Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

A MAD Heist

Posted by M. C. on July 6, 2022

The reasonable path forward, as both realists and idealists have observed, is to encourage the leaders of Ukraine and Russia to sit down and negotiate terms. Anyone who understands the logic of MAD should condemn the United States’ reckless approach of risking not only self-destruction but also the end of civilization as we know it.

by Laurie Calhoun

Wars are fought by leaders who intend to win, one way or another, using any and all means available to them. The Cold War was a decades-long series of proxy battles between the two nuclear-armed superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, during which the communist and capitalist arch enemies engaged in conflict on the terrain of lesser states, to the detriment of millions of civilians living in those places. But the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. and the fall of the Berlin Wall ushered in neither a period of world peace nor a dramatically reduced U.S. military budget. Instead, U.S. foreign policy elites, emboldened by a newfound sense of impunity, suddenly realized that they could wage war and impose their will wherever and whenever they pleased. Who, after all, was going to stop them?

Despite the complete conversion of post-Soviet Russia to capitalism, the fear-driven antipathy used to promote and prolong the Cold War has been rehydrated among War Party duopolists, many of whom, perhaps addled by six years of mainstream media obsession with the Russiagate hoax, appear to have forgotten why the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. were enemies in the first place. Better dead than red! was the slogan which drove policymakers to attempt to stop the expansion of the Soviet empire by all means necessary. Better dead than red! concisely conveys the fervor which gave rise to both the massive development and stockpiling of nuclear warheads and the creation of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The current curious quest on the part of hawks to support nonnuclear-armed Ukraine as it fends off nuclear-armed Russia reflects a failure to understand the logic of not only war but also nuclear deterrence. The most glaring problem is that if, against all indicators, Ukraine were somehow to prevail in the conventional war against Russia, it would remain an option for Putin to deploy nuclear weapons, against which Ukraine would have no defense. Given that this conflict has morphed into a quasi-proxy war, with massive U.S. funding and CIA operatives on the ground in Ukraine, any use by Russia of nuclear weapons would likely trigger the use of the same by the United States.

Thinkers as diverse as Noam Chomsky and Henry Kissinger have spoken out about the danger of allowing the Ukraine-Russia conflict to continue on, yet the propaganda-pommeled populace persists in waving its Ukrainian flags. Antiwar intellectuals such as Chomsky have often been depicted by Pentagon propagandists and their associated pundits as “unrealistic,” but Kissinger is notorious (or renowned, depending on your perspective) as the consummate Realpolitik war games player. So how are we to understand the sudden concordance of such ideologically opposed figures on the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia?

Kissinger is needless to say very familiar with the strategic cogitations of competent political leaders. He knows, for example, that leaders doomed to defeat by their limited military capacities vis-à-vis their adversaries do not as a general rule wage war against them. Correlatively, when there is no effective outside restraint on a superpower military such as that of the United States, then the sort of free-for-all of mass killing constitutive of the many misadventures in the Middle East (and beyond) since 1991 may well ensue. Kissinger also recognizes that a nation in possession of nuclear arms may in fact deploy them in exceptional circumstances, just as the United States did in 1945.

It is true that in 1945 there was only one nuclear-armed nation, and decades of political theorists have made careers out of arguing that in a war between two nations armed to the hilt with nukes, there could be only a Pyrrhic victory. That was the logic of MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction, given the likely domino/ricochet effect of any first strike use of nuclear warheads. Foreign policy elites such as Kissinger found the MAD argument compelling, and throughout much of the twentieth century, the continual development of ever-more-destructive nuclear arms was construed by high-level strategists as a form of deterrence. Looking back, it seems safe to say that either the MAD approach really worked, or else the species just got lucky that no one certifiably insane ever found himself in the position to initiate what could quite easily have escalated to a catastrophic nuclear holocaust. There were, however, close calls, perhaps the most famous of which was the Cuban Missile crisis. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed in that conflict.

Political leaders are human beings, first and foremost, who may be capricious and prickly, obstinate and vain, and these possibilities must be taken into consideration when attempting to predict their future actions. Two films which vividly underscore the human-all-too-human nature of political leaders and the consequent danger of resting the future of civilization on MAD deterrence are Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe, both of which were released in 1964, at the height of the Cold War.

We all hope that Putin is not irrational, but as both Kissinger and Chomsky appreciate, the usual MAD premises may at some point cease serving as effective restraints in the present case. Paramount among those premises are, first, that the leader with his finger on the nuclear weapons launcher button is not suicidal (or terminally ill) and, second, that he does not believe that a purely Pyrrhic victory, culminating in the destruction of much of his own society, is acceptable—even if he himself has access to an impenetrable bunker located deep below the surface of the earth.

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