War

World Getting Safer, No Daily Threat of Armageddon

Wars are getting rarer and nuclear stockpiles are going down.

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With the Russians occupying Crimea and eastern Ukraine, ISIS beheading innocents in Iraq and Syria, and Taliban resurgent in Afghanistan, it sure feels like the world is, to quote Donald Trump, "a mess." Indeed, many politicians and military leaders have stated that the world has never been as dangerous as it is today.

As my Cato colleague Christopher Preble chronicled, "In February 2012 Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared, 'I can't impress upon you [enough] that in my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now.' One year later, he upped the ante: 'I will personally attest to the fact that [the world is] more dangerous than it has ever been.' …Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified in early 2014 that he had 'not experienced a time when we've been beset by more crises and threats around the globe.' …Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), born before World War II, explained in July 2014 that the world is 'in greater turmoil than at any time in my lifetime.'"

True enough, there are many troubles in the world and far too many lives are lost due to senseless violence. But, let's keep matters in a proper perspective. Since the end of the Cold War, wars have become rarer. International conflicts are way down, though civil wars and armed conflicts have been on the uptick. Moreover humanity's destructive potential–while still considerable–has been declining. Consider that in 1986, the Soviet Union had over 40,000 nuclear warheads, while the United States' nuclear arsenal peaked in 1967 at over 31,000 warheads. Last year, both countries' nuclear arsenal contained less than 5,000 warheads each.

British, French and Israeli stockpiles are lower than they used to be, though Chinese, Pakistani and Indian stockpiles are increasing. And while today it is still possible for a terrorist group to detonate a dirty bomb in a Western metropolis, a world-ending nuclear Armageddon is no longer a daily threat.

Truth is that by yesteryear's standards, Americans are safer. Even ISIS–that most brutal of terrorist organizations–does not pose a serious, let alone existential, threat to the United States. The fact that we do not feel safe may well be a result of the world becoming "smaller" due largely to the revolution in communication technology, rather than deterioration of America's security.

Explore more data like this at HumanProgress.org.

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  1. Fewer.

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  2. Even ISIS?that most brutal of terrorist organizations?does not pose a serious, let alone existential, threat to the United States.

    There isn’t a single GOP candidate right now who wants you to believe this.

    1. As opposed the the dovish Dems?

  3. Consider that in 1986, the Soviet Union had over 40,000 nuclear warheads, while the United States’ nuclear arsenal peaked in 1967 at over 31,000 warheads. Last year, both countries’ nuclear arsenal contained less than 5,000 warheads each.

    Once you can destroy the world, any additional warheads are simply additional upkeep costs. Keeping the best and scrapping the rest was just sensible stockpile management.

    Also, who is “Marian Tupy”?

    1. Yeah the U.S and Russia have plenty of nukes to throw . It most likely stopped a large war in Europe during the cold war. Pakistan and India seem to be much more careful now that both have them. And Israel has been safe from major wars from Arab countries due to the fact they have them,will use them,and have kicked their asses over and over.

  4. I guess that still won’t stop some Reason writers from scaremongering about hurrr pro-war candidates.

  5. This is also the appropriate place to borrow a line from an otherwise bad movie

    “You have nothing to fear from the man who wants a hundred nukes. You should be afraid of the man who only wants one.”

    The implication being that it’s not the deterrant stockpiles that matter, but the willingness to use it. The only country whose leadership is insane enough to actually fire off Nukes at people in the current environment should they get their mitts on some is Iran. (Okay, maybe ISIS, but Iran is a hell of a lot closer to having nuclear weapons).

    1. That is the question, isn’t it? Would Iran use them or give a couple to their terrorist buddies?

      1. I don’t see them giving them away. I do see them using them against their local enemies, the Sunni nations around the Persian Gulf, who also will have them in short order. I don’t think any of the three sides (counting the Israelis) are going to set out with the idea of immolating their enemies in nuclear fire, but I do think the MAD situation will be sufficiently unstable that it will occur by accident.

        Again, beyond the fact there’ll be a third local actor involved, who either side can visualize joining the other to gang up on them, there are giant structural differences between a hypothetical MAD paradigm between the Sunni Gulf Arabs and the Shia Iranians, and between the MAD paradigm involving the Soviet Union and U.S. for so many years. Among them: smaller, easier to destroy stockpiles; a lack of truly survivable deterrents; lack of early warning; a much smaller battlespace, with correspondingly smaller decision timeframes. The whole situation rewards a first actor.

        The Soviet Union/US standoff was much more stable than this theoretical Persian Gulf one will be. It still nearly came unglued a couple of times. (And may yet do so in the future.)

        Again, I’m hoping that they don’t try to drag us along into their fight.

    2. North Korea might be crazy enough to launch a nuke too, when the nuclear saber-rattling stops getting them freebies.

  6. Right now you may have a slight headache and a sore back and your feet are cold and you’re a mite peckish and your throat’s a little dry and your elbow itches and your shin is still a little tender where you whacked the coffee table yesterday – but I can guarantee all those problems are going to disappear if I shoot you in the liver with a crossbow. Suddenly, you’re only going to have one complaint. Get that one thing fixed up, and you’re right back to having a dozen things to complain about. The world seems a more dangerous place because you’ve got a dozen little things to fear that were always there but hardly worth noticing when you had one huge thing to fear.

    1. I like this. And it has the advantage of being true.

  7. Even ISIS?that most brutal of terrorist organizations?does not pose a serious, let alone existential, threat to the United States.

    Don’t say that! You’ll just piss ’em off!

  8. Nukes are to countries what firearms are to individuals. They can be used to cause great damage, and they can be a deterrent. Either way, the cops don’t want anyone to have them except themselves, because they prefer helpless victims.

    1. People really don’t get that. They really think that peace will come about if only we could get rid of all these nukes… They don’t realize that this action would lead back to world wars. The reason there hasn’t been a war between superpowers since then is due to the nukes.

      If every town had a nuke, then every town would be at peace. If any town ever violated that peace, there wouldn’t be enough of it left for people to recognize it.

      (That? Well, that’s the old Springfield hole…)

      1. Most of those weapons were designed to destroy military assets and each other as of about 1960. Bombing Dresden and Tokyo flat did not cause National Socialism to surrender, but A-bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki offered Japan a face-saving way to surrender to the USA before Russia (which had only a week or so earlier declared war on Japan) could invade. Destroying civilians only made sense to nationalsocialists with their racial theories that they were born altruists and that selfishness was somehow an innate trait–one they feared and despised.

    2. The Remarque-able thing abt nuclear weapons is they are useless against a soldier in a foxhole, but could cause great damage to senators, congressmen, archbishops and field-marshals… the very people E. Marie Remarque believed ought to be fighting their own wars in a big stadium. The soldiers could buy tickets and popcorn and place side bets on the action, as in All Quiet on the Western Front.

    3. George Orwell was very disappointed that atomic weapons turned out to be so difficult to make. In “You and The Atom Bomb” he lamented that the world was thus deprived of what could have been a democratizing influence. Many thinkers prefer a world in which the poobahs are no longer able to sit safely in leather chairs and order conscripted youths into battle. There was actually debate in Physics Today concluding that Nixon’s ABM Treaty and Salt I and II were unconstitutional violations of the Second Amendment. Article VI, paragraph 2, specifies only that the treaty-making power takes precedence over “anything in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.” Furthermore, the very last clause of Section 10 in Article I allows the states to defend themselves if “actually invaded, or in such imminent Danger as will not admit of delay.” THAT was as welcome in the Kremlin as Mathias Rust’s Piper Cub landing in Red Square.

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  12. *reads lede*
    *head explodes*

  13. Last year, both countries’ nuclear arsenal contained less than 5,000 warheads each.

    1000 Texarkana ? city Texas 37,225 6.8%

    So, only enough nukes to nuke every city with over 37,225 citizens, plus another 4,000 cities smaller than that?

    Not as comforting as one might think.

    1. Even now, with smaller stockpiles, and smaller device yields within those stockpiles, a strategic exchange between Russia and the States would be one of the most devastating bloodlettings in world history. A Taiping Rebellion in a few days, if you will. It won’t make humanity extinct, nor will it even do so within the confines of Russia and the States. But it will knock both countries back about, WAG, roughly a hundred years of economic development.

      Consider the land area of the continental U.S. Ballpark 3 million sq. miles. Divide by the est. 5000 warheads in Russia, per your quote, and that leaves 600 sq. miles per warhead. The radius of a 600 sq mile circle is about 14 miles. So, assuming even distribution—which isn’t even close to being reasonable, given targeting concerns—that leaves everyone within 14 miles of a strike. Yields are small enough now that 14 miles is not going to be within the likely lethal distance of the explosion, assuming non groundburst and/or avoiding the fallout plume.

      So we’re not all going to die. But the survivors might wish they did.

      1. Meh. The problem with nukes is that the fissile core is vulnerable to neutrons, and can thus be caused to chain-react more like a meltdown than a nuclear explosion. So fast attack jets and homing nuclear defensive systems made ballistic missiles largely obsolete. A dictatorship cannot trust a bomber or submarine crew with that kind of weaponry–the danger of rebellion or simply surrendering on encounter is too great. That leaves cruise missiles… very difficult to make and control. Not religious-friendly. M?me pas peur.

  14. Unless China makes a move on Tiawan and nukes us to curtail a response.

  15. … contained less than 5,000 warheads…

    FIFY

    1. *insert “fewer” … then it’s fixed…

      fuck no edit button. c’mon!

  16. What about an EMP? While perhaps not ‘Armageddon’, it would still be pretty devastating to our country

    1. EMP is produced by high-altitude explosions interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field. After the first such test, nobody wanted to repeat that. To give a taste for how knowledge of physics has degenerated, the recent (crummy) remake of the camp classic “Red Dawn” tries to palm off the idea that some sort of portable nuclear battery on the ground could generate electromagnetic pulses to knock out power and appliances. This is an indictment of government meddling in the educational system.

  17. If there are no near immanent existential crisis on or near the horizon, why has DOOMS DAY Clock, recently expanded to include threats from climate change and emerging technologies as well as nuclear threats and reflecting urgent dangers to civilisation, been reset to three minutes to midnight by the members of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists?

    1. The Bulletin has long been regarded by many observers as a communist propaganda organization dedicated to frightening people with hobgoblins. Subscribing to their magazine only reinforced this conclusion, but most agreed it was best to let the propaganda operate than try to suppress it. Folks could compare and debunk the stuff with little effort, so the net effect was probably negative or close to zero. Fool me twice, shame on me…

  18. Very good observations. in the 70s and 80s we read Alas Babylon, stockpiled salt, experimented with raising crickets for food, built radiation detectors out of diced sheetrock and bits of charged tinfoil, refurbished actual fifties Geiger counters and tried to change the suicidal Mutual Assured Destruction policies Rapturous mystics and communist nihilists deemed sensible. Physics Today carried nuclear weapons interception debates in its letters section. The more dangerous hostilities centered on network broadcasters of teevee flicks like “Amerika” and its commie equivalents. Only Saturday Night Live adopted an evenhanded approach, heckling all sides. I still hank onto those sobering nuclear war manuals with the Dr Strangelove circular slide rules… just in case.

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  26. Fewer nukes does not necessarily mean a reduction in determination or willingness to use one.

    To borrow the gun analogy from other commenters–we have often seen gun violence go up in areas that have banned guns. Yes, the gun bans did result in fewer firearms in the area as law-abiding owners reduced their overall ownership, but the criminals that kept their guns more than made up for it by increasing the number of shootings. The same thing could happen with nukes.

    I would agree that if the number of nuclear warheads drops below a certain threshold, 100% world-annihilation becomes impossible, but the USA and Russia will make sure they always have enough warheads on hand to wipe out each other’s landmasses, so this threshold will never be passed.

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