Tag: <span>Nukes</span>

Nukes and Stability

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


Back when Russia first invaded Ukraine, I made the decision to not write a post about it. First off, everyone was writing about it, and it wasn’t clear that I had anything unique to say. Secondly, while I knew the invasion was going to be bad, I didn’t think it would be apocalyptic. Though I knew that if it started to head in an apocalyptic direction, I would have to write about it. That’s my whole beat. Me not writing about an apocalyptic war would be like The Bark (tagline: “Dog is my co-pilot”) not covering the Westminster Dog Show. 

Fortunately since I made that decision I have come up with an angle on things that I haven’t seen other people cover. Unfortunately the chances of the Ukrainian invasion turning into the start of World War III have also gone up. So I apologize to those of you who came here expecting a post on the drug crisis. I will be getting to that next time.

I- Why an Apocalyptic Outcome Is Becoming Increasingly Likely 

I didn’t spend any time or effort on predicting whether Putin would invade, nor did I spend any on predicting how things would go if he did invade. I certainly wasn’t surprised when it happened—expecting black and gray swans is another thing where my record is pretty clear. But beyond a lack of surprise, my opinions and reactions generally followed the conventional wisdom, which was that Russia was going to have a pretty easy time of it. Having read Kill Chain by Christian Brose, where he describes the superb effectiveness of the Russian “little green men” in the Crimean Annexation, I was, if anything, biased towards a high assessment of Russian competence. As a result, like most people, including Putin himself, I expected a relatively quick victory. That before we had time to debate arming Ukraine, or imposing a no-fly zone, things would be over. 

As horrible as this would be for the Ukrainians. If Putin was going to invade regardless, a quick victory was really the best outcome we could hope for. Low casualties, minimal economic disruption, and most of all only a very small window during which escalations could happen

Instead what we have kind of reminds me of the start of World War I. One of the first things you discover when you start studying WWI is how quick everyone thought it would be. Of course everyone was wrong and the war turned into a brutal slog which ground through 4 years and 20 million lives, 40 million if you add in the wounded. In making this comparison between Ukraine and WWI there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that there is almost no way it will last 4 years, the bad news is that’s because someone will use nukes long before it comes to that. 

The longer it takes for Russia to conquer Ukraine, the more likely it will end up being the start of World War III. This is because there will be more opportunities for it to escalate, more opportunities for mistakes to happen, and more opportunity for passions to become inflamed. And of course we’re not just talking about passions on the Russian side of things, passions in the West are being inflamed as well. Increasingly the public is agitating for the establishment of a no-fly zone. Of course the biggest advocates for a no fly zone are the Ukrainians, but the Estonians have also recently called for one as well. Initially all sober-minded people declared a no-fly zone to be a horrible idea, but my central point is that the longer things go, the less sober-minded people become, and we’re already seeing that trend play out as people look for ways to eat their cake and have it. We have gone from everyone recognizing that a no-fly zone is a horrible idea to the idea that we could impose a limited no-fly zone, and this is not just uninformed members of the public, recently 27 experts signing a letter urging just that. These are generals, senior fellows and ambassadors.

In other worrisome news I just saw a poll from Pew Research where 35% of people were in favor of taking military action even if it risks war with Russia. That still leaves 62% who were not in favor (3% did not answer) but if the Russians stay the course and grind their way into a bloody occupation of Kiev, do you think the number of people in favor will go down or up? I’m betting the longer it goes the more bellicose people will become, and damn the consequences.

Obviously this worry about escalation is not unique to me, and of all the takes I’ve read I thought Ross Douthat’s was the best. In particular I like the way he structured things, so I’m just going to steal it:

II- Drawing Clear Lines (Plus NATO Expansion)

Clear commitments — we will fight here, we won’t fight there — are the coin of the nuclear realm, since the goal is to give the enemy the responsibility for escalation, to make it feel its apocalyptic weight, while also feeling that it can always choose another path. Whereas unpredictable escalations and maximalist objectives, often useful in conventional warfare, are the enemy of nuclear peace, insofar as they threaten the enemy with the no-win scenario that Petrov almost found himself in that day in 1983.

These insights have several implications for our strategy right now. First, they suggest that even if you believe the United States should have extended security guarantees to Ukraine before the Russian invasion, now that war is begun we must stick by the lines we drew in advance. That means yes to defending any NATO ally, yes to supporting Ukraine with sanctions and weaponry, and absolutely no to a no-fly zone or any measure that might obligate us to fire the first shot against the Russians.

He covers a lot of territory in these paragraphs. For those who are curious Petrov was the Soviet officer in charge of the early warning system one night in 1983 when it showed 5 inbound American ICBMs. Petrov decided to wait for corroborating evidence rather than sound the alarm. He was a hero and more than that a good man, and a lot of the scenarios people are discussing assume that nearly all men are that good. Which I’m not sure is the case. But we’ll get to that.

Douthat also brings up the difference between conventional war and nuclear peace. While I see WWI in much of what’s happening I think many people have defaulted to using WWII as an analogy. A European bad guy with nationalist ambitions starts his aggressions by claiming that some territory is legitimately part of his country, and he is just uniting a group of people who should never have been separated. The first time this happened we appeased the guy which was a horrible mistake, so we should never do it again. In addition to this lesson of “never appease the bad guy”, WWII taught us that the way to beat bad guys is through uniting the entire world in opposition. And this was a great plan in 1941. The Allies won because Germany could never keep up with the industrial might of the United States. Most people forget the millions and millions of Russians who died as part of this process. But regardless, this was true in 1941. It is not true today. It doesn’t matter how much greater our industrial might is, we can still lose, that doesn’t mean Russia wins, it means we both lose. 

Douthat goes on to make the critical recommendation that we have to stick to “the lines we drew in advance”. He’s not the only one making this point, Scott Alexander also mentions it in his post on Ukraine. He starts with the point I’ve already harped on:

If you only get one thing from this essay, let it be: unless you know something I don’t, establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine might be the worst decision in history. It would be a good way to get everyone in the world killed.

I’ve already written a post on how it won’t kill everyone, but it would be very, very bad. Alexander moves on from this to discussing the lines, the international norms that keep nuclear war from breaking out:

…those arbitrary lines are what save us from global annihilation.

Any sane person wants to avoid nuclear war. But this makes it easy to exploit sane people. If Russia said “Please give us the Aleutian Islands, or we will nuke you”, what should the US do? They can threaten mutually assured destruction, but if Russia says “Yes, we have received your threat, we stick to our demand, give us the Aleutians or the nukes start flying”, then what?

No sane person thinks it’s worth risking nuclear war just to protect something as minor as the Aleutian Islands. But then the US gives Russia the Aleutians, and next year they ask for all of Alaska. And even Alaska isn’t really worth risking nuclear war over, so you give it to them, and then the next year…

So people who don’t want to be exploited occasionally set lines in the sand, where they refuse to make trivial concessions even to prevent global apocalypse. This is good, insofar as it prevents them from being exploited, but bad, insofar as sometimes it causes global apocalypse. So far the solution everyone has settled on are lots of very finicky rules about which lines you’re allowed to draw and which ones you aren’t…

If there was ever a point at which two nuclear powers disagreed about who was in the wrong, one of them could threaten nuclear war to get that wrong redressed, the other could say they had drawn a line in the sand there to prevent being exploited, and then they’d have to either back down (difficult, humiliating) or start a nuclear war (unpleasant, fatal). So there are a lot of diplomats who have put a lot of effort into establishing international norms on which things are wrong and which things aren’t, so that nobody crosses anyone else’s lines by accident.

I think this is the way to understand the whole NATO expansion idea. We’re so focused on our own side, that we imagine it’s us who’s drawing the lines, but Russia can also draw lines. NATO expansion was their line, and they are also worried about a cascade of exploitation. Now what they call exploitation we call self-determination, but if someone has hundreds of ICBMs we should allow them wide latitude with definitions.

And this isn’t some line that’s only being discussed now, as a pretext for invasion. When Alexander talks about diplomats defining these lines we have dozens of US diplomats pointing out that NATO expansion was just such a line. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on the issue of NATO expansion, since it’s been discussed a lot elsewhere, but I have noticed that most of the discussion seems very facile, it rarely mentions how nuclear weapons might change the calculus of expansion and it definitely doesn’t mention the lingering national dread Russia has be experiencing from losing 20 million people in WW2. But as I already pointed out, we have a very US-centric view of that war. I was also amazed that Alexander, who’s an incredibly smart guy, didn’t make the connection between his Alaskan example and the way NATO expansion appears to the Russians. 

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that I think Putin is a good guy, or that he’s justified in the slightest, or that the Ukrainians aren’t both brave and righteous. No, my whole point is that when you’re dealing with a nuclear power the rules have to be different. And the Ukrainian invasion is proof that we haven’t quite absorbed that lesson, and maybe we won’t until it’s too late. 

One final scenario before moving on. I was listening to a podcast the other day, and someone mentioned that if Russia used a tactical nuke that we would have to respond militarily. Obviously we should all hope and pray that this does not happen, but if it does, then this person thinks we should initiate World War III? That we should be prepared to trade US cities for Ukrainian ones? This is the central problem. Yes, we should definitely draw lines, but unfortunately we can’t draw a line anywhere we feel like it. There are consequences to where we draw our line, consequences we may shortly experience.

III- Getting Rid of Putin

Second, [these insights] mean that it’s extremely dangerous for U.S. officials to talk about regime change in Moscow — in the style of the reckless Senator Lindsey Graham, for instance, who has called on a “Brutus” or “Stauffenberg” to rid the world of Vladimir Putin. If you make your nuclear-armed enemy believe your strategy requires the end of their regime (or very life), you are pushing them, again, toward the no-choice zone that almost trapped Colonel Petrov.

Speaking of podcasts, it’s not just Graham that is being reckless. Garry Kasparov was on Sam Harris’ podcast vociferously advocating the same thing, that the only solution was regime change, that Putin is a psychopath, and either we win or he does, that he will not stop at Ukraine. 

To begin with, as I have already pointed out, it’s not inevitable that one side will win, what’s more likely is that we both lose. In response, when Harris brought up the point that Douthat, and many others have made, that if we leave Putin no other option—if it’s a choice between his death and using nukes—then he’s going to use nukes. Kasparov makes the point that he’s going to try to use nukes, but that the actual people in charge of those nukes will refuse his order, particularly if we make it clear that we will immediately respond in kind, by taking them out with a retaliatory nuke. He appears to be advocating that we resurrect the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) but in a limited sense. Of course, there’s no guarantee that it will remain limited. Also extending MAD to include Ukraine, feels like both a dangerous extension of the doctrine, and a dangerous precedent. 

For all of this, Kasparov may be correct, perhaps if we make it clear that we will immediately retaliate in kind if nukes are used, then if Putin issues an order to use nukes the commanders will disobey that order. But those are a couple of very big ifs. I think I would like to have more certainty when you’re talking about potentially starting World War III. Are you really that sure that no one will follow Putin’s order? You can imagine a scenario like the one I mentioned where a single tactical nuke gets used, and we respond with one of our own nukes. Well at that point the world is a very different place. Is the US still viewed as the good guy or would using a nuke mark the end of US soft power? What does China do? Are they able to take advantage of things to draw more nations into their orbit? I don’t have the space to really delve into the China angle, but obviously they’re the huge wildcard in this conflict.

Even if we avoided responding with nukes of our own and just went all-in on a conventional war, that’s still an enormous escalation, and Russian commanders who initially refused Putin’s order when it was just about Ukraine, might suddenly feel differently when Russian soldiers are being killed by US soldiers.

Even if we’re going to temporarily set aside the question of nukes, we still have to come up with a method of removing Putin from power (or killing him outright). There would appear to be three:

First, we could invade, march all the way to Moscow, or wherever he ends up, and do it in a manner similar to how we removed Sadaam. I can’t even begin to imagine us doing this, certainly I can’t imagine that nukes wouldn’t get used long before we got anywhere close to Putin.

Second, we could assassinate him. I refer you to this opinion piece on Politico (interestingly the same outlet that published the limited no-fly zone letter) for a discussion of why that won’t work and why it has never worked (despite being tried a lot). If nothing else  it would definitely make things very weird with China.

Finally, the option seemingly favored by most people: we can hope that, as Senator Graham said, a Brutus or a Stauffenberg will remove Putin, or perhaps the Russian military could overthrow him in a coup. This is nice to imagine, though as Douthat mentions, dangerous to advocate (particularly if you’re a senator), but how realistic is it? My sense is that overthrowing an autocrat is far more difficult than people imagine. Yes, there have been protests. Yes, the current sanctions will hurt. Yes, there is enormous international pressure. Yes, Putin is hated by lots of Russian citizens. But look at Kim Jong-un and Nicholas Maduro, and before them, Fidel Castro, Augusto Pinochet, and Joseph Stalin. You don’t think all of them dealt with protests, sanctions, international pressure, and the hatred of their own people? 

But let’s say that it does happen, that some Brutus rises up and kills Putin. Well if you know your Roman history you know that Caesar’s assassination was not followed by a peaceful restoration of the Republic, rather it was followed by years and years of war. Perhaps we’ll get lucky, on this count and the assassination or coup will be immediately followed by Alexei Navalny taking power, the oligarchs all getting arrested and the flowering of western-style democracy, but I don’t think that’s the way to bet. 

IV- What Does Stability Look Like over the Long Term?

I’m hoping that the previous sections had bits here and there that you hadn’t encountered before in all of the ink that has been spilled on the Ukrainian situation, but this section is where we finally get to the point of the post. This is the part where I’m arrogant enough to think that I’m covering things from an angle lacking from all of the other articles written about the invasion. To kick things off let’s turn to Douthat’s final point:

Third, [these insights] imply that the odds of nuclear war might be higher today than in the Soviet era, because Russia is much weaker. The Soviet Union simply had more ground to give up in a conventional war before defeat appeared existential than does Putin’s smaller empire — which may be a reason why current Russian strategy increasingly prioritizes tactical nuclear weapons in the event of a conventional-war retreat.

Everyone, even Douthat, is worried about the situation as it stands now. A weakening Russia being led by a psychopath (if you believe Kasparov). But of course this is an obvious thing to worry about, what’s not so obvious is where things are headed. Should we get past this crisis, what does the future hold? Is Russia likely to be weaker or stronger in 20 years? What about 50 years? Which Russia is less likely to use nukes? Is the leader at that point going to be more psychopathic or less? One hopes less, but there’s plenty of room for them to be even worse. Perhaps you’ve heard of Stalin? And remember we allied with him because he was better than Hitler.

Beyond just the state of Russia there are of course numerous other concerning trends. What direction is US power headed? In 20 years will we be weaker or stronger? What about China? How does culture and ideology play out during that time? What about trends in proliferation? If you’re the leader of a country without nukes, does this war make you more or less likely to try and acquire them? I’m guessing that for a lot of people in positions of power, the number one lesson of the invasion will be that Ukraine should have never relinquished its nukes, and that if they don’t want their country to suffer a similar fate they need to acquire some of their own as soon as possible. 

Lots of people are of the opinion that the invasion of Ukraine marks the end of the Long Peace. Less discussed at the moment is why we had the Long Peace in the first place. One popular theory is that we had peace because nukes made war too awful to contemplate. That more specifically the threat of MAD kept the US and USSR from turning the Cold War hot. An equilibrium prevailed, and while it wasn’t a perfect situation, it was an equilibrium in which nukes were not used. This was a bipolar world with two relatively equal sides. As such the game theory was pretty simple, and for a while at least, stability reigned.  

A different form of stability exists on the other side of things. A stability of complete, or nearly complete destruction. A stability where people don’t worry about whether their enemies are going to use nukes because all of them have already been used, and we no longer have the ability to make more of them. I am not an expert on game theory, so I’m not 100% sure that both of these points of stability qualify as true Schelling points, but I do know that Thomas Schelling was obsessed with trying to find points of stability where nukes would not be used. (Which is why it seems particularly dicey to call the use of all the nukes a Schelling point.) Perhaps it’s better to say that in the graph of nuclear weapon usage we know of two points where the graph is at zero: a bipolar world with sides of relatively equal strength, and a world where war has raged so completely and ferociously that there are no nukes left. And the core question, the one I’ve been building up to this whole time, is are there any others? 

The reason it took me so long to get to my core question is that I wanted to illustrate that whatever sort of Schelling point we occupied, Putin has pushed us out of it. And damn him to Hell for doing so, but unfortunately, as the world transitions to a multipolar one, with nuclear nations of varying strength, it was going to happen eventually. If not when Russia invaded Ukraine, it would have happened when China invaded Taiwan. The question which confronts us is can we find a new Schelling point, a new zero spot on the graph? I see a few options, but one last point before we get to them. Remember that we can’t uninvent nukes. Whatever “point” we come up with has to last basically forever. As you can imagine this is a daunting prospect.

The preferred option would be something along the lines of what Kasparov is hinting at, and before him, what Steven Pinker argued for in his book The Better Angels of our Nature. (See my review here.) That liberal and enlightenment ideology has spread to the point where using nukes is inconceivable. That even if you have a psychopath at the top desperately clinging to power who gives an order to use nukes that the individuals below him won’t follow that order. Of course Kasparov was advocating for some additional inducements in the form of threatening horrible retaliation, so I’m not sure that his view is truly pinker-esque. But in this scenario you can imagine that through a combination of using liberal values as the carrot and massive retaliation as the stick we might have collectively already reached a new Schelling point as a natural result of progress.

As you can imagine I have my doubts about this option. We’d have to be exceptionally good at avoiding escalation (which based on what I said in part I does not appear to be the case). This sort of progress would also have to be exceptionally comprehensive. It would have to include individuals in all nations regardless of the provocation. It has to assume that mentally unstable people, or fanatical terrorists will never have direct access to nukes, that even if nations naturally end up with megalomaniacs as leaders that this megalomania will never infect the people actually in charge of firing nukes. Which is not to say I don’t hope it’s true, merely that it seems unlikely to be so. 

A variation on this option which seems more likely is that we might have grown out of aggressive war. Of all the issues Russia has encountered in their invasion of Ukraine, the issue of Russian troop morale has to be near the top. Russian soldiers do not appear to be particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of invading another country, and even in a society as repressive as Russia’s it’s difficult for Putin to force them to be effective in the presence of poor morale. All of which is to say that it’s the reaction of the Russian people to the invasion that gives me the most hope. I still think that an assassination or a coup would be difficult to pull off, but I’m heartened by how “low-energy” the invasion has been. 

Of course the problem here is that if a leader can’t rely on a conventional invasion then that may make them more rather than less likely to go directly to nukes as a way of getting what they want. Aggressive conventional war may no longer be “fashionable” but this may only serve to put all of the focus on the ways in which nuclear weapons can be used to underpin aggression. 

Another possibility for achieving a stable point of zero usage is what might be called the historical option, the one liberal and enlightened people have largely rejected. This is the idea of allowing great powers to have spheres of influence, spheres where, by convention, other great powers do not intervene. To the extent that this option might offer a “zero nuke usage spot” on the graph I don’t think it’s a particularly stable one, but it does make the process of drawing lines (previously mentioned by Alexander and Douthat) easier. For example, in the current situation, Ukraine obviously falls in the Russian sphere of influence, Russia is a great power and accordingly we should stay out of things—no sanctions, no supply of missiles, no drones. Of course even when the doctrine of great power spheres prevailed those powers were always messing with each other in subtle ways, and not only that, the spheres were not fixed and immutable. The great powers were constantly trying to expand their spheres at the expense of someone else’s, and not only that, but lesser powers continually aspired to become great powers and great powers spent their existence in fear that the reverse would happen, thus the lack of long term stability.

Still, as chaotic as these situations could become, it worked out better than you might imagine. Take the Russian occupation of Afghanistan and the US involvement in Vietnam. The two superpowers were clearly messing with one another as much as they could get away with, but the idea that either might resort to nukes was pretty much off the table. But now that’s all anyone can talk about, because Putin has clearly put it on the table. Obviously a large part of the current dilemma is that other aspect of great power spheres: what happens to them when a great power is in decline? And I understand that for various reasons both good and bad that Ukraine is viewed differently than Afghanistan and Vietnam, but I think we may have cast aside the idea of spheres of influence prematurely. 

My personal prediction for how things will evolve going forward involves a lot more nukes. I don’t necessarily put this forward as a stable spot where nukes are never used, though it could nevertheless be more stable than the current situation. This prediction derives from the opinion I mentioned earlier, the idea that a lot of people in power view the invasion of Ukraine as primarily a lesson about not giving up nukes if you have them and attempting to acquire them if you don’t. This lesson derives not merely from the current invasion, and the fact that Ukraine had nukes and gave them up, but also North Korea’s continued existence, as well as the fate of Muammar Gaddafi after he foreswore his nuclear program. 

I don’t know if it will turn out that two nuclear nations will never end up going to war. I do know that it brought a significant degree of calm to the India-Pakistan conflict. As I said this is my prediction for where things are headed, and I would guess that it’s more stable than what we’re currently experiencing right at this moment, but I very much doubt such an arrangement would end up being perpetually stable. 

The final equilibrium point we could end up in is not particularly stable at all, but neither does it represent the end of the world as people commonly imagine. Nukes, particularly low-yield tactical ones, could just become a common feature of war. Obviously this would be a pretty bad outcome, but it’s also hard to imagine that at some point in the next 50 years that someone somewhere isn’t going to use nukes. At which point we should be praying that it’s a low yield tactical nuke and that it doesn’t cause an immediate escalation to a full on exchange of all the nukes—a true World War III. But even if we should be that lucky, the use of one tactical nuke without the world ending would surely encourage the use of additional nukes. As I said this might lead to a new, temporary point of stability where it’s understood that people are allowed to use low yield tactical nukes because it’s better than using all the ICBMs. But as I’ve said this is not a great outcome, it is however one of the many depressing possibilities.

V- Final Recommendations and Observations

In the midst of all the coverage of the invasion, you may have come across the famous quote from Thucydides, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. It’s a depressing statement, but it’s also a true one. A large part of everyone’s faith in progress has been tied up in the idea that as part of that progress strength was increasing connected to goodness. That yes, the strong are able to do whatever they want, but what they want happens to be good for people and the world. In a sense this was Francis Fukuyama’s central claim when he declared the End of History. Not that history had stopped, but that liberal democracy, a government which encourages good outcomes, also happened to be the strongest form of government as well. Of course the current climate is raising questions about both sides of that statement, and their long-term truth remains to be seen. 

Whether Fukuyama was correct or not, the central theme of this very long post is that nukes undermine traditional ways of testing national strength—they mess with the traditional conduct of war. While it appears true that liberal democracies are better at fighting conventional wars, as we saw in World War II, they don’t appear to have any particular advantage when it comes to acquiring nukes, as the example of North Korea makes clear, since they are essentially the exact opposite of a liberal democracy. Of course, once a country has nukes any war it might engage in has the potential to go from a conventional war to a nuclear war. And there doesn’t appear to be any great options for dealing with this eventuality. 

Just because there aren’t any great options doesn’t mean that there are no options. The obvious thing to hope for is that Pinker and Kasparov are right. While nations will still have nukes there will be no one who will actually follow the order to use them. That this is one of the dividends of progress. If that’s the case I think we should be careful about spending down the principal of progress. This sort of forbearance only comes into play if liberal democracies still have a credible claim of being the good guys. And while I think some of the anti-western sentiment that’s come up recently—the “whataboutism” that excuses Russia’s crimes by pointing out our many crimes—is overblown, it does exist, and there are a lot of people who support Putin because he stands up against “The West”. And we need to be careful not to come across as a monolithic, self-righteous, and uncaring force. That is any more than we already do, which is to say we should actually be trying to dial down our monolithic self-righteousness even now. This project is made more difficult by the fact that we live in the era of the informational echo chamber. Where people who hate the West are likely to encounter other people who hate the West, and it’s possible this hatred has already metastasized.  

I also think that we need to be particularly careful when we’re going through a transitional period. Which we certainly are, both with respect to Russia and China. I understand that the general admonition to “be careful” is not particularly actionable. But I do think that if we look back to the way we treated Russia immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union that we didn’t exactly cover ourselves in glory. And the assumption that by bringing China into the global market that they would automatically turn liberal, also appears to be horribly mistaken, and instead it just created a peer competitor.

Of course the whole theme of my blog is that transitions are happening with ever greater frequency. We’re not just going through a transition where Russia is weakening and China is strengthening, we’re also dealing with multiple overlapping transitions related to technology. For example the invasion of Ukraine would be very different if social media did not exist. On top of that cyberwarfare is obviously happening, and apparently drones are wreaking havoc as well.

It also seems to me that attitudes are weird. There’s a certain bifurcation. On the one hand I see people, particularly when the war first started, claiming that Putin was going kill millions of people. And to be fair he still might, but so far, particularly when you’re talking about wars happening in Eastern Europe, casualties have been surprisingly low. But in any case you have people who, when they think about war, imagine it at its most terrible. Millions dead, Putin marching across Europe spreading famine and disease. And then on the other hand you have people who seem excited by the idea of war, who want to go over to Ukraine and fight. Who love the idea of the scrappy underdog Ukrainians. 

In both cases I think we have gone too long without war. It seems both a solution to civilizational malaise and also potentially the worst thing that could possibly happen. The first case is somewhat borne out by perhaps the biggest surprise of the war: the firmness and determination of Western Europe! Many people predicted that Germany would tacitly go along with the invasion because Russia supplies more than half their fossil fuel. No one predicted they would double their defense budget. Clearly the international unity in support of Ukraine is something to celebrate, It would just be nice if it didn’t take a war to get us there. Though a couple of years ago I predicted this very phenomenon.

The invasion of Ukraine is changing a lot of things. A lot more will change before it’s all over, let us hope that we can keep those changes from being apocalyptic. And then keep doing it for the next hundred years, and unless something dramatic changes, additional hundreds of years beyond that.


First off am I the only one who is having a hard time breaking the habit of saying “The Ukraine”? Second, this post ended up being and taking a lot longer than I thought, and as I am leaving tomorrow for GaryCon to pour one out for the father of RPGs, I don’t think there’s going to be a second essay this month. My apologies. If you appreciated the post despite this revelation of the frivolousness of its author and his subsequent dereliction of duty, consider donating.


Eschatologist #14: The Fragility of Peace

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


This newsletter is an exploration of how big things end, and just four days ago something very big came to an end. Depending on who you listen to, it was the end of “peace on the European continent for a long time to come”, or the end of the post cold-war era, and the reintroduction of force into foreign affairs, or the end of all hope that humans are capable of change. And it’s possible that the invasion of Ukraine may be the end of all three of those things. Only time will tell what this event ended, and what it began, but in my opinion people’s chief reaction has been an overreaction, and these quotes are great examples of that.

This is one of the reasons why I spent the last few newsletters talking about randomness, black swans, fragility and its opposite: antifragility. If you put it all together it’s a toolkit for knowing when things might break and then dealing with that breakage. This is not to say that it enabled me to know that Russia was going to invade Ukraine in February of 2022, but it does put one on the lookout for things that are fragile. And it’s been apparent for a while that the “Long Peace” was very fragile. I wish it wasn’t, but that and a dollar will get you a taco. 

Certainly, now that it’s broken, it’s easy to say that peace was fragile, that it would inevitably break and we shouldn’t lose our heads about it. But how do we identify fragile things before they break? And in particular how do we make them less fragile, even antifragile? In simple terms things that are fragile get weaker when subjected to shocks, with antifragility it’s the opposite, they get stronger, up to a point. A teacup is fragile: the more you jostle it, the more use it gets, the more likely it is to end up in pieces on the floor. The immune system is antifragile: when you expose it to a pathogen (or a vaccine) it gets stronger. 

So how does all of this help us deal with the invasion of Ukraine? That’s an excellent question. Unfortunately I don’t think the answer is either simple or straightforward. But, as evidenced by the initial quotes, I think that we’ve had peace between the great powers for so long that we become unhinged at the idea of war. We’ll do anything to prevent it. Unfortunately prevention can turn out to be just postponement.

I’ve written a couple of essays where I used the analogy of fighting forest fires. The forest needs periodic fires to clean out the deadwood, but when you fight every fire the deadwood accumulates and eventually you end up with a fire that has so much fuel that it ends up wiping out the entire forest. You take an antifragile system and turn it into a fragile one. 

Obviously coming up with a clever metaphor for the situation doesn’t get us very far. But it does illustrate what I’m most worried about, that we’ve become so unused to fires (which used to happen all the time) that when the first one comes around we’re going to mishandle it and turn it into an inferno.

I see lots of people saying that Putin won’t stop at Ukraine, that this is the beginning of WW III. First off, it’s only been four days. Acting too hastily almost certainly has far more downside than upside, because if we’re not careful then, yes, this could be the beginning of WW III. Immediately losing our heads and declaring it to be so on day one could turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

This is because of another topic I talk about a lot, and part of why it’s difficult to draw on what happened in the past: the modern world has changed all the rules. War is now very different. Hanging over any decision to intervene, in the background of every war room, haunting every discussion of force, is a fear of nuclear war. And Putin has already upped the ante, by putting his nuclear forces on high alert.

I hope the Ukrainians humiliate the Russians, and it’s nice to see that the war is already not going as smoothly as they expected. But in the end if this escalates into a full on nuclear war, it’s not going to matter who started it, or whose cause was just, because the inferno doesn’t care.


If peace is fragile, is war antifragile? That’s a scary assertion, though one I have toyed with in the past. Perhaps historically it was, but we’re at the end of history, and no one knows how it’s going to turn out. If that scares you as much as it scares me consider donating.