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Blowing up the world…

June 3, 2017


The “logic” of mutually assured destruction demands that people don’t think about it too much – or think about it up to a certain point and then stop thinking.  Woolly thinking is essential.

Because once you really nag at politicians and ask them “under what circumstances would you press the button” then you either get squirming or you get insanity.  Personally, I prefer the squirmers.

In the full scale nuclear exchange scenario, a plethora of missiles of megadeath are set to incinerate and irradiate half the planet.  There is no defense, no hiding, no shielding, only a supposed legal or moral obligation to retaliate.

“Ho hum, that’s half the planet destroyed – best destroy the other half.”

Mutually assured destruction is based on the shared belief that it is better for everyone on earth to die than only half the planet.

Now I don’t believe that everyone actually shares this belief.  For this notion to work, therefore, everyone has to believe that everyone else believes it.   Mutually Assured Destruction is not a creed, nor a belief, but a belief in a belief or, if you like, a suspension of disbelief in disbelief.

Of course, this mutually assured suspension of disbelief in disbelief was treated eloquently enough thirty years ago in Yes Prime Minister:

Sir Humphrey: With Trident we could obliterate the whole of Eastern Europe!

Hacker: I don’t want to obliterate the whole of Eastern Europe!
Sir Humphrey: It’s a deterrent.
Hacker: It’s a bluff. I probably wouldn’t use it.
Sir Humphrey: Yes, but they don’t know that you probably wouldn’t.
Hacker: They probably do.
Sir Humphrey: Yes, they probably know that you probably wouldn’t. But they can’t certainly know.
Hacker: They probably certainly know that I probably wouldn’t.
Sir Humphrey: Yes, but even though they probably certainly know that you probably wouldn’t, they don’t certainly know that, although you probably wouldn’t, there is no probability that you certainly would!

In this mess of certain probabilities and probably certainties, the politics of nuclear deterrent functions, and it makes no political sense to try to make grammatical sense of the various double negatives in play.

What it comes down to, and what few want to articulate is that everyone is required to believe that everyone else is inclined to believe that dying knowing that our enemies will also die is a version of “not losing” – that the worst possible outcome is to die knowing that others, far away, may survive.

Some politicians are perceived as being weak on Mutually Assured Destruction – insufficiently MAD.  In TV studios, they are therefore pushed to articulate what they would do in specific situations.  But the very specificity of the scenarios being offered only serves to give fatal clarity to a logic that is always intended to be smudged.  MAD politics are not supposed to be about imagining the logic of retaliatory megadeath, but rather feeling (in vague terms) that we thing that they think that we might engage in retaliatory megadeath.  It’s a diplomacy of imprecision.

Mutually Assured Destruction is therefore an impressionist art form, not a photo-realist documentary art form.

So, in the absence of a full-throated commitment to unilateralism, the forcing of the issue creates squirmy rhetoric of evasive genocide.  You either have candidates who say “yes, but I’d work to ensure this never happens…  blah, blah, blah…” or you have candidates who can say “In the event of my half of the world being annihilated I’d absolutely ensure that the other half was as well.”

Political interviewing is about exploiting perceived weaknesses.  Ambivalence and fuzziness are usually perceived of as weaknesses.  What few will acknowledge is that ambivalence and fuzziness are structuring principles of political discourse, and the only way to avoid choosing to decide between the squirmers and the lunatics is to keep certain scenarios as fuzzy as possible.


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