I was chatting with an old acquaintance recently, a girl that was in my college class and that had taken half a year off after graduation, gone to South America and enrolled in an international relations program at a local university just for the sheer fun of it. During this study trip, she told me, she had learned so many interesting and sometimes counterintuitive things: She now understood the goings on in the world of diplomacy and what school of thought the different actors on the world stage subscribed to. Finally, she explained, that it was a common misconception that a world full of nuclear weapons was dangerous. In fact, the exact opposite was the case. The fear of mutual annihilation would ensure that none of these weapons would ever be used.
Needless to say, I didn’t buy it. Of course I had read about this theory of mutually assured destruction before, from Thomas Schelling and many less thoughtful commentators. But the memory of The Fog of War, Errol Morris’ interview documentary with Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson, was still fresh in my mind. I had seen the movie only weeks before and had been shocked by McNamara’s frank assessment of the Cuban missile crisis. “In the end,” he had said, ” we lucked out. It was luck that prevented nuclear war” and that “rational individuals came that close to total destruction of their societies”.
There is a reason why the acronym for mutually destruction is MAD. I’m pretty sure that if we replayed the last 60 years 1000 times (think of it as a Monte Carlo World Simulation), quite a few of these runs would end up not quite so radiation free as the world we live in today. We have been incredibly lucky to survive the Cold War without a nuclear exchange and it is comforting that the danger of such an exchange has been greatly reduced.
But sadly, that does not mean that the threat is non-existent today. Just this last week, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, we were reminded that the threat is still all too real:
A hoax telephone call almost sparked another war between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan at the height of last month’s terror attacks on Mumbai, officials and Western diplomats on both sides of the border said on Sunday.
Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani President, took a telephone call from a man pretending to be Pranab Mukherjee, India’s Foreign Minister, on Friday, November 28, apparently without following the usual verification procedures, they said.
The hoax caller threatened to take military action against Pakistan in response to the then ongoing Mumbai attacks, which India has since blamed on the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), they said.
Mr Zardari responded by placing Pakistan’s air force on high alert and telephoning Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, to ask her to intervene.
But when Dr Rice called Mr Mukherjee, he said that he had not spoken to Mr Zardari and that his last conversation with Shah Mahmood Qureishi, the Pakistani Foreign Minister, had been quite civil.
“The major lesson of the Cuban missile crisis is this: The indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations” — Robert McNamara