The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   66

Reason Enough to Hope

America and the World of the 21st Century

by Philip Morrison and Kosta Tsipis

MIT Press, 1998

Testament of the Bomb-Maker's Apprentice

Whether or not technology generally drives history is debatable; but not for this century, or the last. The three leading facts of our history have been the exponential rise in human population, the even more exponential rise in aggregate wealth, and the mercifully not quite so exponential rise in our ability to destroy each other, and all three are very direct consequences of our increasingly effective and increasingly wide-spread technology. It is a cliche that every age is an age of transition, but that's true with a special force --- even vengeance --- of the last few centuries. On the front of our sheer numbers alone, there has never been anything like this. If we are to remain industrial (i.e. at least potentially prosperous and free), there cannot be anything like this again. The increase in population and destructiveness must, sooner or later, one way or another, come to a halt.

Our authors --- a pair of distinguished physicists, very parfait gentle citizen-scientists --- bring us the good news that the halt may come sooner rather than later, and sufficiently softly that we are not thrown back into Malthusian destitution (to say nothing of the far worse fates now open to us). Sometime between 1967 and 1970, the annual growth rate of the world's human population reached and passed its peak, and has been falling ever since. Admittedly, this recalls the moment (also sometime in those years) when President Nixon announced good news in bringing inflation under control, viz., that the rate of increase in the inflation-rate had begun to fall. (As calculus teachers are fond of saying, this is the only known use of a third derivative by a head of state.) Still, we begin to be able to see the end of the great demographic shift which began in the eighteenth century, and the possible arrival of a steady state.

If, of course, we don't blow ourselves up first. Whether a full-scale nuclear war, one with the full arsenals of the superpowers at their peaks, would suffice to end the human race, or just kill of most of it and make the rest envy the dead, is a question for another time; in any case it would be, simply, the end, and the vital question is how to keep it from happening. While the arsenals are no longer on the hair-trigger alert of Cold War days, almost all of those thousands of warheads are still sitting in their silos, slowly decaying, waiting to be put to use.

The natural response is to demand to get rid of them, totally and at once; to call for Abolition, to use Bruce Sterling's word. This will not make sense to the men and women who control the arsenals for a long, long time; they may even be right, at least if it's a matter of unilateral Abolition. Instead, Morrison and Tsipis propose a unilateral reduction, from 7,800 U.S. warheads to a mere 780. (They would make other cuts in our nuclear establishment commensurate with this, like scrapping the B-2 bomber.) Some will object to the idea of advocating any nuclear weapons as morally vile; but to maintain a force more than an order of magnitude larger than is needed to reduce any country to radioactive rubble is both vile and inefficient, about as damning a verdict as can be returned on any policy.

So: We presume the U.S. sees the light and decimates its nuclear arsenal. Will Russia? Who knows? But let's hope for the best there anyway, i.e., a similar reduction in nukes. What, then, about the rest of the world? Three other countries are already declared nuclear powers of long standing; India and Pakistan have just joined them, and Israel is almost certainly among them. Others stand ready to join: how to keep them from doing so?

The main answer of the policy quacks is to keep them from getting hold of ``weapons of mass destruction'' in the first place. These ``supply-side measures'' (as Morrison and Tsipis dub them) are not to be neglected, but their effectiveness, even in the medium run of a decade or so, is distinctly limited. It is just too easy to put these gadgets together; the skills and tools needed are no longer particularly esoteric. Chemical weapons, after all, were first used on a large scale by the belligerents in the First World War, more than eighty years ago. Even nukes are a fifty-year-old technology, within the reach of any country with a respectable R&D base. Suppose, for instance, that some otherwise peaceful country like New Zealand decides that it absolutely must have nuclear weapons. (Perhaps the Kiwis decide that the only way to keep people from confusing them with Australians is to vaporize Canberra; this grievance does not seem much more absurd to me than does Kosovo.) What do they need? Well, a $100 charge on a credit card (plus shipping) will get them four or five books from various university publishers which explain (1) everything which the first bomb-builders, including a young Philip Morrison, knew on the subject in 1941 and (2) various subsequent refinements of technique in nuclear physics. Then they need some physicists, some metallurgists, chemical engineers and hydrodynamicists, a few billion or maybe even tens of billion dollars, and something under ten years. New Zealand is of a course a developed country, if a trifle over-run by sheep, but the technical and industrial capacities needed are now wide-spread and will only become more widely distributed. (Now that the weapons experts of the former Soviet Union get salaries of about $45 a month and haven't been paid for a year or two, the necessary technical skills can be bought very cheaply, and by fax.) Biological and chemical weapons raise the additional problem of ``dual-use'' technologies, i.e., ones which also have civilian utility, such as chemical plants which can equally well produce fertilizer and mustard-gas. And, of course, massive destruction can be wreaked without ``weapons of mass destruction''; we have recently seen that machetes will do, if sufficiently numerous and well-organized. The problem, clearly, must be tackled on the side of demand --- states must be dissuaded from acquiring weapons and from initiating wars. How?

Our authors answer with a plan they call ``Common Security'' --- ``peace preserved by joint war'' (p. 70). Inspired by the Gulf War (perhaps one should now say the First Gulf War?), they call for common military action, initiated and coordinated by a reformed United Nations Security Council, against the belligerent party in any cross-border conflict, supplemented by economic sanctions. They even go so far as to advocate a standing UN military force, supplied in rotation by the member-states. If this was seen to act reliably and effectively, it probably would dissuade countries from starting conventional wars, unless they thought they were strong enough to take on a large chunk of the rest of the world. (We'll return to these limitations presently.)

But what about those weapons of mass destruction? What, in particular, about nukes? Here Morrison and Tsipis advance something unprecedented, scary, and plausible: putting some nukes under UN control, as deterrents on behalf of countries without any of their own. ``By providing a potential nuclear counter to any nuclear aggressor that threatens a nonnuclear nation, such a nuclear force would establish the self-same symmetry that has completely prevented nuclear nations from using nuclear weapons against each other, or even against client states during the long Cold War, even during its hot intervals in East Asia. ... The example of World War II is at hand: nuclear war was easily opened when there was no nuclear risk to its initiator. The political and moral future of this knotted question remains in doubt. A gradual passage to a world without nuclear weapons is to be hoped for, but it will not arrive quickly unless the international community weathers some crisis [sic; crises?] successfully. We cannot hope for the safety of a nuclear-free world without firmly arresting nuclear proliferation, and we cannot achieve that without providing credible assurances to nonnuclear nations that potential nuclear attackers can be unambiguously deterred'' (pp. 83--85).

The keystone in this arch will clearly have to be the United States: not only do we have the strongest military establishment ever seen on this planet, we are rather uninhibited about using it. Common Security is unlikely to work when we are indifferent; it is bound to fail when we are hostile. But we no longer have another superpower, another global empire, to contend with for hegemony. There is no need for us to keep our current extraordinary forces, much less expand them. (No strategic reason, that is; a sort of socialism-that-dare-not-speak-its-name is at work in our internal politics, when our politicians are not distracted by more pressing matters, such as thongs.) Accordingly Morrison and Tsipis would cut our conventional forces drastically, to the point where they are ``second to none but not larger than any two'' others taken together, in any category. Thus the navy, which currently has twelve aircraft carriers, would have to make do with six, and instead of 16,000 tanks we would maintain a mere 2,500. The number of soldiers and sailors in uniform would be cut in line with the materiel. They correctly note that there would be considerable economic dislocations inside this country, which they do not address. ``We cannot believe that the only way to employ skilled Americans is to build more billion-dollar nuclear submarines when we already hold a hundred for which we now have little use'' (p. 123). The arms trade, worth roughly $20 billion a year to US firms, in particular meets with their disapproval. I say we abolish it altogether. Even if every dollar of direct sales contributed $10 to our total GNP (a truly extravagant multiplier for such an industry, but I can't find any statistics more recent than 1958 on this point), and there is no civilian demand for the skills and equipment of this industry, a mere $200 billion represents about one year's growth for the US economy; and little or no good comes of our arming the rest of the world, particularly under a Common Security regime.

So far we have been considering how to limit the wholesale slaughter of Homo sapiens by restricting means (weapons) and opportunity (hope of getting away with it). As devotes of murder mysteries know, there remains the question of motive. The ultimate motives of war are wrapped in obscurity, and have attracted every conceivable conjecture. One of the most ancient answers as to its proximate motive, however, is the hope of gain, both of wealth and of power, and this answer has only become more persuasive over the last five thousand years. If there is another path to riches, and an easier one, there is less reason to try to seize them. For this reason --- their own security --- the rich countries should undertake vigorous efforts to enrich the poor ones; as our authors emphasize, development is a security policy. (If those who dwell on the golden mountain do not want Muhammad to come to them, they need to bring the mountain to Muhammad, and to Jorge, Ashok and Dingbo.) There are, to be sure, other reasons for not wanting to see billions living in destitution --- Morrison and Tsipis express something suspiciously like compassion and humanitarian concern; more potently, most people need to get enough to eat every day before they can be made to buy cars, software, NBA-endorsed sneakers or diets. The problem is that it takes wealth to make people rich. Here enters ``Common Development,'' ``the long-term systematic and deliberate effort by the governments of the industrial North to improve the standard of living, security and hope of developing and underdeveloped nations while exploiting the North's comparative advantages in technology, inventiveness, and high productivity to provide products to predictably expanding markets'' (p. 149). Since a huge component of this involves public goods --- ``education, health, infrastructure, clean water, housing, public transport, and population control'' (p. 149) --- it cannot be left to market forces. (This is a point of elementary economic theory.) Accordingly, they propose an ambitious (though sketchy) plan of some $260 billion of development aid a year, continued for a generation --- fortuitously less, they note, than the $300 billion which can safely be cut from military budgets after the Cold War.

Of course this supposes that it's feasible to provide food, water, goods and power for all these growing billions. Morrison and Tsipis claim that it is, in large part because the rate of population growth is declining and will continue to decline; the population is approaching a limiting value of around twelve billion, and in the twenty-second century may actually decrease. But while their calculations seem accurate as far as they go, despite their optimism (even that sees the next century ending with billions of ``villagers'' living in villages not too different from those of a millennium ago), there is a big problem with their assumptions --- one of two major problems besetting their system of reasonable hopes. This is that they are sanguine (to use no stronger word) about global environmental problems, especially climate change. They are conscious of this as a flaw, and are right to say that a world of bellicose and impoverished states is unlikely to even recognize these problems, much less deal with them, but I'm afraid they've really underestimated the possible, if not probable, disruptions those problems can cause. They estimate, for instance, that their Common Development plan will lead to an atmospheric carbon content roughly double pre-industrial levels by the end of the coming century. Nobody has any real idea what this will do to the climate, though we know it will do something. It is even possible, for instance, that global warming will shut off the Gulf Stream, making European countries like France, Britain and Germany as cold as Labrador and Kamchatka. The effects on their agricultural and industrial output, and energy consumption, are incalculable but surely bad. Even if that does not happen, most of the world's great cities are on or near ocean coasts, and so liable to be flooded over a matter of decades, unless massive dikes and dams are built, out-Netherlanding the Dutch. It will be hard enough to persuade countries like the United States and Japan to devote themselves to Common Security and Common Development in any case, never mind if they have to evacuate New York and Miami, Tokyo and Osaka. It may be that, by the time such perils become serious, the world economy will be sufficiently strong that they can be absorbed --- not painlessly, to be sure, but more like a piece of routine surgery than an emergency amputation in the field. We don't really know, and ought to find out. Certainly we need to think a lot more about these problems than Morrison and Tsipis have.

With this (substantial) caveat understood, I think we can say that their plan is feasible in principle; but it is a plan, not a prophecy. What stands in the way of implementation? Principally, I think, the fact that it is a plan for Common Security and Common Development; it requires a huge degree of coordinated action, effective coordinated action, on the part of the ``international community,'' i.e. the world's governments. This is the second of the two stumbling-blocks I mentioned, the depressing ``logic of collective action.'' The argument goes like this. A number of agents are to join in providing a common good. All the agents get the benefit of the good whether or not they participate in providing it, and participation is costly. It is therefore rational for each agent to abstain from participation, which means that the good doesn't get produced. This deadlock can be broken in a number of different ways. Some agents may get private benefits, on the side as it were, from participation, so some of the good will be produced, but not as much as the common benefit would justify. The common good may be appropriated by one party; non-participants may be excluded from the public good; or non-participation may be made costly by punishments. One feature of good political and economic arrangements (among many others, of course!) is that they solve collective action problems by some combination of these means. Now, for ``agent'' read ``state,'' and for ``good'' read ``Common Security intervention against an aggressive state.'' This point is not addressed here. Realistically speaking, the most powerful and respected organs of international cooperation we possess are the financial markets. Common Security and Common Development are in their long-term interest --- hungry, fighting people are singularly unimpressed with the virtues of laissez-faire --- but they are not, on that account, likely to support them. We need to create others, ones which work better for humane ends, and in so doing we cannot assume that those in positions of power --- diplomats, generals, politicians --- will be reasonable and benevolent people; they are much more likely to vicious thugs. (This is old news; recall the story of Alexander and the pirate.)

Difficult, but perhaps not impossible, and surely no easier for waiting. At the moment the main powers are not merely mostly at peace, the bulk of them are even allied, and at least pay lip service to certain common ideals. None of our common problems has yet spilled over to a crisis; Russia has not turned to military adventures and nuclear blackmail, China has yet to slip into the faction-ridden trough of the dynastic cycle. The time to plan, and to put plans into action, is now. We need to take stock of the problems confronting us and figure out how to start solving them. Here is a reasonable and hopeful sketch of how they may be solved, put forward with Morrison's usual clarity of thought and elegance of expression. It is a fitting capstone to his career, and it will be all the worse for us if we do not take it up and improve upon it.

Disclaimer: Philip Morrison has been a hero of mine ever since I saw Powers of Ten as a child, and if he published an inventory of his pockets I'd probably give it a respectful reading. Also, I asked for, and got, a review copy of this book from the MIT Press, but I have no stake in its success.
xviii + 210 pp., endnotes, list of references, black-and-white maps and graphs, index (thin).
Economics / Environmentalism / Manhattan Project, and Nukes in General / North America / Politics and Political Thought / War
Currently in print as a hardback, US$25, ISBN O-262-13344-X, LoC JZ5675 M67
28--30 December 1998
Thanks to Zmarak Shalizi