charges, they're not directed
at this to sink the submarine, they just supposed to make the submarine come up. So this is not an
attack. This is just a measure in the context of the enforcement of the blockade. Now, the problem
was, even though the United States communicated this to Moscow, clearly, was that Moscow had
problems with communicating with the submarine. So the communications channels had been down for
for days, and there was no effective communication.
So on this U-boat, as the depth charges exploded, there was consultations going on
about how to deal with the situation.
They believed that they were under attack and that probably the war had begun.
And so for that purpose, the commander, together with the political officer on board,
those are the ones that make these decisions, decided that they would want to launch their nuclear weapons,
their torpedoes, nuclear-tipped torpedoes.
And it was only by accident that this Vassily Arkhipov was on board as the flotilla commander, given that he played that role.
He was the third person who's yes, you needed for the launch to take place.
And he, as the third party, insisted after a heated debate that there was not enough information
and that they should not unilaterally make such a decision and instead come up.
So no nuclear-tipped torpedo was fired, and thereby probably a war averted,
because had such a torpedo been fired and had it exploded,
the probability that there'd be a massive response would have been high.
Okay, the second story is one regarding Stanislav Petrov. And this is now later, this is a 1983 situation.
So Stanislav Petrov was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces,
who played a key role in the, in a 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident.
So this was a time of where the Cold War had heated up considerably because the Soviets had accidentally shot down a Korean Airlines flight, NATO was engaging in massive exercises in the West.
And the relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States were as bad as any time during the Cold War after President Reagan had just ascended to the presidency.
And so here was this Soviet lieutenant colonel in charge of.
An entity which monitored the potential launch of nuclear missiles in the West.
And they had just established a new system. The new system had been built in a couple of
months before, which could identify the firing up of rockets anywhere in the Western world.
And according to the system, the system registered five nuclear rockets being fired from Western territory under the direction of the Soviet Union.
Union. So that was what the signal that came through. And Stanislav Petrov, who's an engineer, and who had no great
confidence in the newly established system, even though he was required to make the call up and say, we are now subject
to a nuclear attack, just didn't pick up the phone disobeying orders, disobeying protocols. And simply because he thought
that if the West were about to attack the Soviet Union, then.
Presumably, they wouldn't send five missiles, presumably, they'd send 500, or even a couple of 1000. So he thought
something was fishy, he didn't want to risk it. And he just
didn't do anything. And in this case, had he made the call, then there were protocols in place, which most experts say would
most likely have led to a nuclear response. So Stanislav Petrov here, as the hero that prevented nuclear war in the
1980s. Okay. Now, many of these stories, by the way, we didn't know, until relatively recently, with the declassification of, of
documents, which no one had access to, which were not generally available before recently. Okay. Now, those are
scenarios about what could go wrong or what has gone wrong or nearly went wrong in the past, but I want us to focus on
something else for now. I want us to focus on what exactly the balance of power among nuclear armed great powers mean, and.
What type of situations arise where the use of nuclear weapons is contemplated. Because here's a wrong perception.
It's simply not the case that according to the strategy adopted by major nuclear powers,
nuclear weapons will only be used as a massive retaliatory strike in case of an attack with nuclear weapons.
So that's the scenario where the classical MAD, the Mutually Assured Destruction, appears
to work. But that's simply not the nuclear strategy of the nuclear power. So each each
nuclear power has its own so called nuclear posture doctrines, which explain when under
which circumstances they put others on notice, under which circumstances they are willing to
use nuclear weapons. And so if we start looking at NATO, and it shouldn't say Russia there,
it should say the Soviet Union, NATO and the Soviet Union in the Cold War. It was clear.
By the end of the 50s, early 60s, that the idea of if the other side attacks that you simply respond
with nuclear weapons, all of this was not very plausible. And so NATO had the developed a
a strategy, which was the following, he said, Look, we will not guarantee that we may be the we may be the block to
first use nuclear weapons. But we are not going to be the block that first uses that engages in aggressive action. So if the.
Soviet Union were to cross the borders of East Germany and move into West Germany, one classical scenario, then NATO would try to
first defend itself conventionally. But it was the it was the belief of NATO at the time that
conventionally their forces would be inferior in terms of of quantity primarily, and that they
would have to retreat. And if they would retreat, after up to a certain point, NATO strategy was to
escalate and to escalate using tactical nuclear weapons. So not a general strike, all out strike
against the Soviet Union, just the local use of tactical nuclear weapons. And of course,
Russia had a response to that, it would also use tactical nuclear weapons. And so there would be
tit for tat. And then the question was, would there be a way, in case of such a scenario,
the hope was that there'd be a time in which a political solution to the problem would be found.
But the point here is that nuclear weapons were used as part of an escalatory strategy to prevent conventional, serious conventional losses and potentially conventional defeat.
And that's exactly how in contemporary times, both Russia and the United States still think of their nuclear arsenal.
So, neither of them has accepted a non-first-use doctrine. Neither of them say that we will use nuclear weapons only if we are attacked by a state using nuclear weapons.
Instead, here are a couple of scenarios which, according to nuclear posture doctrines officially adopted by each of these states, might lead to nuclear war.
To nuclear war. So let's focus on Russia in the Ukraine. So
assume, which at this point, we can't, and in some sense, you know, that that prevents such a scenario from becoming a
reality. But let's assume that the Ukrainian counter offensive would be had been more successful than it currently
looks. And let's say the Ukraine would have taken would have made considerable advances, perhaps taking back some of the oblasts.
That Russia had claimed in 2022, to be part of its territory that it just annexed. And imagine that they'd even push further
perhaps towards Crimea and get Crimea back. Now, if Russia was facing a conventional defeat of that kind, then under existing
Russian nuclear posture doctrines, it's not all that unlikely that Russia would have decided to escalate to
de-escalate. That's the strategy. The idea is that by escalating by using tactical nuclear weapons, you would show
the other side that this is something that means so much to you, that you're willing to escalate to break the nuclear
taboo, hoping that the other side will then back off, shying away from what would otherwise develop into a nuclear exchange.
So and then the question is, what, what would happen if Russia used a tactical nuclear weapon? How would the West
respond? Would it respond by directly getting involved conventionally? Would it use tactical nuclear weapons as
well? Probably not, hopefully not. But it's an unclear question, then there we are in uncharted territories. But the
point is, we'd be in a situation where Russia would under its own nuclear posture doctrines, use nuclear weapons. Now, let me
just elaborate a little bit on what exactly that doctrine currently is. Russia says it will not use nuclear weapons,
unless either it is attacked by nuclear weapons. So let's assume that won't happen. Or secondly, it is facing an existential
threat, an existential threat in conjunction with an attack on its territory.
Now, the question is, how you interpret an existential threat.
You might say it is an existential threat to Russia, understood as it currently defines its boundaries, which includes the four oblasts and Crimea, that territory is being separated, is taken away from Russia.
Furthermore, there have been statements made by various members high up in the nomenclature,
according to which the only guarantor of Russian unity and security under present circumstances
is Putin and that without Putin, there'd be a real risk of Russia falling apart.
So now, Russia's existence depends on the maintenance of a specific regime.
So in other words, if there's a situation that threatens Putin's regime, then that would
be interpreted or may be interpreted as giving rise to an existential threat to Russia.
So all of these scenarios kind of see, you see how under existing nuclear posture doctrines,
may easily lead to nuclear escalation with unclear outcome. So then let's focus finally on the
situation of China in relationship to Taiwan and the role of the United States in that region.
Now it's no secret that Xi Jinping wants under his, during the time that he is China's president,
and to unify, reunify China and make Taiwan,
which is regarded as a, as kind of as a rogue province of the Chinese Republic.
He wants to reintegrate that into China, like Hong Kong was kind of reintegrated into China.
Now, let's assume that at some point they decide to do this using force.
Then it is very likely that the United States would get involved.
It hasn't explicitly provided security guarantees to Taiwan, but on the other hand, it's practiced strategic ambivalence in that regard.
But in the last years, that ambivalence has very much tilted in favor of something pretty close to explicit guarantees.
So we can expect the United States to get involved in this and such a war.
And what is also clear is that there's a real possibility.
This scenario has been war gamed a number of times in Washington,
and it actually turns out that there are many scenarios under which the United States would lose this.
And now imagine that a conventional conflict in the South China Sea is one which China gains an upper hand in, and the United States can't keep China from dominating the Taiwan Straits and effectively occupying Taiwan.
That's a situation where it's not at all clear that the United States might not respond using tactical nuclear weapons.
So if the scenario is if you have a couple of aircraft strike groups, which get sunk by hypersonic missiles,
which they probably would with 5000 American soldiers on board and you have these kinds of events transpiring.
Do we really expect the United States to, after this kind of conventional humiliation, to just kind of basically retreat and say, ah, so we lose this one?
According to American nuclear posture doctrine, they too insist that they are willing in extreme circumstances.
When vital national interests of the United States or their partners and allies are concerned,
they are willing to escalate and use nuclear weapons also as part of when they're dealing
with conventional attacks. So this is the type of scenario where at least in principle.
The use of nuclear weapons would be a realistic, it would be part of a scenario that is
is not at all outside of the possible.
You see, and in each case, the point of using those weapons would be to signal to the other side,
we are willing to take that extra step.
We are breaking the nuclear taboo. This is so close to our vital interests
that we really care about it in such a way
that we're willing to do this.
And so please stop. And so let's escalate or de-escalate. That's the hope. But of course, it's not clear what the response
to such actions would be whether there would be the tit for tat
escalatory ladder that you'd move on as a result, ultimately leading to a major nuclear war. So with other words, we don't
really have in this type of context where kind of where
where balance of power amounts to an assertions of will,
basically signaling how much risk you're willing to take.
It's like playing poker, and situations of miscalculations and mistakes in this kind of context, of course, can easily happen.
My claim is that the context in the present is even worse, it's much more dangerous than it was during the Cold War.
So it's not only that the danger today is as great as it was during the Cold War, I think it's considerably greater than it ever was.
And so here are the reasons why I think that it is.
Now, first, on the one hand, there's the general claim made by Graham Allison in the book,
which explains the idea of the society distract that whenever there's a power that's rising
and challenging, the ultimately threatening takeover to take over the role of the leading
power compared to an aging power, which is in decline, then this is a situation when
you have this shift, when you have this move from one great power to another great power, functioning as a regional or
global hegemon, that this is a kind of a change of guard that typically involves war, not always, but most of the time.
Now, there's a rich literature in international relations that discusses this thesis. And there are quite a few skeptics about.
Either the thesis generally or its application to the China US relationship in the present, most of them skeptical of China's.
Capacities and interests.
But nonetheless, I think what this idea captures, rightly, is the particular danger in a situation
where, on the one hand, you have one country which tells itself the story of emerging from a century of humiliation
and kind of expanding its power and having significant successes on the international stage.
And then the threat is, in this type of context, to become overconfident on the one hand.
So that's the Chinese side. And on the other hand, you have an aging empire,
somewhat overstretched, engaged in too many fronts, too
many theaters, that nonetheless insists on and desperately tries to defend its status as the global hegemon.
So there's a fear of losing that status. So loss aversion is a motivation which
leads to epistemic biases, which in this case might be ones which make an actor more prone to war.
And once you have a war between China and the United States,
say, over the Taiwan Strait, as I just laid out, the threat of nuclear exchange becomes real.
Secondly, the current context is characterized by a tripolar dynamic. So it's not just about two countries in a standoff.
In a standoff, but three. And that makes it more complicated, because if you assume that,
there is no deep alliance between any of these three, then each of them will want to be in a
position to be at least as strong as the other two, just in case they gang up against nuclear
power. So in this kind of constellation, where each power
needs to be needs to be strong enough to deter two others, and each one has the same kind of as the same kind of concern, then
it's difficult to find out it's difficult to find some kind of equilibrium point, where everybody will will think of
their security to be sufficiently guaranteed. So So, unlike a bipolar position where we can imagine that at some point, when each side
will say, okay, we're now in a position that we see we are, the other side will not be
in a position to do anything without it being destroyed.
But when you have this tripolar dynamic, it gets more complicated.
Furthermore, there's been a technological evolution, which has created a great deal
of threat to the old balance of terror. There have been developments in.
Missile defense technology, which makes it less clear whether in specific specifically the United States is still truly vulnerable to nuclear attacks in the way that it certainly was a number of decades ago.
So we see, as most of you know, Israel has quite a well-functioning missile defense system, which at least works pretty well.
It catches roughly 95% of the missiles fired at it from Gaza.
Now, of course, an intercontinental ballistic missile is quite different from the kind of
Qasr missile that the Iron Dome, which is the name of the system in Israel, can defend itself against.
But there are more sophisticated anti-missile defense systems, which also do a pretty good
job at dealing with other ballistic missiles.
And even though we don't really know how good they are, how reliable they are, and whether
they'd be reliable against a massive attack, or whether they're only good enough to effectively
prevent a couple of loose missiles from ultimately reaching their goal.
There is nonetheless a sense that the old balance of terror has at least been dented
somewhat by the technology.
This is exactly the reason why a country such as China and Russia have heavily invested
in building hypersonic missiles.
So these are missiles that fly at least more than, so to qualify as a hypersonic missile,
you have to travel at a speed of plus five Mach.
And under contemporary circumstances, those missiles certainly can't be intercepted by existing technology.
So at least with regard to those missiles, the defenses that currently exist would not work.
But it explains why the language and the insistence on these weapons in public discourse when
you hear Chinese leaders or Russian leaders speak is emphasized.
Exactly to counter this shift in defensive, the development of quite effective defensive technology by the United States.
Now, finally, there's also the absence of mutually agreed crisis protocols. So during the Cold War, and particularly since
the 1960s, after the close encounter of the Cuban missile crisis, both the United States and the Soviet Union were
heavily invested to develop crisis protocols to prevent worst-case scenarios.
Okay, and they're all gone today. So there's the interactions between and the and the contact
between, say, the US military, and Chinese military or Russian military are close to zero,
there's not much going on at all. And so that creates a problem in a crisis situation when
one side can't be sure what the situation is with regard to the other side. Okay.
Okay. Finally, just to quickly wrap up, there are no legal constraints with regard to the arms race. So all the treaties that constrain the arms race in the second half, at least of the Cold War, have basically been denounced and no longer restrict.
The important one is the 1972 ABM Treaty, Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, that's about the defensive mechanisms, which was denounced by the United States already in 2002.
The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which the United States withdrew in 2018,
currently the only treaty that still was still enforced until very recently was the New START,
Strategic Arms Reduction Talks, which was about intercontinental ballistic missiles and warheads.
But that was suspended by Putin this spring and at any rate expires in 2026 and it's unlikely
under present scenario in the present context, that it will be
renewed. And the comprehensive test ban treaty, which prohibits nuclear testing in the atmosphere is is also Putin
announced his intention to revoke it. And there are actually preparations being made to various testing sites in the
north of Russia, to be brought back into service, again, to test a new generation of nuclear weapons. Okay, so we're in the new nuclear arms race.
Now, this is the situation, and I was trying to convince you that this is a dire situation,
a dangerous situation, a very dangerous situation. And so you may ask what to do about it.
Now, there are some who are very seriously worried about it and try to move beyond it.
And as you can see, starting off with an editorial written in 2007 in the Wall Street Journal
by such actors as George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, et cetera.
These are kind of very mainstream, even conservative hardliners in part, or at least moderate actors
who had considerable responsibility in the security establishment of the United States,
either as foreign ministers, defense ministers, security advisors, et cetera.
And they insisted in 2007 already that it was in the interest of the United States
and the world to get rid of nuclear weapons.
These are not peaceniks. These are people who have national interest in mind.
Of course, Obama was the only American president in this century that made nuclear disarmament a policy,
at least as far as public rhetoric is concerned.
He actually achieved absolutely nothing and ultimately ended up as the president who.
Authorized the massive renewal of the nuclear arsenal, including the intercontinental ballistic missiles in the United States.
Something he could have vetoed, he didn't veto, he didn't want to spend political capital doing so. So great general orientation, publicly
articulated, but no policy successes. There is a treaty on the prohibition of
nuclear weapons, a remarkable effort by states by the majority of states who
are deeply frustrated by the current situation, by the threats that are post to them too. Because if there is a great power conflict,
of course, everybody will suffer. Seriously, it'll be the end of human civilization as we know it. And so there's, there's
a great, there is some level of mobilization against those who have the nuclear, the major nuclear powers today. There is a
treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons, which entered into force in January 2021. Binding, of course, only on
those who have signed and ratified it. The original treaty was adopted by 122 states. But those 122 states did not include
not include a single nuclear power. And Germany was also not even sitting at the negotiation table, because they were
strongly encouraged by the United States as a NATO country,
along with all other NATO countries, not to participate at all in the negotiation of this treaty. So Germany was not even
Now, so, so here we have a treaty, but it has little practical impact. So far. Now, so what does that mean? So at the end, all I have is some passages from JF case commencement speech from 1963.
And he talks about, given the very dangerous situation that the world just survived after the Cuban Missile Crisis,
he talks about how it's of great importance for humanity to move beyond this type of situation.
And he speaks of peace that must be attainable and that should be worked for.
And he asks, what kind of peace do I mean?
What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana, enforced on the world by American weapons of war,
not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I'm talking about genuine peace,
the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to
grow into hope and to build a better life for their children, not merely peace for Americans,
but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time, but for all time. And then he
continues, this will require a new effort to achieve world law, a new context for world discussion.
And he adds that, you know, this is 1963. And much like in the present, one might say, many of us think this is impossible, too many think it's unreal. But that is a dangerous defeatist belief, it leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control.
We need not accept that view, our problems are man-made,
therefore they can be solved.
And in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet
and we all breathe the same air.
We all cherish our children's future, we are all mortal. So here's the call, basically that's what it is
and that's how I want to end.
A call to, not to arms, but a call to take seriously the work to move from the status quo
to a different world, where these kinds of threats do not exist. And that involved, on the one hand.
Very practical, concrete steps, like developing crisis protocols, increasing the exchange,
of information, transparency between the military, etc. So that's kind of the minimal starting point.
It then evolved further into building some kind of a treaty regime that controls nuclear armament.
But it's ultimately directed towards a transformation of the international peace
and security infrastructure, involving massive legal reforms, which of course,
didn't happen during the Cold War and couldn't happen during the Cold War, but very negligently
and very tragically, was then missed to did not happen after the end of the Cold War, so that we
We're still with the old somewhat dysfunctional structures on the level of the UN,
as far as international peace, as far as guaranteeing international peace and security is concerned.
So I'll just leave it at that.
I have little to offer in that sense.
The emphasis was on creating a sense of urgency with regard to the threat. Thank you very much.
Thank you. Thank you very much, Matthias Kumm, for this very clear talk. I was really impressed
by the clarity by which you presented this serious topic to us. And you didn't disappoint
in the sense that it was disturbing. So I'm left disturbed. And I actually have a couple
of questions that were directly sent to me in the chat, which I would like to put forward
now. And it starts, I mean you started your talk with this very, very strong metaphor of
the clock to doomsday, 90 seconds, and we're closer to doomsday than ever before.
But can you tell us what does it exactly mean? How do we get to these 90 seconds?
What is the relation of that? How is this calculated? That was one question.
Of course, this is not a scientific process. Just as the statistic that I cited from
Daniel Ellsberg, the probability is 96%. How on earth do you calculate that?
Actually, interestingly enough, there are models and there are how there are social scientists who are trying to calculate this.
But all of those models are arguably deeply problematic. And we should think those numbers as more metaphorical.
And the time is more metaphorical than anything else. I think the point is that from the perspective of those
who are setting that clock, there is a perception gained from a deep understanding
of how technology changes and how it is embedded in military structures and foreign relations
dynamics, it's simply the current situation is simply more dangerous than other situations that existed previously. So the
90 seconds is only relevant when we compare it to other other
times, where the doomsday clock was set as four minutes, 14 minutes, 10 minutes, I think after 1990, it was 14 minutes or
something like that. So the idea is that compared to those previous moments, the present moment is a more dangerous one
than than any of those preceding ones. I mean, even during the height of the Cold War, it was set at two or three minutes. So.
In that sense, it provides information about how a body of experts, knowledgeable experts assesses the overall present
threat scenario, nothing more.
Thank you, and this shows how serious the situation is. Matthew Stephen just asked a,
question, first says great talk, and then this question is where do you see the biggest threat
of nuclear conflict coming from today? So locating probably geographically, politically,
the biggest threat, and as a follow-up, how would you address that threat?
Well, I think, and we can talk, my examples, Drew, on Russia-Ukraine conflict on the one
end and the Taiwan tensions on the other.
There is another scenario about how a Middle East regional conflict could spiral out of
control to become a global conflict. Actually that I think is...
Significantly less likely. I also don't think the likelihood is high with regard to either of those
other crises. What I want to point to is that we are actually, think about this, we're stumbling
from one crisis to another. There are all these different crisis points and who knows what the
crisis flashpoint will be five years from now, seven years from now, nine years from now.
There's going to be one after the other and the great problem is, this is the structural problem,
is that any one of those could, under certain unfavorable circumstances, easily spiral out of
control. And even if we may be lucky and nothing will happen, and there'll be some kind of a,
no matter how dissatisfying, but shortly, definitely stopping short of catastrophe,
solution in the Ukraine, and there might be some solution to Taiwan.
You know, structurally, we're just stumbling from one to another. And it's highly unlikely that our
luck will hold indefinitely. We're just playing, you know, playing lots of poker games and assuming
that we'll win them all as humanity and that's just not very realistic. So I don't have anything
specific to say about any of the specific crises or if I did, they would be a personal opinion,
and little else would be of little importance for this context.
Right. Another question that was posed in the chat was that this all is a very alarming
thought and seems to be much more threatening than climate change, even though we know that
climate change, if it's not being addressed, it also will result in a sort of doomsday
for mankind. But the question is, what do you think? Why is it not as visible, as high
on your agenda. Also, now we talked a lot about leaders, political leaders and the legal ground,
but why is it not so much talked about in the public sphere? Why is there not a pressure group?
Is this a taboo? What would be your explanation? Frankly, this is something I find myself deeply
puzzling. I mean, deeply puzzling. I really don't, I would, so there is no simple quick fix
or solution, no major silver bullet to the problem. But what is clear is that one of
the necessary preconditions to at least reduce the likelihood of anything terrible happening
is you need massive mobilization, a high prioritization.
And an investment and lots of intelligence applied to trying to work through the various,
structural issues and possibilities of minimizing threats. So we need to have the kind of
transformation that we do actually, even though it's also only a moderate success of it all
in the context of climate change, a really transformation of how we engage these kinds
of issues. And in public, at least, we don't have anything close to that. And I was amazed how.
In 2017, ICANN, which was this NGO, which was behind the negotiation of the treaty that I had
mentioned on the prohibition of nuclear weapons, they got the Nobel Prize. That's what that was
wonderful, because it provided some high, high profile, it shone the spotlight on on these
efforts. But, you know, in Germany, when this treaty was negotiated, and scandalously, Germany
was not even sitting at the table, was not an issue in Germany. There was no deep, there were
no demonstrations on the street, there was no engagement of the issue. Now, I'm not suggesting
this treaty is a great solution to anything just by itself. But the idea that this is a major
effort, dealing with one of the most important issues of our time, and there isn't even much
discussion about what the right way of thinking about this is and what the position should be,
that was deeply troubling. And if you ask, well, why is that? Then I think it is simply because.
It is very threatening. It's very real. There's a mechanisms of denial in part. And in part,
it is the sense of comfort derived from the fact that we survived the Cold War.
Surely it can't be as bad as that. And nothing happened then.
And I think it's really this, behavioral economists would speak of availability bias.
So we think that things that happened recently, we overestimate the probability of things
that happened recently, highly unlikely things, but that nonetheless happened recently,
that they will repeat themselves.
And similarly, I think there is the inverse. If something hasn't happened for a sufficiently long time,
people don't actually think the threat of that happening is real.
So I think there are all kinds of psychological and epistemic biases involved, but that can be changed.
And I think it's high time that that is changed.
Yeah, thank you very much for your answers, Matthias Kuhn. We are getting more questions and we are running a bit out of time.
But I will quickly mention Valentin Eichler refers again to the civil society sector,
but on an international level.
You know, when we look at countries, it might be one thing, the other thing is
might be a global movement, so to speak.
And that brings me to the other question we had in the back end about the political elite,
now going back to which leader is there who could put this topic forward.
And when your slide said moving forward, you went back to JFK to 70 years ago.
So who could be that leader? Do you see, do we have to look at JFK or is there anyone on the horizon
who could take up that role?
A single political leader.
Well, I don't, I wouldn't, I wouldn't look at any single political leader.
I think I found it remarkable.
And I was deeply, I had to, I was deeply impressed by when Obama first ran for president, in
a context where nobody had put this on the agenda, nobody had put it on the agenda.
And he without having to put it on the agenda without positively benefiting in any strategic
sense from putting it on the agenda. He put it as one of his four or five core points,
when he ran for president on his agenda. And I think,
he was educated during his presidency how this topic just doesn't resonate,
how there's strong resistance of course in the security and military bubble in that regard,
but also how it doesn't really resonate. He gave this wonderful speech in Prague,
he got the Nobel Prize in part because of that speech, but it didn't have a mobilizing effect.
Everybody looked at Obama and said, yes, that was very, very educational and very reasonable.
But it didn't lead to any kind of sense of urgency to do anything about it.
So I think it's that experience shows that for so long as in international civil society and.
Domestic society and powerful states, there's no sense of urgency, no sense of mobilization,
no constituency that would push actors in this direction, nothing will happen.
And I think the idea of you just focusing on a leader, that won't help.
I think Obama is a good indication of somebody who in principle would have been a good figure
to make this a big issue and to successfully push the agenda,
but without support, without major activity.
And a strong constituency pushing in this direction, and no politician can do anything just by him or herself.
Him or herself. So I think, first of all, we shouldn't look at the savior,
whoever that might be. That's not the right question.
The question is, you know, how, what type of, how can mobilization be achieved?
And then in, hopefully in relatively short time, there will be leaders who will take this up,
some of them perhaps even successfully and productively.
Thank you also for that answer and it shows that this is an issue that can not only be kept to a small group of people, it concerns us all just as climate change and it
also concerns academia and with your contribution today you gave us a comprehensive analysis that
I think is an extremely important input into the public discourse and will hopefully
further resonate. We will close now this meeting. I'll just mention Mrs. or Mr. Bittner's remark
about Pakistan, India and China, where we have a sort of condensed situation of three nuclear powers.
In an area that is often overlooked. We will not have the chance now to discuss this. I took that
more as a remark rather than a question. And that leaves me with the last sentences for today,
with a big, big thank you to Matthias Kuhm in New York City,
who got up really early today, 4 a.m.,
probably earlier, to be with us and to deliver this really excellent talk.
Thanks to the audience who stayed with us, thanks to your questions, and thanks also to the back end
to help with the technical points of this call.
Our series will go on until the 8th of December, and next Friday, McCartan Humphreys will talk about
the question, what good is social science in time of crisis, lessons and answers from Corona.
So we'll shift again to another challenge we dealt with, but which is still looming around.
So if you're interested in that, please join us next Friday.
In general, bear with the WZB on our website. You will find the blog to this event series
with recordings to the sessions. You can listen to all of them at a later point.
And with that, I say goodbye from Berlin and thank you.