David R. Henderson  

Risk of Nuclear War

Pro and Contra Gauti Eggertsso... Huemer's "On Liberty and Philo...

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.

Comments and Sharing

CATEGORIES: Foreign Policy

COMMENTS (13 to date)
Peter Gerdes writes:

I'm far from convinced not expanding NATO would have prevented a resurgance of tensions.

Suppose we hadn't expanded NATO it seems quite plausible that Russia, not facing the substantial risk of confronting or fighting on the doorstep of NATO countries, would have extended it's own security apparatus.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to whether you think Eastern Europe was a vacuum that was inevitably going to be filled by either NATO or Russia or if there was the possibility of leaving it under no one's sway.

Given Russia's willingness to violate very clear treaties guaranteeing non-aggression and sovereignty I doubt the countries in that region would have felt confident of any agreement to leave them unmolested that wasn't backed up with a mutual defense pact. We might have ended up with a lot states whose confrontations with Russia could drag us in or an expansion of Russian military influence.

I'd like a lot more evidence on likely outcomes here before I feel convinced.

Peter Gerdes writes:

Not to mention joining NATO was a carrot that we used to encourage more responsible behavior.

Could we have successfully convinced as many nations as we did to return their nuclear materials to the soviet union and avoid WMDs without it? I don't know.

Xenophon writes:

You can find the text of Perry’s address at http://www.hoover.org/research/still-dangerous-neighborhood

Scott Sumner writes:

In my view, a nuclear war between the US and Russia is most likely to occur as a result of a series of misunderstandings. By coincidence, one of the candidates in this election is more prone to creating misunderstandings than almost any other major political figure in all of American history. One candidate has a wild, erratic, impulsive and reckless personality. One candidate is extremely poorly informed about foreign policy. One candidate is contemptuous of expert opinion. One candidate is a bully. One candidate is extraordinarily vindictive. In other words, one candidate is almost exactly the opposite of someone like Eisenhower.

As far as NATO is concerned, if I were the Russians I would have asked to join NATO. I can't think of any defense alliance that has done more to preserve world peace than NATO. With Russia inside NATO, the world would be a much safer place. In the long run, I'd like to see all nations join NATO.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Why should Russia care if NATO expanded to its borders? Does NATO want to attack Russia? Who in their right mind wants to invade Russia? There is nothing of value there.

On the other hand Russia wants to invade every country it has previously enslaved. That is why they cared about NATO expansion, and why it happened to quickly.

And why does Russia want to invade every country it formerly enslaved? Because its own economy and political situation is so screwed up that it needs an entertaining distraction.

Brad D writes:

"He argued that NATO, even on Russia's border, was not a threat to Russia."

He's factually correct, but still wrong. NATO's proximity to Russia produced, if nothing else, the appearance of a threat and appearances matter to old Soviets.

I just love the humility of politicians. Better to save face (and risk war) than to swallow your pride and admit your mistakes.

Mark Bahner writes:
As far as NATO is concerned, if I were the Russians I would have asked to join NATO. I can't think of any defense alliance that has done more to preserve world peace than NATO. With Russia inside NATO, the world would be a much safer place. In the long run, I'd like to see all nations join NATO.

Heh, heh, heh! Thinkin' outside the box! Well, I'll go even farther outside the box: NATO should have asked Russia to join NATO.


I haven't thought about this much, but it seems worth thinking about.

Goose writes:

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Capt. J Parker writes:

Secy Perry and Dr. Henderson are spot on correct - Expansion of NATO was big mistake. It doesn't matter if US pundits and policy wonks think NATO is no threat to Russia. What matters is whether Russia thinks NATO is a threat and clearly it does. The war in Ukraine and the Crimean annexation were incited in no small part by the threat of Ukraine’s eventually joining NATO pursuant to terms of the nascent Ukraine – European Union Association Agreement.

The US and EU would be better served by trying to coax Russia into a modern version of the Treaty of London of 1839 where the EU, US and Russia all agree to guarantee the independence and neutrality of The Baltics, Ukraine and other cold war buffer zone countries, the countries themselves are demilitarized with the EU, US and Russia promising to provide national security if needed. (an arrangement similar to what was done with Belgium and the Netherlands via the Treaty of London)
We have a lot to gain from normalized relations with Russia – defense against Radical Islam and securing nuclear materials and other soviet era WMDs from radicals to name just two.

Richard Wilson writes:

Both parties in today's political environment seem capable of blundering into confrontation.

The barrier will be the quality of the advisors that surround theiron potential candidates. This includes their worldviews.

The Democrat's seem more likely to make a blunder due to their expansionist worldview (wanting to promote progressivism and "democracy" world-wide).

Kurt Schuler writes:

This post is an example of why I find libertarian foreign policy thinking strange: it is a weird mixture of moralism (applied to the United States) and amoral realpolitik (applied to everyone else).

The Eastern European states formerly under Russian and later Soviet occupation are democracies that give their people, including ethnic Russians, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of worship, and other freedoms that are curtailed in Russia. They pose no military threat to Russia; it is Russia that poses a threat to them. It occupied them during the time of the Russian Empire and of the Soviet Union. It repressed them, exiled them to Siberia, shot them, starved them to death in the gulag by the thousands.

Remember that the Soviet Union withdrew its occupying forces from Eastern Europe and dissolved of its own rottenness, not from a foreign invasion. A key element of the political order after the collapse was that Russia and other countries promised to respect existing borders. Poland, for example did not lay claim to Kaliningrad, which had been Polish between the two world wars.

And yet, somehow in your view it is a provocation for these small, free countries to try to protect themselves against a large, unfree neighbor responsible for countless violations of their liberty, stretching back centuries.

Libertarian views of foreign policy too often give dictators get a pass on grounds of realpolitik. It is not consistent. If the rights of Eastern Europeans are of no consequence when threatened by superior force, and there is no reason (where feasible) to help them maintain those rights, then then your rights are of no consequence when threatened by superior force, and there is no reason for me do anything but shrug as you are robbed, beaten, or stabbed, and tell you that your behavior was provocative to your attackers.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Kurt Schüler,
Thoughtful comment, Kurt. I will think about it. I see myself as a moralist who is realistic about everything, but I do see your point. Thanks.

Thomas Lee writes:

The great Stephen Cohen weighs in:


He's sympathetic to Trump's position and is generally alarmed at the direction of the debate over Russia policy.

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