Just some random questions I have been asking myself. If you think you know the answer to one or more of them, please leave a comment.

a) What would in your view happen if a nuclear weapon would explode in a major American city, ie. New York or Washington, within the next 25 years?
b) How likely do you find such an event?
c) Would the retaliation be nuclear?

I would really like to know the answer to that last question. I have absolutely no idea. Also,

d) how big a deterrent is the nuclear retaliation threat to potential (the non-suicide of them) terrorists?

a) Which places are more likely to become involved in nuclear warfare during this time period than the US?
Tyler Cowen thinks Japan is the most likely target, and that Pakistan is second. It’s very popular to focus on the Middle East these days when discussing foreign policy, but there are a lot of other ‘interesting areas’ to consider when it comes to this discussion. I agree with Tyler that Pakistan is a likely candidate, but I disagree with his views on North Korea. North Korea, or rather Kim Jong-il, would – at least within a reasonable time span – only contemplate using a ‘bomb’ defensively, in case of an invasion, and if he was to use one it wouldn’t matter one bit if it hit ‘his fellow Korean countrymen’ or not, in my opinion it would most likely hit Seoul, just like thousands of artillery shells would. The idea that this guy would even have second thoughts about killing people from SK seems ludicrous to me, he has no problem killing his own ‘true countrymen’ in droves. In short, there’s no way to ‘liberate’ NK without SK being bombed back into the stone age, both the Koreans and the American military advisers know this, and that’s one of the main reasons (there are others too, of course) why NK hasn’t yet and never will be ‘liberated’ by outside forces. The North Koreans are poor, but their military expenses are big enough for them to have a lot of shit pointing in a very ugly direction. Also, as long as China implicitly backs Kim Jong-il, nothing much will happen up there except people starving and getting killed and all that usual stuff. On the other hand, there is an important reservation to this analysis, the ‘within a reasonable timespan’ part. A nuclear NK might in the long run turn into a serious threat, Kim Jong-il is a power-crazed Stalinist dictator after all, so the most likely scenario is that SK will eventually get the bomb thus establishing a new status quo equilibrium of mutual deterrence.

Which other places might be of interest here? I’m thinking Moscow or another big Russian city, it’s certainly not impossible that the ‘situation’ in Chechnya will cause something really ugly to happen again. Also, it might be easier for terrorists to get their hands on nuclear material in Russia than it would be a lot of other places.

3. Which new countries will have obtained nuclear weapons in 20 years? Here is one relevant analysis, it is a transcript from a conference on proliferation. As mentioned above, SK seems like a likely candidate. Japan is having this discussion too. Also, not only because of NK but also in light of China’s recent and massive mobilization efforts, I would also not find it unlikely that Taiwan might choose to go nuclear. Moving west, Iran is almost a safe bet. Egypt and the Saudis would probably not like them to be all alone with those nice weapons, so they will surely go in the same direction. Probably Turkey too, but this depends a lot on how all that EU stuff develops. Going to the Americas, if Venezuela goes nuclear so will Brazil, and probably Argentina too. I don’t know how likely this is, but it certainly can’t be dismissed out of hand, it’s not a year since Chavez by a slim margin didn’t manage to establish himself as a lifetime dictator. He’ll try again, next time he might be succesful, and two of his best friends (Iran and NK) are both going nuclear.

There are 9 nuclear powers today. The number will only go up, not down. How do we deal with this, how do we slow down this development as much as possible? Is a slowdown even possible? Is it unconditionally preferable?

Ok, those are tough questions, too tough to demand an answer for. The following is tough too, but it’s probably somewhat easier.

Now, this particular foreign policy subject strikes me as inarguably one of the most important of all areas of foreign policy. Yet nobody talks about it. When discussing foreign policy, people in the West talk a lot about terrorism, they talk about islam, they talk about Iraq and Afghanistan, they talk about Venezuela, Darfur and Zimbabwe, they talk about all kinds of stuff. But they almost never talk about nuclear proliferation. Why is this?

The last point is not a question, just a remark. I’ve mentioned it before, I’ll probably mention in again, non-state proliferators are a big and often overlooked threat here that needs to be dealt with somehow. As the transcript linked to above concludes:

James Russell of the Naval Postgraduate School discussed potential non-state proliferators of nuclear weapons and emphasized that the list of potential adversaries is far greater than just al Qaeda. Other non-state actors seeking nuclear weapons include industrial entities and trading groups, quasi-governmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, warlords and militias, transnational criminal networks, and violent non-state actors motivated by anarchist, nationalist, secular left-wing, or religious causes. Globalization makes it more difficult for governments to track or the stop world flow of nuclear materials and information. Non-state actors play a critical role in the proliferation market by providing components and services generally prohibited by states. They also are flexible and adaptive and thwart attempts at regulation.

One important question Russell examined is if we are missing the ball by focusing on the Osama bin Laden-WMD connection? The millennial extremist waves seem to be on the decline. Religious nationalists are not really interested in weapons of mass destruction due to the difficulty of obtaining and using them, and in general they can get what they want using conventional weapons. By focusing on Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, the U.S. government may be missing other non-state actors that are just as dangerous.

The current thinking on proliferation to non-state actors is that it will be a direct transfer from states to non-state actors, either voluntarily or through unauthorized acquisition or theft from an existing site. Another possibility exists for indigenous production using dual-use components and either leaked or stolen materials. Proliferation in 2016 will be a buyers’ market for components, and non-state to non-state transfers will become more common. However, without a whole program nuclear weapons development components are useless.

The non-state proliferation problem is more significant than many people realize, and is about more than just violent non-state actors. The state-non-state divide is creating hybrid organizations that pose a more serious proliferation problem, especially on the supply side of the nuclear marketplace. The collapse of some states has turned them into criminal organizations, such as North Korea. The next problem that might emerge is non-state to non-state transfer of WMD materials, and it is not clear what can be done about it.


June 24, 2008 - Posted by | nuclear proliferation, politics, Random stuff


  1. > As mentioned above, SK seems like a likely candidate.

    South Korea already abandoned its nuclear weapons program, under a much more militaristic government: (Article seems to omit some recently declassified stuff like )

    Comment by gwern | October 22, 2011 | Reply

    • I didn’t know that, thanks. Sadly there are probably candidates enough as it is.

      Incidentally, you’re not the first one I’ve seen link to the ‘’ site. What’s the difference between that version of the wikipedia site and the ‘regular’ version? I tried to find out by going to the wikimedia main site, but I didn’t find an explanation there.

      Comment by US | October 22, 2011 | Reply

      • It’s the HTTPS version of WP. I started using it because it let me log in without worrying about Tor exit nodes stealing my credentials, as happened to other admins.

        Comment by gwern | October 22, 2011

  2. > a) Which places are more likely to become involved in nuclear warfare during this time period than the US?

    Pakistan-India and South-North Korea are the most troublesome pairs. I don’t see a nuke hitting the USA as very likely:

    > The North Koreans are poor, but their military expenses are big enough for them to have a lot of shit pointing in a very ugly direction.

    North Korea’s military is a very interesting question. Reports from NK have even the army starving, and there is evidence that the more advanced parts are badly equipped – for example, sometime this year (IIRC), a NK fighter pilot tried to defect to China in his jet. He died when his jet crashed, reportedly because he didn’t have enough fuel to make it anywhere. The pilots are NK elites, which makes one wonder: are the feared artillery batteries now paper tigers? I am reminded of the hyperventilation over the Republican Guard when we invaded Iraq, which uniformly turned out to not be any kind of serious threat; and doesn’t Saddam’s Iraq seem to have been in much better shape than current North Korea? It takes *time* to kill a lot of people with artillery, time they may not have. (And the nukes? Probably not sitting on any kind of hair-trigger, or even close to each other or the DMZ, given the regime’s paranoia.)

    My own gut feeling is that >50%, the artillery batteries are paper tigers about as fearsome as Shogunate Japan’s harbor artillery was (unable to fire and not fired in decades) when Perry sailed in. There would be civilian casualties, but I would expect them to be relatively low and not total more than, say, 100k of the ~50m South Koreans ( Of course, there’s no real way to test this short of a war, and a <40% chance of major civilian casualties means that even if the best evidence says NK is not a threat, it would be highly immoral to invade anyway. (Absent a far more detailed and exhaustive analysis of all the relevant factors, anyway.)

    Comment by gwern | October 22, 2011 | Reply

    • Your comment got caught by the spamfilter, sorry.

      “there’s no real way to test this short of a war” – this is also the thought I’ve kept coming back to when I’ve thought more specifically about the nukes.

      Incidentally, the plane thing made me remember this observation from Simon Sebag Montefiore’s biography of Stalin (in Danish) which I also blogged a long time ago (again, in Danish):

      “Af de 80.300 sovjetiske fly, der gik tabt under krigen, skyldtes 47% uheld, ikke-fjendtlig nedskydning eller pilotfejl.”

      A rough English translation of that would go something like this: ‘Of the 80.300 Soviet planes lost during the war (WW2), 47 % of the losses were caused by accidents, friendly (/non-enemy) fire or pilot errors.’

      Comment by US | October 22, 2011 | Reply

  3. “NK fighter pilot tried to defect to China in his jet. He died when his jet crashed, reportedly because he didn’t have enough fuel to make it anywhere. The pilots are NK elites”

    A different way of thinking about the plane crash is this: The NK elite contains the people most connected to the outside world. They know a lot more about what they’re missing out on than do the general populace – and even though they’re part of the elite they are in fact missing out on a lot of good stuff. If I was a mad dictator I wouldn’t allow those fuel tanks to be filled up either. If the pilotes don’t have enough gas to escape, most of them probably won’t try. If you give them a chance by letting the pilotes stock up with enough fuel to escape, you risk not only losing the pilot but also a very expensive, perhaps irreplaceable, piece of technology.

    It’s just a narrative, I have no idea if it’s true. But it’s easy to get things wrong when you’re looking at stuff that goes on in a place as different from the modern world as NK.

    Comment by US | October 22, 2011 | Reply

    • > If you give them a chance by letting the pilotes stock up with enough fuel to escape, you risk not only losing the pilot but also a very expensive, perhaps irreplaceable, piece of technology.

      That was suggested, yes. My own reasoning goes, ‘the pilot cannot be an idiot, as idiots would not be trusted with fighter jets in the first place; he is able to figure out how much fuel his jet needs to get him where he wants to go; he must have thought he had a good chance and had obtained the fuel somehow’. That the best he could do was not enough tells you something. (Alternately, he had enough fuel but mechanical issues killed him, which is even more damning.)

      Comment by gwern | October 23, 2011 | Reply

      • Maybe he knew he didn’t have enough fuel to get to a big Chinese town, but he also knew that he had enough to get well across the border. So he tried his luck because two of his closest friends had just disappeared and he really wanted to get away because he’d likely be next. Or whatever. I just don’t know which is the likely narrative, or which combination of narratives are likely – I know too few details. Nobody but the pilot knew all the details here. Which is why I’m not drawing strong conclusions from the incident. Smart people do stupid things all the time.

        Comment by US | October 24, 2011

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