Risk of Nuclear War
By David Henderson
In my recent post “Incentives Matter for Politicians Too,” I wrote:
One of my biggest concerns is that Hillary Clinton as President would purposely or accidentally get the United States into a war with Putin. The New York Times editors, in their Sunday editorial “Trumpworld vs. Clintonworld,” pointed out just how interventionist Clinton is. (They liked it; I don’t.) When both countries have thousands of nuclear weapons, that is scary.
One commenter responded:
I’m skeptical that Hillary or Trump or Putin wants a war between the US and Russia given the potential for MAD. I don’t consider war with Russia a meaningful factor in this election decision.
He/she misunderstood my point.
I’m sure that neither Hillary nor Donald nor Putin wants war between the U.S. and Russia, and for the reason he said: the potential for Mutually Assured Destruction. But I don’t think the reason the war would happen is that anyone would start out wanting it; if nuclear war between the United States and Russia happened, it would happen because of blunders made by the U.S. President or Putin or both.
My Hoover colleague and former U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry recently wrote a piece in the Hoover Digest titled “Still a Dangerous Neighborhood.” (For some reason, the link doesn’t work. The closest I can find is this piece that quotes him.) In it, he writes:
I believe the likelihood of a nuclear catastrophe today is greater than it was during the Cold War.
He goes on to say why, and the first threat he talks about is nuclear war with Russia.
One thing I’ve learned about former government officials is that they rarely come out and say that the people they worked under make big mistakes. But you can sometimes read between the lines and see them saying, in effect, “They blew it.” Perry was Secretary of DoD in the Clinton administration from February 1994 to January 1997. Shortly after Perry left office, Clinton expanded NATO right up to the Russian border. In explaining why Cold War enmity, which was falling, picked up again, Perry writes:
The first thing that happened was that NATO expanded right up to the Russian borders, I believe prematurely, before Russia was quite willing to accept the fact that NATO was a partner, instead of an enemy.
In other words, Clinton blundered big-time. And this one has not been undone. Moreover, many smart people in U.S. foreign policy don’t admit, even in retrospect, that expanding NATO up to the Russian border was a blunder. At a Hoover conference in January to honor the memory of Robert Conquest, one of the speakers was Michael McFaul, who was Obama’s Ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014. I asked him if he thought it had been a mistake to expand NATO as Clinton had done. He said no. He argued that NATO, even on Russia’s border, was not a threat to Russia. I asked him if the Russians were to make an alliance with Canada so that under certain circumstances the Russian government would have troops in Canada, would the United States be correct in seeing that as a threat. He answered that as long as such an alliance didn’t contravene any other Canadian commitments, it would not. Somehow I don’t believe him.
Back to the point: blunders happen and U.S. presidents who make militant threats are more likely to cause bad things to happen. When the bad thing is a nuclear war, the probability of such does not have to rise much to make nuclear war the worst and most-important bad thing that government can do.
UPDATE: The Hoover link now works. Thanks, Xenophon.