Rethinking National Security

By: Martin Hellman

November 30, 2022

Carrying Forward Drew Christiansen’s Legacy

Rev. Drew Christiansen, S.J.’s passion for human rights, peacemaking, and eliminating the nuclear threat all relate to my project of Rethinking National Security based at Stanford University.

The project starts with national security because that’s where most people are focused right now. However, it really is about the international security of all nations, as the following questions from its summary statement make clear:

In this age of nuclear weapons, pandemics, cyberattacks, terrorism, and environmental crises, is national security becoming inseparable from global security? If so, how do our current policies need to change?

This project is not “pie-in-the-sky,” and that summary statement has been signed by a former secretary of defense, a former director of the National Security Agency, and a former chairman of the National Intelligence Council.

My report on “Rethinking National Security” goes into more detail by examining a dozen assumptions that masquerade as self-evident truths, but that turn out to be questionable upon closer examination. Here, I only have time to explore the most fundamental of them: that national security can be bought at the expense of other nations.

While often true in the short term, that assumption becomes highly questionable when viewed in the longer term.

To minimize the damage that our nation suffers from pandemics, we must work cooperatively with other nations, even our adversaries. A hot spot anywhere can quickly spread worldwide as has already happened, resulting in more American deaths than from combat in all our wars.

And economically depressed North Korea proves that almost any nation that truly desires nuclear weapons can obtain them. While other considerations played a role in transforming that nation into the nuclear-armed menace it is today, our focus on national security was one of the most important factors.

Thinking about the short term and only regarding our own security led us to seek crippling sanctions and to encourage regime change. Fear then led North Korea’s leadership to seek a nuclear deterrent capable of hitting the American homeland—the only way that they can deter us.

Unless it is truly in our vital interest to do otherwise, we should treat every nation with the respect it would deserve if it already had nuclear weapons. Otherwise, we will unwittingly encourage nuclear proliferation and additional threats to our national security. The time to treat a nation with respect is before it has nuclear weapons, not after. And, unfortunately, we often fail to treat even nuclear-armed nations with adequate respect. We tend to act as if we really were the world’s only superpower, when in reality we are only the world’s sole conventional superpower.

The risk of confusing those two can be seen in a March 2021 paper, which explained why the risk of a major nuclear war was then equivalent to playing a global version of Russian roulette with a nuclear-armed gun about once every fifteen years. A few months later, former Secretary of Defense William Perry told me that he agreed with that estimate and gave me permission to quote him.

I should note that those who say that a nuclear war is unlikely are correct. There are five chances out of six that you survive a “game” of Russian roulette. But even one nuclear bullet brings too much risk, especially since that trigger will be pulled approximately five times over the lifespan of a child born today.

In an October 2022 report, I updated that estimate to account for the war in Ukraine. I now believe we are pulling the trigger about once every year that the war drags on, and the current prognosis is for a prolonged war.

When confronted with the specter of nuclear war, many people understandably jump to nuclear disarmament as the solution. If there were no nuclear weapons, the reasoning goes, there couldn’t be a nuclear war. But the real solution is both bigger and smaller.

It is bigger because the solution involves a long-range process that requires fundamental changes in how we think about national security—the essence of the Rethinking National Security project. Yet, it is also smaller because the first steps in that process are possible in the current environment, while nuclear disarmament is not.

To prevent early steps from obscuring the ultimate goal of reaching a level of acceptable risk, an intermediate goal of 1,000 warheads worldwide is defined, as indicated in the figure below and as discussed in detail in section six of my October 2022 report.

Three circles denote different nuclear threat conditions of the world; dots within circles denote smaller differences.
Three circles denote different nuclear threat conditions of the world; dots within circles denote smaller differences.

This diagram also shows why many people fail to see both the risk of World War III and the possibility of resolving the nuclear threat: there are no direct paths from anywhere within “The World As We Know It” to either of those outcomes.

But, as the Cuban missile crisis showed all too well, it is possible to take steps in the negative direction—steps between the small dots in the diagram—which bring previously inconceivable possibilities into view. If enough such steps are taken, we can come dangerously close to the “Nuclear Threshold,” as happened in 1962.

In the same way, steps in the positive direction will create new and better possibilities. If enough of these steps are taken, we can cross into a world vastly different from any we have known. This is the circle labeled “New Thinking” in the diagram, with the ultimate goal being the end state labeled “Acceptable Risk.”

To move in that positive direction, the first critical step is for society to recognize the unacceptable level of risk that it currently faces. Until that is accomplished, there will be inadequate interest in alternatives to the nuclear status quo.

A second key step is for society to recognize that three goals, which are usually seen as separate, are inextricably coupled and follow one another: developing a more rational foreign policy, building a more peaceful world, and eliminating the nuclear threat. Only after the first two are realized will specific proposals for eliminating the threat be seriously examined.

Those are daunting tasks, but a number of reasons for hope are outlined in section seven of the above referenced report. One example, explained there in more detail, is that we are 40% of the way from the peak of the arms race to the intermediate goal of 1,000 warheads worldwide. Contrary to the usual feeling that we are not making progress, we are almost halfway there.

Of course, and as noted above, the war in Ukraine is a huge setback that has greatly increased the nuclear risk. But even there, there is hope—if we will open our eyes. A June 2022 poll in Ukraine, sponsored by the Wall Street Journal and supervised by the University of Chicago, found that 85% of Ukrainians see Russia as responsible for the war, but 70% say the same about their own government and 58% about the United States. Most Americans will be perplexed by those numbers—a sign that we need to learn more, not that the poll is wrong.

In Matthew 7:3, Jesus essentially asks, “Why do you take note of the splinter in your brother’s eye but do not notice the 2x4 in your own?” Since our “brother” in Ukraine is Vladimir Putin, he may have a 4x8 in his eye. So the solution that follows in Matthew 7:5, might better be phrased as, “First remove the 2x4 from your own eye, and then you will be able to see clearly enough to remove the 4x8 from your brother’s eye.”

Right now there is such horror over the atrocities in Ukraine that anyone who speaks of peace risks being branded as a Russian stooge. But again, paraphrasing Matthew, this time 5:9, Jesus did not say, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called Russian stooges.” Instead He said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”

If enough of us will aspire to that exalted state, I believe that Father Drew’s spirit will break into a broad smile as his work on Earth is taken up by others.

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