Cold War weapons and perceptions of risk

2010-06-04

in Bombs and rockets, Psychology, Security

It seems a natural human intuition to think the world is going down the tubes. We look back across our lives and identify what seems more worrisome now than when we were born. We then worry about what sort of world future generations will inhabit. Written accounts demonstrate that such concerns go back at least to the classical world.

There is certainly some validity to that perspective, especially when it comes to cumulative threats like climate change. That said, there do seem to be many cases in which anxieties proved unjustified – such as when wave after wave of immigrants ended up successfully integrated into North American and Western European cultures, despite fears that they would create all manner of entrenched problems.

I started thinking about all this earlier today, reading Ken Alibek’s account of the Soviet biological weapons program. Until I was nine years old, the Russians were still doing open air testing of biological weapons on Vozrozhdeniya Island. That reminded me of two probable cognitive failures. Firstly, we are less aware of the dangers that existed in previous times, which reduces the validity of our apprehensions about a future that is worse. Secondly, there can be real improvements in the state of the world. While there are certainly still risks associated with Cold War era weapons, at least the spectre of their intentional use is less haunting now than it was in previous decades.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Byron Smith June 4, 2010 at 6:34 pm

I’d love to hear your honest opinion on this. I am aware for all kinds of reasons we may be just like almost every other generation that has passed since the classical age and that our expectations of decline may be prove wildly wrong. But given climate change, peak oil, ocean acidification, overfishing, soil degradation, biodiversity loss and so on, what do you expect the world to be like in a few decades?

Tcha June 5, 2010 at 5:57 pm

and what’s about other test done on real time on population and environement like GMO’s and nanotechnologies that we (the public) are as much aware of as the biological weapons experiments back then…

Milan June 5, 2010 at 10:46 pm

what do you expect the world to be like in a few decades?

I am not too worried about peak oil. Scarcity accompanied by rising prices is something our economic system can deal with, though it will certainly be painful for some communities and industries.

Climate change is the thing I really worry about. It is cumulative, and by the time the most significant effects start to appear, it is too late to stop.

Personally, I don’t think it is a very good idea to have children right now. I would wait to see that we have turned the corner globally first, and made a serious start on the long journey to zero net emissions.

Tristan June 6, 2010 at 6:03 pm

If you’re concerned about risks associated with Cold War era weapons, a high priority should be the establishment of nuclear-weapons free zones, eventually to encompass the entire world. You should therefore be seriously concerned by U.S. opposition to a nuclear weapons free zone in the middle east.

Milan June 7, 2010 at 12:14 am

I don’t know if international law has much use for restricting the spread of nuclear weapons. The Non-Proliferation Treaty failed with Pakistan and North Korea, for instance.

That said, the Middle East and Southeast Asia are the two regions where I worry most about large numbers of states going nuclear in the next fifty years or so. The more different actors involved in any crisis, the more likely things will end tragically.

Tristan June 7, 2010 at 10:41 am

Did anyone say anything about international law?

Milan June 7, 2010 at 11:17 am

How else would such a zone be established?

By force?

Tristan June 7, 2010 at 12:03 pm

By influence? By negotiation? Such a zone would be in the region’s interest. US support would make the difference.

The US seems to prefer the possibility of getting dragged into a war with Iran to questioning it’s support for an Israeli terrorist state. Sitting around talking about it won’t help – this is a week for attending demonstrations.

Milan June 7, 2010 at 12:07 pm

Successful negotiations would eventually lead to some sort of agreement betweent the states in the region, no? Hence, international law.

Personally, I think such a zone is an impossibility. States with both nuclear weapons and hostile neighbours will probably never give up the former, especially if their neighbours are suspected of developing their own.

Milan June 7, 2010 at 12:26 pm

Ironically, the more the international community condemns a state that has or is seeking nuclear weapons, the more reason that state has for holding onto them or continuing to develop them.

After all, furious allies and a hostile international community are unlikely to help out such a state in the event of conflict. They will therefore need to rely on their own means.

Tristan June 7, 2010 at 12:29 pm

So, would you support a Israeli/U.S. supported war on Iran? Because that is beginning to appear as the other option in this case. Iran is crazy if they are not developing nuclear weapons as a deterrent given US and Israeli threats of first strike agression. The option is either more and more countries in the region hold nuclear weapons, or foreign military might crushes any resistent power which attempts to acquire them, or a nuclear weapons free zone is established which would be in the interest of the entire region.

The enduring problem in the middle east is that stability is not in American interests. As long as the American population refuses to demand that the US act in favour of peace rather than in it’s perceived economic interests, the US will continue to be a force of instability in the region.

Milan June 7, 2010 at 12:32 pm

I don’t think Iran can be stopped by military means. They probably cannot be stopped by any means.

Where they go, other states in the region are likely to follow eventually: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc.

It will leave the Middle East more of a mess and even more dangerous than it is now.

In the long term, perhaps the best thing that can be done is to make oil worthless, though the development of better alternatives and through ever-tighter restrictions on emissions globally. That will sap the wealth of the states in the region, while decreasing its geopolitical importance. The rest of the world can then worry less about these states, at least.

Tristan June 7, 2010 at 12:34 pm

“Ironically, the more the international community condemns a state that has or is seeking nuclear weapons, the more reason that state has for holding onto them or continuing to develop them.”

No. States have interests in developing nuclear weapons when there are threats of first strike agression against them, which has been standard operating procedure with regards to Iran for several years. (For example during the last US election the only presidential candidate (as far as I know) who refused to threaten Iran with a first strike nuclear attack was Ron Paul – that just shows you how marginalized peace is within the American democratic system.)

If you are concerned about the “international community”, you should be concerned about the yearly resolution to end the middle east conflict every year, in which the world votes against Israel and the US to resolve the crisis along the ’67 borders with “minor and mutual modifications”, i.e. the Taba negotiations. Accepting the peace settlement which the Arab league has offered since the 70s would result in reduced tensions in the region, and likely the fall of fundamentalist Arab governments.

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