The Doorstep: What is the Real Threat of Nuclear War? with Dr. Gary Samore

Jul 28, 2022 38 min listen

The return of great power rivalry—whether U.S. versus Russia or U.S. versus China—has recreated the sense that nuclear war is possible. But what is the actual threat versus perceived threat and how can we manage our collective anxiety? Brandeis University's Professor Gary Samore, joins Doorstep co-hosts Nick Gvosdev and Tatiana Serafin to discuss how nuclear deterrence fosters restraint and caution, and the hope that a protracted Russia-Ukraine war will not tip the scales.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Welcome, everyone, to this edition of The Doorstep podcast. I am your co-host, senior fellow at Carnegie Council Nick Gvosdev.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I am Tatiana Serafin, also a senior fellow here at Carnegie Council. I am very excited to welcome Dr. Gary Samore, who is coming to us from Brandeis University, where he is the professor of the practice of politics at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, but more importantly he is a nuclear arms control and nonproliferation expert who worked with Rose Gottemoellera guest on our podcast here last year talking about her book Negotiating the New START Treaty—and he will be speaking with us about what we need to understand about the threat of nuclear war, which I think is top of everybody's anxiety list, or at least mine.

Before we go to Gary I wanted to talk to you, Nick, because today I think is a big day in the news, not so much because of the gross domestic product/recession maybe numbers that just came out this morning as we are taping but because a big deal was struck between Senators Schumer and Manchin yesterday on energy and climate that will enable the United States to hopefully take some good action on climate. I know it is something we discuss a lot here about how climate can create jobs in the United States if we move forward with plans, and it seems that is where the United States is headed. It is a big news event.

On the flip side, you have Congo also today announcing that it is going to start auctioning off about 30 oil and gas blocks in its rainforest, which Greenpeace Africa has called "a potential to unleash a carbon bomb." So we have one step forward, ten steps back. I don't know. What are you looking at in this? How does this play into what the world needs to do in climate? I am sitting here sweltering. We are all sweltering in the United States and Europe. What are you thinking of these two things? Are you pessimistic? Optimistic? Somewhere in between?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think you have hit the nail on the head, which is that we have a lot of talk about moving ahead on climate and environmental issues, but the real driver in the end is always short-term energy prices and short-term economic issues. The deal that was finally struck is an attempt to balance that out, and I think it is a pathway forward because as much as some of our listeners may look at these compromises and say, "Well, it's not enough and it fails to do this and that," you need to get programs up and running and authorized by the U.S. government in order to be able to move anything forward. Seeing this as a "glass half full" for the United States is probably a better way forward because this will at least get some things moving. They may not be moving as fast as some people would prefer, but we are at least getting the institutional pieces in place.

But as you point out, whatever steps are taken are not going to be effective if they are going to be matched by other actions, whether it is Congo auctioning rainforest or Europe going back to burning coal. If China continues to rely on coal to provide power for its industries, then these are just steps that cancel each other out. What it means is that I think we are still in this sense that meaningful action, yes, yes, we are all for doing it, but now it is going to be at some point in the future, not today.

I think all of these things that you have put together point to the fact that governments around the world have taken the signal from their populations and particularly from their voting populations that prices at the pump and energy bills being delivered are more critical than continuing with the green transition. The irony is that people—as you say, you're sweltering—is that people seem to be okay with burning more coal to produce the electricity to run the air conditioners to keep them comfortable. Of course that's the Gordian knot that politicians have to deal with: What happens when a short-term doorstep imperative—energy prices—runs up against a long-term doorstep imperative, which is protecting and salvaging the environment?

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think it is particularly coming to the fore because where Congo is allowing these parcels to be auctioned is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So they are saying: "Oh, well"—to your point, oil prices—"we want part of that pie. Why should we have to save the planet?" I think that was even a quote I saw somewhere by a politician from there.

And it's true. Why should we expect certain countries not to take part in the gains that a BP is, for example, hand over fist making money. That is what is also propping up the Russian economy right now despite sanctions, the money that they are making on oil.

So we look to, what else can we do? Nuclear energy could potentially be an answer. I know many countries rely on it to a lesser degree and more than others. Ukraine, for example, which we are going to talk about with Gary, relies on nuclear for half its energy supply, some countries even more than that. We don't rely on it so much, but it is part of the conversation, and nuclear has become much more a part of the conversation these days because the flip side of the positive energy is the destructiveness of nuclear energy when you put it on a weapon. We are going to speak with Gary about that now and his assessment of where we are and should we be afraid of nuclear war.

Thanks so much for joining us this morning, Gary, at such an auspicious—or maybe not—time to talk about the nuclear threat to the United States. I am going to start off asking you if you have seen—and if you haven't, I will tell you what it is—about two weeks ago the New York City Office of Emergency Management put together a 90-second clip on what to do in case of nuclear attack. Our Mayor Adams here in New York said, "What a great idea to do this," because we're New York City and it might happen. It was three things that you should do when attacked, and it freaked me out no end. I sent it to Nick, who said: "What are they trying to do?"

I don't know if you saw it, but a couple of months ago I saw an interview with you—February 24, right after Russia invaded—and you said that the prospects for a nuclear war with the United States being threatened were quite low. Do you still feel that way? Have you seen the ad? Should we be scared?

GARY SAMORE: I haven't seen the ad. There is nothing similar to that here in Boston.

I think, yes, the prospects of nuclear war against the United States are still low, and that is mainly because of nuclear deterrence, because we have the capacity to strike back against any country that threatens the United States, and the two main countries we worry about in terms of nuclear forces are Russia and China, and I think in both of those cases nuclear deterrence continues to be a powerful factor in preventing a large-scale war that could escalate to a nuclear conflict. The other country we worry about is North Korea, of course, but North Korea's nuclear forces are so much smaller than Russia or China that I think we also have an ability to deter a North Korean nuclear attack on the United States, which would be suicidal for Kim Jong-un, North Korea's leader.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Can I bring up a country you haven't mentioned yet but which is at the heart of what you do, which is Iran, and stopping Iran from getting a weapon or achieving breakout capability. Again, earlier this year there was a lot of confidence that we were about to see the United States be able to reenter the nuclear agreement with Iran. Now it seems that these plans are off, suspended, or on hiatus. What can you tell us about what is happening with the Iran nuclear talks? Are there any worries or disturbing signs you are seeing on the horizon?

GARY SAMORE: Unfortunately I agree with you that the prospects for reviving the 2015 nuclear deal don't look good now, and that's mainly because the Supreme Leader Khamenei is not prepared to accept the deal that is on the table for the United States to lift sanctions in exchange for Iran rolling back steps it has taken in its nuclear program. Iran is continuing to insist on demands and conditions that the United States is not prepared to accept concerning lifting of sanctions against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Of course it is always possible that the supreme leader could change his mind, but at this point I think most people believe that it is unlikely that we will see Iran agree to the deal that was negotiated in Vienna.

As time goes on there is likely to be an increase in tension. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors meets in September, and they are likely to pass a resolution condemning Iran for failing to cooperate with the IAEA on its investigations, and Iran may very well retaliate against the Agency by limiting IAEA inspectors and monitoring of its nuclear program, which Iran has done already.

The question then is, without the constraints of the 2015 nuclear deal what options does Iran have to produce nuclear weapons? Of course Iran is technically capable of producing weapons-grade uranium, which is the essential raw material, but I think all of the pathways for Iran are fraught with danger. At its declared enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow the IAEA would pretty quickly detect if Iran decided to dash for production of sufficient weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear bomb, so-called "breakout," and Iran's efforts in the past to build secret enrichment facilities have been foiled because of basically good intelligence work by foreign intelligence agencies, including the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom, and others.

So even though Iran has certainly advanced its enrichment program very significantly in terms of its capacity—stockpile of 60 percent enriched uranium, use of more advanced centrifuges, and so forth—I think for Iran to go for a bomb risks exposure and possible military attack. Of course President Biden just recently in Israel said the United States would use "all means necessary" to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. I think the immediate concern is not so much Iran acquiring nuclear weapons as the United States and/or Israel attacking Iran to prevent that from happening. I think the Iranians obviously don't want a war with the United States, so my guess is they will continue to be cautious, continue to incrementally increase their capacity, but without doing something that would risk provoking an American or an Israeli military attack.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I am going to go back to your word of "deterrence." I do think that while Iran was certainly in the news with Biden's trip to the Middle East and we were looking at that, I think that when we are looking at nuclear the imagination of especially young people in this country has been captured by the idea of Russia pressing a button. Back in February, March, and April all my students wanted to know was where the nuclear fallout shelters were in New York City. There was this great imagination that this was going to happen and was going to be a catastrophe, doomsday scrolling, and all of that.

I think that is still part of the conversation. Perhaps on a policy level we are looking at Iran and treaties, but we are not understanding this deterrence aspect of the conversation. I would like to bring that to the fore because you did work on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with a guest we had on The Doorstep, Rose Gottemoeller, who wrote about negotiating the New START treaty and spoke with us about that.

I was looking at the deadline. It has been extended for five years until February 2026, but I know that the process of negotiation has to start happening a couple of years earlier, and we are almost at that point. Two parts of that question are: 1) Is deterrence really a strong part of the Biden policy currently, and is that where we are going? Do you think that is where we can go? He may not be around in 2026. Can that really be an effective part of U.S. strategy? Then, 2) What is it going to take to ramp up negotiations, and can they happen with Russia with the current situation? Kind of a long question but related.

GARY SAMORE: It's a good question. I would say that nuclear deterrence is a fact of life; it is not a policy. The fact is—and this has been true since the Cold War—that a nuclear conflict between the United States and Russia or between the United States and China would be absolutely devastating to both countries. That is the idea of mutually assured destruction. That imposes a lot of constraint and caution on the part of both countries to avoid a situation where a nuclear conflict becomes a greater risk.

It is not perfect protection because of course there could be miscalculation and mistakes, and something like the Ukraine war potentially has a risk of escalating. But I think the most common concern about Ukraine is that Putin, if he was losing the war, if Russian forces were actually being pushed out of Ukraine, might use nuclear weapons against Ukraine, which of course does not have its own nuclear weapons, so it can't retaliate, and which is outside the sphere of U.S. security assurances. I think there is less concern about Putin using nuclear weapons against the United States or North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries because that would very likely lead to a general nuclear conflict, which would be totally destructive to both sides.

With respect to arms control, arms control is a way to manage nuclear deterrence by imposing limits on numbers and types of nuclear delivery systems to create more transparency and more confidence that there is a stable nuclear balance and to try to avoid an arms race. I agree with you that the New START Treaty, which is currently in force—I don't know that we are going to see resumption of negotiations as long as the war in Ukraine is going on. We have cut off almost all contacts with the Russians on most areas except for trying to swap citizens that the Russians have hijacked. Of course we just don't know how long the Ukraine conflict will continue.

I have always thought that a new arms control treaty to replace New START is likely to be pretty modest. I don't think either the United States or Russia is interested in deep cuts in the current size of our strategic arsenals—which are limited to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and about 800 deployed launchers—in part because China is engaged in a remarkable buildup of its nuclear forces, not yet to the point where they would have parity with the United States and Russia, but a pretty substantial increase—some people think maybe to 1,000 deployed nuclear warheads—and under that condition I don't think either the United States or Russia will agree to deep cuts.

So the next treaty, if there is a treaty to replace New START in 2026, I think is likely to be pretty modest and can take advantage of the inspection and the monitoring system that already exists in New START, which is working very well. Both sides are complying with the agreement. So you might be able to achieve a New START part two pretty quickly if you don't make major changes in the numbers and the structure of the agreement and if you're prepared to continue the existing verification system.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: As you are discussing this one of the things that is coming to mind—and it may be reflected in comments that Tatiana gets from her students—is a generational divide on these issues, which is that people who remember the Cold War generally tend to have a more I should say perhaps healthy appreciation for the risk of nuclear war but particularly for the risk of unintended escalation, something starting where no one is intending to go nuclear, and then nuclear weapons come on the table. You have talked about Biden in Israel talking about "We're going to take all necessary measures to prevent Iran from obtaining weapons." We have the United States and other allies providing defense equipment to Ukraine, but there are questions about what happens as the sophistication of the weapons and the range of the weapons being provided to Ukraine gives Ukraine more opportunities not just simply to stop Russian attacks but to be able to carry the fight back into Russian territory.

You said deterrence is holding, but do you have concerns about the unintended escalation of any of these conflicts, and do you think that the post-Cold War generations don't have the same level of appreciation or fear of nuclear war? Certainly some of the criticism that the president has received on Ukraine from people saying we should be doing a lot more, such as no-fly zones and the like, seems to betide that the older generations are too worried about escalation and are not willing to push the envelope. What is the sense that you are getting about concerns about escalation and whether or not people who were not formed by the Cold War may have a different risk tolerance concerning how we confront or deal with nuclear powers?

GARY SAMORE: It's a very good question because perceptions of the risk of nuclear war are very psychological. It is hard to actually measure what the risk is since there hasn't been a nuclear war since the invention of nuclear weapons. During the whole Cold War period the United States and the Soviet Union built up huge arsenals where the perception on both sides was that nuclear war was a real possibility and that we had to prepare for it.

I think it is understandable that with the end of the Cold War the perception of the threat diminished, and even though both the United States and Russia continue to maintain large-scale nuclear forces, we felt comfortable reducing those forces from more than 20,000 deployed warheads on each side to the current level, which as I said is about 1,500.

I think the return of great-power rivalry between the United States and Russia and the United States and China and Russia's invasion of Ukraine has recreated a sense that nuclear war is possible, not a strike out of the blue from one side against the other because that would be suicidal, but as you said the risk is escalation from a conflict where both sides are engaged, whether it is over Taiwan with the United States and China or over Ukraine with the United States and Russia.

Biden is trying obviously to balance his support for Ukraine to prevent Russia from conquering the country and to show that this invasion will be very painful and will not pay off for Moscow and at the same time trying to avoid actions that could lead to escalation. You can debate whether he has been too cautious, but I think the general trend has been increasing levels of military support for Ukraine in terms of sophistication and numbers of weapons systems. The risk is that if the Ukrainians really start to push Russia out of Ukraine, will Putin in desperation feel the need to use nuclear forces against Ukraine?

But we are far away from that. Right now there are shifts here and there on the battlefield but nothing dramatic, and I am not sure that either side is going to be able to win a decisive military victory. I think unfortunately we are looking at a protracted conflict with no obvious off-ramp for a political settlement because the two sides are so far apart on the essential issues of territory, Ukraine's status, its foreign policy, alignment with NATO, and so forth.

TATIANA SERAFIN: To go back to China and Taiwan, Biden is speaking with Xi today, perhaps even as we are taping. Do you think this is going to be part of the conversation, the nuclear aspect, and in what sense? And what role does Pelosi's maybe-trip to Taiwan play in this? There are a lot of playing fields now in managing nuclear risk, and can Biden's team handle all of these different areas and all these different maneuverings? What is your sense?

GARY SAMORE: Let me talk about the China/Taiwan issue. Of course the United States has had a One China policy, which basically supports peaceful unification and opposes use of military force to achieve unification, and which recognizes one China, so it argues that Taiwan and China are one country, even though the facts on the ground don't correspond to that. Increasingly Taiwan sees itself as a de facto independent country. They have their own government, their own military, tax system, and more and more their own identity. But I think the Taiwanese understand that if they were to move toward independence it would very likely provoke a Chinese attack, and the Chinese have built up their naval, missile, and air forces to the point where they perhaps couldn't invade Taiwan because an amphibious operation is very demanding, but they could certainly do a tremendous about of damage to the island.

I think Taiwan, especially under U.S. influence, is not going to declare independence and do something that would provoke a Chinese attack, and I think Xi Jinping understands the risks of attacking Taiwan given the very demanding military requirements—and Putin's invasion of Ukraine is actually a cautionary tale, that even if you are the bigger power, armed with nuclear weapons and more substantial armed forces, invasion is a very risky proposition. Secondly the United States has committed to assist Taiwan. We don't have a security pledge in the same way we have with NATO, but Biden has said that the United States would come to the assistance of Taiwan, and China has to worry about the possibility that U.S. naval and air forces would become engaged if China attacks Taiwan. I think the risk of China attacking Taiwan is actually low as long as Taiwan doesn't provoke a war by declaring independence, and I think the United States has strong influence over Taiwan to prevent that from happening.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Good. So hopefully Pelosi's trip won't stir up that much trouble.

GARY SAMORE: Well, there will certainly be a lot of diplomatic and political trouble. The Chinese won't like it, and they will certainly make that very clear.

The issue of concern—remember the last time we had very serious tensions with China over Taiwan involved an air incident where a Chinese fighter pilot engaged in unsafe activities and forced a U.S. reconnaissance plane to land under an emergency, and it appears as though Chinese forces are carrying out similar reckless actions in the South China Sea, so I do think an incident could occur. I think both sides will want to manage that incident so it doesn't lead to a large-scale conflict, but I think we have to recognize that with the Chinese military buildup and their increased military presence in the South China Sea and East China Sea there is an increased risk of an incident happening.

TATIANA SERAFIN: That is something we are going to keep an eye on.

We briefly mentioned North Korea, Russia, China, and Iran. What about Pakistan? What are Pakistan's ideas and goals? Should we be worried about Pakistan?

GARY SAMORE: Both Pakistan and India are nuclear powers.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I didn't mean to leave out India.

GARY SAMORE: Pakistan in particular sees its nuclear weapons as essential to survive against what it sees as an existential threat from India, which is obviously much bigger, richer, and more powerful than Pakistan. So the Pakistanis have invested tremendous resources in having nuclear forces to deter India—the ability to threaten Indian cities if there is a full-scale conflict—and they have developed battlefield or tactical nuclear weapons to use against Indian military forces if there is a conflict.

India also has substantial nuclear forces, but for India their concern is not just Pakistan but also China. Since the two countries have tested an array of nuclear forces in 1998 they have had plenty of skirmishes, especially over Kashmir, and there have been plenty of small-scale clashes between the two but so far no major conflict, and I think at least in part both sides recognize the risk that if there was another big war between India and Pakistan—remember the last one was in 1971, so quite some time ago—along the border that would run a high risk of escalation. Again, nuclear deterrence doesn't guarantee peace, but I think it does impose caution, and India and Pakistan seem to have worked out some implicit understandings about engaging in incidents, clashes, and skirmishes without those conflicts leading to a full-scale military conflict and the risk of nuclear use.

TATIANA SERAFIN: What I find interesting and what I want to parse out a little bit is this idea that everybody might be focused on that one button that is going to send a big bomb to annihilate New York City. I am a little bit upset. That video got into my head.

What is interesting in what you are talking about and what I think we should mention is that you said it could potentially happen in Ukraine—people have capabilities—these weapons that can be used on the battlefield. Can you talk a little bit more about them and what kind of damage they do? I think this is what people don't understand. They think it's going to be "the big one," but really it is these smaller ones that can cause a tremendous amount of human, environmental, and psychological damage, all kinds of damage. Can you speak a little bit more about that threat and how it might different than this "big one" threat that everybody talks about?

GARY SAMORE: Sure. Tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons are usually low-yield weapons, so smaller than the yield of the bombs the United States used against Japan in World War II against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, normally under 10-15 kilotons, and shorter range. So the intent, as you say, is to be used against military targets, for example, military airfields, command-and-control systems, ports that are being used for military transport, or even against military forces.

The tactical nuclear weapons have generally been developed by countries that see themselves at a conventional disadvantage against a potential enemy, and they see tactical nuclear weapons as a way to compensate for that conventional disadvantage. During the Cold War the United States and NATO thought that they were facing much larger and much better armed Warsaw Pact forces that could attack NATO, in particular West Germany, and overwhelm NATO defenses. So during the Cold War the United States developed and deployed hundreds, if not thousands, of these low-yield, short-range tactical nuclear weapons that could be delivered by short-range rockets, artillery, or even backpacks, sort of nuclear landmines.

With the end of the Cold War that balance shifted, and it was Russia that felt it was at a conventional disadvantage, and it was the Russians who proceeded to develop and deploy a large force of tactical nuclear weapons to be used in a conflict with NATO, which the Russians calculated they would likely lose and that they would need to use nuclear weapons to compensate for that weakness.

The United States still has a small number—a couple hundred—of tactical nuclear weapons based in Europe, but that is more for political and symbolic value in terms of providing assurances to our NATO allies that we will protect them if there is a war with Russia.

I mentioned Pakistan and India. Pakistan feels that it is at a disadvantage. India has much larger conventional forces, and so Pakistan has developed these short-range, low-yield battlefield weapons to compensate.

A lot of people think that North Korea may be planning to do the same thing because obviously the combined U.S. and South Korea forces have an overwhelming advantage over North Korea in terms of both conventional and nuclear forces, and the North Koreans have hinted that they might be trying to develop nuclear weapons that could be used early in a conflict, not against cities but as a way to force a ceasefire before they lose the conventional conflict. That kind of early nuclear use is what has people nervous about escalation because at the same time that North Korea, say, would be considering early nuclear use in a conventional conflict in order to bring it to an end, the United States and the Republic of Korea would be looking at preemption options to try to destroy North Korean nuclear forces before they could be used.

What the theorists worry about is something called "crisis instability," that both sides, even though the use of nuclear weapons is fraught with danger, in a major conflict where there is uncertainty and risk one side or the other may feel compelled to use nuclear forces first, and that could lead to an escalation. I think the way to avoid that is to avoid war. Once you get into a war things become much harder to predict and calculate.

Putin's invasion of Ukraine has been such a shock because it is the first major war in Europe since World War II. We had the conflicts that accompanied the collapse of Yugoslavia, but those were civil wars, at least in the beginning. What Russia has done has reawakened the concern about military conflict in Europe, and I think it has been very good that the Europeans have responded by committing themselves to increase their conventional forces, increase NATO deployments on the Eastern Front, all of which I think makes war less likely because it makes it clear to the Russians that if they were to attack vulnerable NATO countries like the Baltic States that would lead to a war with NATO, and Russia sees itself as not as strong as NATO.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I certainly feel a little bit better after this conversation. I hope that our listeners will have questions and send them along to you that we can share with you. Thank you so much for your time today.

GARY SAMORE: Thanks, Tatiana. It was good to talk to you and Nikolas.

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