Our panel discussed nuclear risk reduction at a most sensitive moment in the middle of a regional war with global consequences and potential for unlimited catastrophe. We discussed a number of important dimensions that demand attention from all of us at this time. We represented three distinct views – that of a former uniformed practitioner at the heart of the leadership within the UK nuclear weapon system; a leader within a top security think-tank, and an academic involved in international diplomatic initiatives. The degree of shared understanding was remarkable, whilst also being clear where our views diverged. The viewer will get a sense of some influential UK contemporary perspectives on this most critical of issues.
Sarah Weiler: Hi, everyone. Welcome to this panel on nuclear risks, where our panelists John Gower, Patricia Lewis, and Paul Ingram will talk about the challenges we face in the nuclear sphere and their thoughts on how to tackle them.
We'll start with a few with some opening remarks from each one of them. And then we use the bulk of the session for a Q&A between the three of them, me, and especially all of you. So please have your swap card apps ready. You can submit questions all throughout the session. I have access to them, and then I will see which questions are most uploaded, which topics keep coming up, and I will pose the questions to our panelists.
With that, I give the word to John, who is currently working as a senior advisor for the Council on Strategic Strategic Risks (CSR) in Washington and will be the first to give his opening remarks.
John Gower: Good afternoon. Thank you for turning up. This is what I do, and doing it in three minutes of remarks is a bit like turning the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, and the Quran into haiku, but I'm going to give you eight points that hopefully will stimulate questions. These are my own opinion, not necessarily of CSR anyone I work for.
Sadly, nuclear weapons are likely to be with us for at least another generation, so we have to deal with them.
At the strategic level, which for me this is point two, now to any time when the use taboo is broken, in my view, effective deterrence of the first or any use remains critical. Postures, capabilities, and policies which weaken this first should be reversed or eliminated.
My third point: risk is in the eye of the beholder. But objectively, in my opinion, the risk today is higher than during the Cuban missile crisis, or even the most febrile moments of the late 1980s. I can discuss and expand in Q&A. And all existential risks overlap and converge. You cannot look at nuclear separate from the effects of climate change, separate from biology, separate from other anthropomorphic risks.
My fourth point is the total loss in the last decade (which actually almost coincides and overlaps since I left government; so it sort of was all right when I left) of the supporting structures of conventional and nuclear arms control treaties or confidence-building measures. All that's left is the new start treaty, and that is tottering along. And I would argue again for Q&A is less relevant than the treaties we've lost.
My fifth point: risk is no longer dominated by possession of, the number of, or the megatonnage of the strategic weapons, but once more since the madness of the seventies and eighties by the increasing plethora of lower range, lower yield and dual-capable weapons, which are more at risk from miscalculation.
Sixth point: that miscalculation and misinterpretation in crisis and conventional war, with the added risk of emerging in existing technological confusion, superheating or short-circuiting, the briefing and awareness of decision making.
Seventh point: there are two approaches to dealing with this and these are my terms. There's the absolute abolitionist approach. I could argue and would maybe be with Paul, the original approach of CND, the ICANN, or the TPNW, the Treaty on the Prevention of Nuclear Weapons, which is to either shame or legally force nuclear-armed states to comply with the non-Proliferation Treaty. Or the persuasive elimination approach, which is working with nuclear-armed states to reduce risk, remove the most destabilising systems, improve trust, and reverse the current new arms race.
My final point is more upbeat, perhaps. What are the opportunities? Well, despite the Ukraine war and as Sir Adam Thompson said, for those who are with him this morning, you have to still talk to people even if they are war criminals. Building and rebuilding trust the value of risk reduction in taking heat out of these equations, the value of unilateral changes by nuclear-armed states. But there is a dead hand of non-proliferation treaty irreversibility, again for Q&A. There is an urgent need to improve the ability of top-level multilateral at the brink communications. I can talk about the catastrophe link Catalin project that I'm involved in, including some pretty highly technical people who used to work for Google in Q&A. And last, pledges for no more new capabilities, especially below the strategic level. That's my three minutes. Thank you.
Sarah Weiler: Thank you very much, John. Patricia is a research director for International Security at Chatham House and I give the word to you now
Patricia Lewis: Thank you very much and delighted to be here. So I want to start off with what we mean by risk. Risk is a proposition in which we try to measure things to be able to compare the impacts times the probability. That is, how risk is defined, impact times probability. And people often confuse risk with probability, and they forget about the impacts. Whereas we deal every day with very high-frequency, low-impact risks. That's how we manage our daily lives. And we tend not to deal very well with the lower probability or what might be better termed unknown probability, high-impact risks.
In the cases of nuclear weapons use, we are really looking at unknown probability, and that changes over time and very high consequences. We can't see risk when it comes to nuclear weapons as a single answer. It's a whole range of answers. It changes over time, it changes over the context, and it changes over the conditions. It's very hard to calculate these risks with any accuracy. We can calculate the consequences of nuclear weapons quite well actually, in terms of the range of impacts, depending on where the nuclear weapon is detonated or what height, what yield, and so on. But probabilities are very, very hard to calculate. They tend to be considered to be low, except of course, in times of crisis. But when they are, probabilities are low. It doesn't mean the risks are low because in this case, the consequences dominate the equation because they are so high.
So what we have to really understand about risk when it comes to nuclear weapons and it's one of the big problems we face is that they change continually and also they change not only with changing conditions but also with our perceptions and also with what we prioritise, what we think is important. So new information on probabilities, new information on consequences, new technologies, new policies, changing arsenals, deployments, new types of nuclear weapons owners, et cetera.
If we look at new revelations from what happened in Hiroshima back in 1945, also knowing now what happened during the Cold War and the number of near use we had. We know about some of the things that went on in the Cuban missile crisis but there have been many instances which I can get into in the Q&A. And now, of course, we're seeing a completely new era of where we're seeing overt threats to use nuclear weapons.
Information on consequences has also changed. So over 70 years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, its taken that long to understand that there are highly gendered differences in the impact of radiation from nuclear weapons use, for example. This is new information because it's taken this long to collect it and to understand it. And also we have new understandings of the limits of the humanitarian response, a new understanding of the long-term catastrophic consequences on climate, for example, on food production and so on.
So one of the most important things to do when you're looking at risk is to think about, you know, how do you mitigate against this? How do you put in risk reduction measures? Is there a possibility that we might build in resilience to use? Is it possible to look at local vicinity resilience? The answer is probably no. Once you detonate a nuclear weapon on a city, for example, you remove huge amounts of potential resilience, such as medical response, first response, et cetera. However, further away, there may be some resilience measures that people could think about, depending on the extent and the damage and the spread.
So what does all this mean? Well, the message I really want to get across is the risk picture keeps changing. Part of our problem, I think, when we think about nuclear weapons, we're often dealing with the risk picture as we understood it in the 1980s or in the 1990s. We're not thinking about the risk picture today. So we really do need to think about that today in our current discourse. Often, we're completely out of date when we're talking about these things. And I think, as well, a big worry for me is that the current and next generation of nuclear decision-makers may not be fully apprised of the risks, and that comes from my experience in dealing with people who are in these positions and aware that their background, their deep knowledge, is not as high as perhaps it might have been during the height of the Cold War. So we need to think about that a lot.
I think we have to also work out what the acceptable risk is. Is there an acceptable risk when it comes to things like nuclear weapons? And I know we're looking at this in other technologies as well, so it would be really good to have that exchange of views.
And I think that we need more and more people, particularly younger people, to come to the meetings where these risks are being discussed. There are international meetings on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons. There's the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons, and there's now the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the very old treaty, which has now decided to finally discuss risks.
And the other thing, I would say is we need more scientists in this discussion and not just political scientists and historians, et cetera.
We also, I think, need people from the arts from music. We need people who think differently, who might come with quite different views about priorities and how to ascertain these risks. Thank you.
Sarah Weiler: Thank you, Patricia. And now first I hand the floor to Paul, who is working as a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, in Cambridge.
Paul Ingram: So this is a very emotive subject for good reason. And one of the things that I wanted to communicate is that there is a big issue here around balancing the head and the heart and around how we relate to this risk. And I'll just give you a very quick personal story for 20 seconds, which is that I began this with a very strong rejectionist attitude. I just didn't want this to be the way it is. And I think where I've landed at is I still have that energy because we need that energy for change. But we do have to accept where we're at and then dream radically for the future.
Where are we today, in the middle of a war where there is somebody who has declared the intention to threaten nuclear use and there are very rational and strategic reasons why he's doing that. It has had some effect, but it will increasingly have less effect. We're seeing the evidence that capitals in the West are treating those threats less seriously than they were a year ago. That is concerning.
We're also in a situation where emerging disruptive technologies mean there is greater and greater uncertainty with every passing month around the control of these capabilities, and greater and greater awareness of the uncontrollable situations that are getting worse and worse and the likely cascade effects if these weapons were ever used. The global effects of nuclear weapons are still unknown even in the eighth decade of the deployment of these weapons. And there is an urgent need to understand those.
More so, when it comes to action think we need to be more courageous in the visioning. Those of us involved in the peace movement need to be more realistic in the proposals that we're making and that we need to actually have credible answers to the challenging issues that we have. There's a real agenda for action there. When we do that, we need to have open thinking rather than closed thinking. We need to escape the righteousness, that we have the answers, and that we need to engage with everybody who has different perspectives on this.
And particularly in the effective altruism movement. The EA movement has to have greater confidence that the values that it has around altruism are quite a radical thing and that radicalness of altruism needs to be promoted much more strongly because it is a challenge to some of the values that drive the dysfunctions in our society, of which I think nuclear deterrence is one.
Sarah Weiler: Thank you very much. So, we now move to the Q&A section, unless one of you wants to respond immediately to what one of the others said.
John Gower: Just with an anecdote - talking about decision-makers not being aware of the risks. One of my roles for six years was to brief prime ministers, foreign secretaries, and defense secretaries in the rolling carousel of ministerial changes that the UK is fond of. And one of them (and no names) fell asleep 20 minutes into the hours brief on the nuclear capability, which he bore primary responsibility for. So I'm absolutely assured that that individual had no idea not only of the risk but also the capability. So it's a good point, well made.
Paul Ingram: Yeah, that's the only rational response.
John Gower: I had to just stand there and wait for someone waking up.
Sarah Weiler: Moving to the questions now. Thanks for sharing the anecdote.
A couple of questions that we have got so far address the whole issue of how can you effectively or attractively do anything about the risks that we face here? We have more specific questions about which treaties or agreements do you think have been particularly helpful or would be helpful if we managed to achieve such an agreement in the future? We also have a question about the no-first-use policy for a nuclear-armed state and how important do you think that is? And then we have more underlying questions of how do you think about measuring effects of interventions in this space? And that the question specifically asks all three of you to address your organisations. How do they try to evaluate the initiatives that you take to do something on nuclear risks?
It's been a long question, but I think it all goes to a similar issue.
Patricia Lewis: I’ll deal with that last one.
What we've been doing at Chatham House is we've been working with Imperial College to develop a network flow model of nuclear policy decision-making. It's a complex model based on the data that we've input into it train the model in various pathways and set it in a complex environment, a difficult environment. In this model, we can input ideas and actions. And we can calibrate it against history. So obviously, if something happens historically, we ought to be able to see that at least one of the pathways that the model projects will be what happened historically, at least one of them. Often you'll find that several pathways will lead to one main outcome. And then often you get a big range of pathways.
So what we're doing now is they're turning this model into a game so that decision-makers can understand complexity better in this field. One of the things that often happens in our field and we're beset with the problems (which is why I think we need musicians, particularly jazz music musicians) is that people think sequentially. They think, “If I do this, then I do that, and then this will happen.” Life is not like that. Certainly in a very complex system which is set in a difficult environment, then all sorts of interactions within the system and with the environment occur.
You can't just imagine if you do X, Y, and Z will happen. Often what we've seen in real life is that you do something very big and very little comes out. Or you do something quite small and actually it has a huge impact. We can demonstrate this now. We're developing this game that people can play and get a feel for it. It's not an oracle. It doesn't tell you what to do. But what it will do is it will demonstrate to a large degree the range of possible outcomes from an action, if we get that right.
Then again we can adapt it. We can nudge the environment. We're working with the Nudge Unit, the BIT behavioural Insights Team, to help nudge the environment of this difficult environment. How could we, with this complex model, nudge things so that it becomes perhaps an easier environment, or what happens if we nudge it so it becomes a more difficult environment? And things like that. We can start to demonstrate that in a way that I think will be beneficial. That's how we're trying to measure. It's not with hard and fast numbers, which as a physicist, I don't trust. It's with a set of understandings of the complexity that we are facing and trying to get a handle on that without being too simplistic.
If anyone wants to join me in developing this game, I'm really excited to hear from you.
John Gower: I can lean in on the bulk of the questions and cover up with that. What was the most effective of the failed treaties that have all collapsed? Without a doubt in my mind the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which sought to remove from a febrile battlefield in the Cold War a specific set of weapons designed to fight a nuclear war. And I can discuss with any of you offline the concept of nuclear war is just fatuous because war implies that you're going to win and you can't win a nuclear war. But let's set that aside.
In the conventional sense, the Vienna Document and the Open Skies Treaty, all of which were about giving the confidence that Country A wasn't moving against Country B. Now all of those have fallen apart, and the invasion of Ukraine proved why we needed Vienna and Open Skies more than anything else.
What would I want back in the future is something that looked a lot like the INF but wasn't as limited as the INF because the √ was negotiated to be very specific to one theatre and land-based weapons only.
As I alluded to my original remarks, miscalculation and misinterpretation in crisis when a decision-making team is not up to the scraps - they either don't understand it, or they're being befuddled by new tech. Getting rid of these weapons that are easier to use because they're short-range and dual-capable, they will likely raise to miscalculation or misinterpretation. So weapons that can either be conventional or nuclear and a lot of those are being thrown around in Ukraine at the moment by the Russians. All nuclear cruise missiles, whether they're air launch man launched or launched, these are all miscalculation weapons. That's the treaty that I would like to first come back.
How would you measure the effectiveness of these things? You measure it by changes in policy, declaratory policy, by the changes in the order of battle, the retirement of weapons either under treaty or voluntarily, and by changes in posture. Now, all of the vectors at the moment on those three indicators are going in the wrong direction. But we need to find a way to do more than just have the strategic arms treaties. They were needed when there were 60,000 warheads around at the height of the madness. But at the moment, the things that are dangerous are not, as I said in my remarks, the number of strategic weapons around. It's the number of less-than-strategic weapons, which either the US (let's look at the European Theatre) and Russia can envisage an exchange of those weapons in a third country, which is neither of theirs. They can assume that the escalation won't reach their countries, and therefore the barriers, the blocks to their use are diminished. Those weapons need to go.
Finally, what does the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) do well? We seek, as Paul alluded to, we seek direct influence and advocacy on governments, and we measure our success by changes in government policy, the Nuclear Posture Review in the US, the UK's… Admittedly, we didn't achieve what we wanted with them because the UK went in the wrong direction with its IR 21 announcements on nuclear and nuclear weapons. But we measure it solely by influence on government policy, not by the number of Twitter repeats we get.
Paul Ingram: Great. So…
John Gower: And I'll come back… No First Use, when we have a moment because I want to talk about that.
Paul Ingram: Yes. So to answer on the treaties, I don't disagree with anything that's been said at all. What I would say is that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty still has relevance. For me, it is the cornerstone of the regime. It involves serious commitments in the longer term, but it also involves a certain acceptance of where we're at, which I think is a challenge for all of us. It's how we move from where we're at to where we're going. Part of that is strengthening that treaty through the declaratory policies of negative security assurances to non-nuclear weapons states and a whole set of policy instruments that have been laid out in that treaty process over and over, but which haven't been implemented.
There is an implementation problem. It's not that the treaty itself is broken except that it's not being observed. What I did when I was at the British American Security Information Council was set up a process called the Stepping Stones Approach with the Swedish government, which formed the basis of a 16-nation initiative to try and reinvigorate the Non-Proliferation Treaty. That has been partially successful in raising the issues and zero success in terms of implementing anything at all yet. But I remain hopeful and I think that there's plenty to be done.
We're also, in Cambridge, looking at the global effects of nuclear war because I think there is a great deal of uncertainty. There are big error bars at both ends of the causal chain and we need to reduce those. But we need to, most importantly ensure, that those who are making decisions that may involve the release of nuclear weapons know what it looks like when they light the match in the room full of gasoline because I don't think they do know that at the moment. I don't think we know it, actually, and that is a serious problem.
I also think picking up on Patricia's point about the modelling that she's doing. I think we also need to be thinking about the paradigms we sit in. We need to be reflective and look at some of those paradigms that are driving not just the nuclear deterrence issue, but all the existential risks we sit in. So at Cambridge, we're looking at the systems, the dominant narratives, the paradigms that support those narratives, and opening questions like, “Is the attachment that we have to individualism and the assumption of self-interest really serving our society at the moment?” because that's what's supporting concepts like the balance of terror and nuclear deterrence. And this is why I think EA has such a strong thing to communicate because it is actually going to the heart of that assumption that everybody operates from self-interest because that's a problem that we need to solve in our society.
Sarah Weiler: I want to give you a chance to come back to the No First Use thing. But I would ask you to keep it short because we have lots of very interesting questions that are still in the queue.
Patricia Lewis: So I just want to talk about No First Use because I think it's a really interesting thing. I was very struck by Ben Wallace, the Secretary of Defence, speaking at Munich in which he talked about reinforcing the nuclear taboo, the nuclear use taboo. Obviously, you know the threat from President Putin (but we've also seen threats from Kim Jong Un and also reverse threats from President Trump) are rising again and both my colleagues have spoken about that. I think it would be very interesting to start to look again at this.
And there are a couple of things. One is that we've had a No First Use de facto policy from the US for a while during President Obama's time, which was called the Sole Purpose Use, the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is against nuclear weapons, which is a No First Use policy.
It may be more interesting to look at a taboo or a no-use policy. It sounds really impossible to imagine. But maybe we could start to talk about what that might look like in terms of talking about the risks. We now have, of course as I mentioned the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons meetings. We now have this in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, thanks in part to the work that Paul and his team have done. And then I think we've also got the scientific advisory group, which I'm co-chairing with Professor Zia at Princeton, of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which is a new treaty, which doesn't yet have nuclear weapons states in it but does prohibit the use. It's tried to have a parallel with chemical and biological weapons and treat nuclear weapons in the same way. We have been able to achieve it with those.
And of course, the response is always, “Well, it won't be perfect.” No, of course. There is no such thing as perfection in the world. All we can do is sort of nudge our way to a better situation. Better is good, right?
So, let's see what we can do. Why not open this up? Maybe to ridicule. Maybe to “Oh, it just can't be done.” But at least in so doing, we start to explore what the impacts of nuclear use would be. That would be helpful.
John Gower: There's an alternative way of looking at this. And the trouble is we are so far from No First Use. Even the countries that have a No First Use policy. I went to Delhi a few years ago and I was told we have a No First Use policy, but with some caveats. It's a binary thing. You either have a No First Use policy, or you don't.
What we currently have in the UK, in NATO and the US, and France, in fact, most of the possessor states, is an expansion of potential uses. If you read the latest US nuclear posture review, it's very clear that many things more than nuclear… In fact, if you can dream up in your existential risk work that EA does a new threat, I can guarantee you the US response to his first response will be “We'll swack you with a nuclear weapon. If you come up with this.”
At the moment, there's a plethora of an expanding role of nuclear weapons. The first focus is to a proper sole purpose. And while President Obama's administration did espouse sole purpose, his NPR of 2010, because I was part of that, did not espouse it. In fact, the Pentagon had a beer mat that it produced that said, “The Obama 2010 Nuclear Posture Review Making the world safe for global conventional war.” Needless to say, that beer mat didn't get out of the Pentagon, but it showed the tension that exists in the US between a visionary president and administration and a less-than-visionary Pentagon.
I would argue that the first thing to do, and I shall be arguing it in the biological risk chat tomorrow, is you have to look at proper ways of deterring and reducing the risk from these novel threats, whether it be AI, whether it be cyber, whether it be bio or chemical, that don't involve just saying, “I shrank you with a nuclear weapon” because that, to me, is strategic laziness. There's a lot of strategic laziness out there.
Then you get sole purpose. Then you've got the bedrock upon which n you can get people to start thinking about No First Use. If everybody says No First Use, it kind of begs the question, “Why do you keep these things?” Because if you really mean No First Use and you've all said No First Use, you're just sitting on a pile of uranium that you're not going to use. That's the end game for me. I prefer to look at dealing with the risks now that are incredible but burgeoning because you are increasing the number of things that you say you're going to deter with nuclear weapons.
Patricia Lewis: I just wanted to add in that over the last year, we've had an extraordinary data point in this discussion, and that is when President Putin and all those surrounding him have been making these nuclear weapons threats. The response from the NATO countries that possess nuclear weapons has not been nuclear. It has been, in fact, quite explicitly made by Presidents Macron and Biden that it wouldn't be in the first place nuclear.
John Gower: I couldn't think of anything more stupid to say back to threatening nuclear, but let's take that offline.
Patricia Lewis: I think it's really smart. I don't want to take it offline. I think it's a really smart thing to do. I think the communication of it is superb.
John Gower: It is not what President Biden said.
Patricia Lewis: But the issue is that there are many ways to deter and the problem with nuclear weapons is that often the deterrence isn't credible because the response is overwhelming. So I think that this is something
John Gower and Patricia Lewis: we disagree.
John Gower: I think this is something that is really worth exploring. And if, God forbid, Russia does use a nuclear weapon, and I don't think it will necessarily be in Ukraine. But if it were to, what would be the range of responses? And I think this is where John and I would agree that everyone would need to think through, in advance, which they are doing, what sort of responses there could be to that that would have a major impact that could perhaps prevent a second use but wouldn't necessarily be a nuclear use. Because once you get into nuclear use you get into a big tit-for-tat escalation.
Sarah Weiler: Afterwards, we will come back to a more general question about the nuclear risk landscape because there is one question that has raised lots of interest in the audience. But one that ties well into what you two have been discussing just now and is addressed to Paul is about the remark that you made in your opening statement: that it was bad that Russian nuclear threats were getting taken less seriously by Western capitals. And the person who asked this question is saying that surely this is rational since Russia doesn't seem to be acting on those threats and also that some of Russia's ICBMs have been shot down.
John Gower: Russia hasn’t launched any ICBMs.
Paul Ingram: Yeah. I’ll deal with that right now.
Yes, there is a story going around this week that Russian ballistic missiles and hypersonic missiles have been shot down. These may be short-range ballistic missiles, I'm not sure, but they're certainly not intercontinental. And there is no serious question about Russia's capability of launching a nuclear strike on lots of places all at once. Anybody that questions that I think is deeply, deeply irresponsible. The reason why I think it's a problem that Western capitals are now calling the Russians bluff is because there is a serious pathway towards nuclear use right now which basically involves Russia losing and losing and losing and Putin's position in Moscow becoming increasingly tenuous and him running out of options. I just don't think it's a very safe place to be for Russia to be running out of options right now. We may like the idea that he runs out of options because those options were never acceptable to us. But it's playing with fire and be of no doubt that if there is a nuclear war, we will all suffer hugely.
The latest modeling from August last year from Rutgers University, which is the most sophisticated modeling I've seen on this issue, suggests that if there is an all-out nuclear war, we're looking at deaths of about five or 5.5 billion people, largely through starvation. So let's not think that we can push people to the edge and then feel safe about it.
Now, we can have a debate. And it is a really, really difficult, challenging debate and discussion about how we deal with bullies in general and how we deal with Putin in particular. There are no easy answers here. But we do have to recognise that the risks we play are real. It's not just simply about sitting at a poker table and losing a hand. It's much, much more serious than that.
Sarah Weiler: Thanks for that response. So, he question that I mentioned before is quite general. It is addressed directly to you, John. But I think all three of you share this or hold the claim that nuclear risks today are higher than they were maybe ever in the past. Or at least, in the last few decades. If you don't. I'm also happy to hear your response. But first, John, the person who asked this question has heard that in your opening remarks, you seem to suggest this, that nuclear risks today are higher than they were ever before. And they are just asking if you could elaborate on why you think it is.
John Gower: Certainly. And I've got three reasons for saying that.
The first thing is when I joined the Navy in the late 1970s, I am that old, and during the 1980s, every ship in the royal navy of frigate size and above carried nuclear weapons. I slept within 2 to 3 metres of tactical nuclear weapons in the first six or seven ships that I operated in. I never served in a ballistic missile submarine. I didn't do that in my submarine time. Indoctrinated in us in those years was the need and the inevitability of the use of these weapons in a war against the Soviet Union, between NATO and the Soviet Union, in the North Atlantic, in the German plane, in the Baltic. Everywhere you looked in the air, at land, and at sea, we had weapons peppered everywhere.
But more importantly than where the weapons were was a whole generation of largely young men (in those days, very few frontline forces had women in the 80s) who were completely at ease with this concept of transitioning from guns and bullets to nuclear weapons. Some of which you could hold in your hand if you were stupid enough so to do
The US, in fact, during the early phases, before my time produced a recoilless rifle called the Davy Crockett for its infantry which holds the record of being the nuclear weapon very unpopular because its lethal range exceeded its operational range. So the troops that fired it were going to die in the explosion. It was not a popular weapon, but it showed the stupidity of placing nuclear weapons at that level.
Whilst that provided this massive risk factor, the rules, if you like, of the Cold War were very specific. And we did have some in the 80s, some very close calls, as Patricia has alluded to. But we didn't trigger them because the way in which things were done and the way in which hotlines worked allowed us to walk away from them.
The Cuban missile crisis, which is touted by most as the closest to Armageddon, I think is a very special case and very different. And we did as part of a project that I did recently on the effect of new tech on decision-making with CSR. Published a handbook in December. I can link it to you if you want. We basically replayed the Cuban missile crisis but overlaid it with a 24-hour news cover, Twitter, deep fakes, the beginning of AI, and cyber warfare and concluded that with all of that on top of it, we'd have been in nuclear war and the Cuban missile crisis in about the first 36 hours. Because control of information and discussion between the few counterparts was very clear, despite what the combined Joint Chiefs of Staff did to screw Kennedy up during the process. My concerns for saying that today rest, I say, on three things.
Firstly, miscalculation and misinterpretation. Nuclear weapons are present in weapons that are currently being fired and have been fired. And the US has a plan, currently not changed by the Biden administration, to put nuclear warheads back on missiles fired from submarines, missiles that have been fired in every war since the attack on Tripoli in the 1980s. Every war that the US has been involved in has involved cruise missiles into Baghdad or Belgrade, or wherever. These weapons will, if they follow this, also have a nuclear tip, and no one says what the weapon has when it's fired. So that's the first one.
The second one is that the risk of miscalculation and misinterpretation because of those is extremely high.
And third is the decision space, the information space is likely to be so cluttered, so faked up and so much stress on the individuals and the communication from governments is so multiplicity now that you don't know what the president or the prime minister is saying and most hotlines don't work and they only go between two nations.
For all of those reasons, I'm absolutely confident that the risk now is much higher than it's been in my lifetime. And I was alive in the Cuban missile crisis.
Sarah Weiler: Please give us your response to this question.
Patricia Lewis: I agree with everything that John said, except I think it was extremely dangerous then. And I think it's one of the things that human beings do. It's a bit like Covid today for many of us - you get through a crisis and then you think it wasn't as bad because you got through it. But actually, for the people who didn't get through it, it was really, really bad.
And in the case of the Cold War, John mentioned the work that we've done on trying to document some of the, not all of the, near misses that we had. Things were very dangerous. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, the hotlines weren't a major factor. Today, we see real problems with hotlines. You were talking about this just a few weeks ago at a meeting where we have hotlines that don't work, for example, or are not picked up between India and Pakistan.
But, one of the things that we saw is that often it was an issue of luck. And as our great colleague, Professor Benois Pelopi, at Sciences Po in Paris talks about, luck is not a strategy. It's not a good strategy, relying on it. And so much of it does depend on that. When you start to go down, you start to see the role of individuals. For example, take in 1983 the role of Colonel Stanislav Petrov who was the person in charge of an early warning station. There are all these signals coming and saying missiles, missiles coming in from America to the Soviet Union. There's been a fantastic film made about him. If you like quirky films, which I do, it's a very brilliantly quirky film which actually has him acting himself in it (It’s the only way to describe it) called The Man Who Saved The World. He goes off to find Kevin Costner in the United States. It's so funny.
One of the things that he did was he decided that they were false alarms, and he basically didn't trust the computer, as he put it. It was up to the individual.
My question, though, is it turns out that throughout history, we've relied a lot on individuals, and making those decisions me feel comfortable. There's always going to be an element of it, of course. But in this case, more than… I think we should be comfortable with.
So the question I have is, “Do we have individuals like that in North Korea right now who will stand up and make these decisions for themselves?” “Do we have people like that right now in Putin's Russia, who will make a decision against what President Putin might decide?” These are the questions I have, and I think these are questions we really need to be examining.
John Gower: And there's a question that you can all answer because you're of the generation. “Do we have people who will no longer trust what the computer says?” I think we have a generation who is born first, unless you're in the AI business, to trust what their phone says. I grew up in a generation without computers, and so did petrol. Because they're so bad, you learn not to trust them first and then to trust them second. I think we flipped that. And so I think you wouldn't have this situation again. The first thing would be - I trust the computer because I started with Nintendo and worked my way up from there.
Patricia Lewis: I actually think people are smarter than that. My worry is that …
John Gower: How was the time you spent in the Pentagon?
Patricia Lewis: Yeah, maybe. But my worry is that it's also about how empowered you feel to challenge authority. And, if you're in a situation where to do so could threaten your life, which Petrov was, right? And it did have a huge impact on his life. There were lots of other things going on as well. Watch the film. So good.
Sarah Weiler: We have a few questions related to this new risk landscape that touch on aspects that you haven't directly addressed so far. And they are about how emerging technologies, but also changes related to the climate crisis, affect nuclear risks. And maybe Paul, you can start on this and discuss the interlinkages of different risks a bit.
Paul Ingram: Yes. I was reflecting on the debate about whether it's worse now than it was, and I think whether it's worse now than it was, it down well looks like it's soon going to be really, really bad because the trajectories are in the wrong direction. I think John was alluding to this earlier. And I think that one of the aspects that we look at CSER and Cambridge is the intersection between the catastrophes that appear like they're coming at us in all different directions.
It's very difficult to stay positive. I told a story in a Ted X talk recently about how, as a 23 year old I faced a lorry coming towards me head-on at massive speed and in that moment I judged that that was it. I was gone. Who knew that breaks are better than I realised at the time and the lorry stopped. But you know, I was lucky. There was luck involved hugely. It appeared like it was inevitable. But the thing about the future is that it's not inevitable. So there's always hope. But it is damn scary and it is going to get worse. And I don't think anybody in this room needs to be told that. But it's the way in which these crises come together. I mean, John and I were talking yesterday about how the climate crisis is. Inevitably, it feels going to involve migration at the level that we can't even dream of today. And that will put huge pressures on populist governments to react with extreme measures.
And if you've got nuclear weapons in the mix, biological capabilities. If you've got all sorts of other capabilities to upend the table and finish the chess match, then you're going to be tempted to use it. Which is why it's so important for us to collaborate, listen to, understand, engage with people of opinions that are very different to us. When, you know, I might be a radical to some and John may be a deterrent person, or I might be a Brit and I'm talking to Iranians or Russians, or North Koreans. I have to understand where they're coming from, and I have to understand the legacy that takes them to that point. And I need to act accordingly and listen, engage, and have some doubt that I know what's happening because increasingly we know less.
So the climate crisis emerging, disruptive technologies, and all the uncertainty, we are challenged like no other generation. And you more than me - you're challenged to sit with that radical uncertainty and act anyway. That means we have to get deeper into the values and the paradigms that drive us and question the assumptions that we've been given by our previous generations.
John Gower: Yeah. Lord Hennessy, Peter Hennessy, whom we have all worked with, who writes eruditely on strategic issues, encapsulates deterrence, if you like, or the taboo of use in, “You should never make a nuclear-armed state nervous or worried.” And that used to, in the good old certainties of the Cold War, be things that you did as the other side. But these emerging risks bring the ability to make a nuclear-armed state worried or desperate entirely without action from a potential adversary.
And, in particular, the weapons that I've alluded to: that are shorter range, lower yield, easier to rationalise their use. And if you have a populist leader who thinks injecting bleach is a good idea or using nuclear weapons to stop hurricanes, both of which came from the mindset of the 45th president. If you have another leader like that and he's not alone - the orb bans, and even may I say, the Boris Johnsons of this world, faced with the kind of stresses that climate-induced migration and other shortages, or indeedAI gone slightly off the rail, shall we say. If they have these things in their arsenal, they will be tempted to use.
And so where I said that we have nuclear weapons for a generation, I think that's true. But the really dangerous destabilising ones, we don't have a generation of time to get rid of them because these converging risks bring the risk of making a nuclear-armed state or its leadership desperate.
Patricia Lewis: So, I just wanted to [say that] all of these things are true. But I want us to think for a minute that if we all allow people who would threaten to use nuclear weapons to win in the sense that they use these threats in order to gain, what we will do is we will create a situation that will become more attractive to would-be despots and would-be authoritarian leaders. We're in a really difficult situation at the moment where we have to think very, very carefully about how we characterise what's going on. Because if we make too much of these nuclear threats that President Putin is making or Kim Jong Un is making, we will essentially feed into this concept that nuclear weapons are very useful to threaten and gain or compel people to do things.
And this is very closely tied, of course, to deterrence. Deterrence is somewhat different. It's not an overt threat, it's a sort of background threat. If you do this, then we have this big stick. But it's not disconnected - President Putin has for years had a sort of deterrent force. But now, he's moving into an overt threat. But if it's shown or if it's believed or perceived that this has been to his advantage in some way, we have a major proliferation problem down the line.
So I want us to be very careful when we're talking about these things and how we characterise them because how we characterise them is about how it will be perceived later on.
John Gower: Upon this. We totally agree.
OK. Now that we have clearly established how bad the situation is and you have talked about measures that should be taken and how things should change to some extent. But the last question that I wanted to pose to all of you will be for people in the audience who themselves are thinking about actively working on this set of problems. Do you have any piece of advice? These could be quite concrete things of organisations that you recommend, they look at, or more general things you've learned over your career in the field.
John Gower: Well, I'm going to throw in an advert for CSR here because CSR runs an annual nuclear fellow programme for young individuals interested in this area. They don't have to be working in the area. They can apply. There are some national nationality rules. You'll have to check the website. But what we offer is a little bit of money and a lot of face time with people who've been doing this for a long time and visits to places in the US and in Europe where you can get insights into what's going on.
We also do the same in the bio area. But since we're talking nuclear today… So if you're interested in that, getting engaged with a think tank… I work with CSR, so I'll do my advert for them. I'm sure other places do similar stuff, but getting engaged with a responsible and effective think tank is a good start.
Or, as Adam Thompson said earlier, get into government, get promoted, get senior, and get influential.
Patricia Lewis: That sounds brilliant. I would do that. Yeah.
I suppose what I would add on to what John has said is, don't feel that because you might have come from a different background, that your ideas are not useful. Or don't be afraid to ask daft questions, I think is the phrase. I mean, there are no daft questions. What I will say is that we've clearly not fully succeeded in what we set out to do in trying to make the world safer from nuclear weapons. Everyone's had different ideas about how to do it. We are where we are, and so quite clearly there is a need for some creative thoughts, which would be very, very welcome.
There's going to be loads of things we haven't thought of yet, and we won't think of them because our brains are trained in a particular way. Think of yourself as an untrained AI and come along with that brain and maybe you'll throw something in that will work and we wouldn't have thought about it otherwise.
Paul Ingram: Yeah. That's really well put. I was going to say that the three of us have devoted our lives to one of the darkest recesses of the human condition which is imagining the deaths of millions of people. It's pretty dark. It's important for us to be recognising the risks that we're in and to focus on those. But there's also an opportunity to imagine and think creatively and positively about futures that don't involve that sort of behaviour. But it also requires us to take into account all the other different dimensions around existential risks.
What we kind of occasionally talk about at CSER is “What does an existential hope look like?” “What does a society look like that isn't constantly plagued by worsening and worsening existential risks?” I don't have the answer to that. I haven't heard anybody else come up with credible answers to that, except that there are lots of possible future worlds there. And we need to be imagining those worlds and then backcasting and thinking about what the sort of journeys might look like. They are predictable. They're chaotic. They're really complex. But some of the sense of the way in which we need to change the values we live by so that the world out there, and not just people in this room, are more altruistic. Where there is a sense in which we can escape the current dynamics and we don't have to accept great power competition for time immemorial. That there are other ways of organising our society and our minds that are more constructive and having that optimistic possibility and then thinking about what little steps can we take in that sort of direction that can move us in that way.
And so I think, yes, we need to focus on the catastrophes, but we also need to think about the positive.
Sarah Weiler: Thank you very much. That is perfectly timed to end our session. Thanks for coming.