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How many times would nuclear weapons have been used if every state had them since 1950?

by eca1 min read4th May 202113 comments

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Suppose that nuclear weapons had proliferated widely soon after their invention, such that every national government possessed a nuclear arsenal of at least a few warheads.

How many times would they have been used from 1950 to present? Since world war II there have been a number of great power proxy wars, conflicts between regional powers such as India and Pakistan, and many Civil Wars + wars for independence see e.g. here.

I have the sense that conventional wisdom says the Cold War was a "close call" in terms of nuclear aggression, which would suggest that our observation of no nuclear conflicts could be explained by lack of proliferation. But supposing there had been proliferation, would the threat of "Global Policing" by US++ have prevented use? Or have their been conflicts in which one side of the other is sufficiently crazy to use them? Or maybe a skeptical take that nuclear weapons aren't that useful, as I understand is roughly the view here, is correct?

Interested in assessing the impact of proliferation on risk from WMDs for a differential technology strategy project.

Would be cool to get some guesses of the expected number of conflicts which had at least one nuclear detonation killing someone, your 80% CI of the same, and / or the likelihood of at least 1 nuclear detonation killing someone in this alternative world.

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Not putting any probabilities on these ideas yet, just brainstorming:

I expect that some dynamics would be similar to nuclear strategy in the real world: nuclear weapons would make wars less common, but the few wars that did happen would have a risk of being much more devastating. If you're Saddam Hussein and you're pondering whether to start the Iran-Iraq war, maybe you hold back for fear of a nuclear exchange, and start your own local cold war instead. I'd expect that maybe we have only a small fraction as many wars, but some of the remaining wars would involve nuclear weapons.

While interstate wars might decrease dramatically, I'm not sure if the frequency of civil wars would change much. I could easily imagine a dark alternate history where maybe half of civil wars involve some small group (either rebels or an embattled remnant of government) getting their hands on a stray nuke and setting it off in the middle of a city.

It could be tempting for many countries to go for a North Korea strategy -- acting crazy and threatening everyone around them in exchange for concessions. Perhaps, after a bunch of initial chaos, the world would eventually enforce a much stronger norm against these rogue nations... imagine a kind of worldwide NATO who wouldn't have any qualms preemptively nuking dictators who seemed to be going down the North Korea path.

In a world where nuclear weapons were much easier to obtain and/or construct (imagine you don't need to refine the uranium at all, and you don't need specialized high-precision shaped explosives to set it off -- just take ordinary U-238 and wrap it in TNT), it would also become much more important to pay attention to other parts of a nation's nuclear capabilities. If you are a poor African country, do you have intercontinental missiles ready to fire towards anywhere on earth at a moment's notice, or do you just have some loose warheads that you can hope to sneak into another nation's port in a disguised container ship? Do you have any second-strike capability? Etc. Just giving everyone nukes would not put countries on an even, mutually-assured-destruction playing field. The resulting instability as different countries jockeyed to gain advantages over their neighbors -- more accurate missiles, stealthier submarines, etc -- would probably breed plenty of conflict.

Overall: A peaceful world stuck in a multipolar-Cold-War mexican standoff seems very unstable and unlikely to me. Instead, I think a world with easy nukes looks like something between the following two extremes:

  1. Things are mostly similar to our world, except wars are a less common, but those wars often involve nuclear weapons, so everyone is just nuking each other occasionally, especially during civil wars, in poorer countries with less nuclear capability, and among dictatorships rather than democracies. (Cold-war-like dynamics mostly prevail among rich and powerful nations, just like IRL) This is obviously terrible because many more people die, and over time a larger part of the earth's territory, atmosphere, etc, is being irradiated.
  2. In order to prevent continual low-level nuclear war as described above, the world coordinates much more to eliminate the threat posed by unstable and rogue nations. This coordination would take a different form depending on whatever part of nuclear conflict seems easiest to control. If our scenario is "nukes are still hard to make, but everyone gets 100 free warheads in 1950", maybe this means aggressively forcing countries to give up those nuclear weapons. If it's "nukes are easy to build, you just need the uranium", maybe the leading countries jointly occupy all uranium mines. If nukes are even easier to build than that, perhaps we end up with a neocolonial system with very few independent nations to eliminate the threat of war (no civil wars or unstable dictators if there are just a handful of empires dividing up the Earth), or a system of totalitarian surveillance if we are also worried about small non-state actors (as imagined would be necessary in Nick Bostrom's "Vulnerable World Hypothesis").

I'm surprised you don't mention what seems to me to be the most likely scenario, 0. : Mutually assured destruction, nuclear winter, etc. The world looks like 1 or 2 up until some series of accidents and mistakes causes sufficiently many nukes to be fired that we end up in nuclear winter.

(Think about the history of cold war nuclear close calls. Now imagine that sort of thing is happening not just between two countries but everywhere. Surely there would be accidental escalations to full-on nuclear combat at least sometimes, and when two countries are going at it with nukes, probably that raises the chances of other countries getting involved on purpose or on accident)

8Jackson Wagner6moWell, if we're starting in 1950, not a single nation has ICBMs, and few countries even have long-range bombers. I'm also not sure how many nukes we're supposed to imagine everyone gets / how quickly they can be made. So the world would have a little bit of time to settle into the new equilibrium -- I agree that if every country in the world was magically gifted an arsenal equal to the USA's current nuclear forces, the world would probably end in fire pretty quickly. To keep things simple, I was also treating this question as purely an alternate history exercise -- what would have happened by 2020 if things were different in 1950. Maybe from a long-term perspective of thousands of years, that much proliferation means you're totally doomed. But on a timescale like that, it's still early days for the real world's nuclear proliferation dynamics, too. I was also imagining that my scenario 2, where basically the world gets quickly taken over by some kind of powerful alliance tantamount to a strict mostly-unified world government, might involve a very severe worldwide nuclear war -- either as the crisis that prompts the decision to centralize, or as a result of the decision, when the winning coalition must now seize power by potentially obliterating all the objecting countries. It would be really depressing if we repeatedly had giant full-scale worldwide nuclear wars, getting worse and worse as technology advanced, and ALSO failing to change world governance to put a stop to it. But I guess humanity has disappointed me before, so it could definitely happen -- maybe each nuclear war just makes affected nations dramatically more fractured and broken and chaotic, so after the first big war there's no alliance of countries powerful/functional/responsible enough to impose order and stop the next round. One potential crux here might be the importance of the "nuclear taboo" (which in the real world is intact, and in alt-1950 would have be broken almost immediately) and the id
2kokotajlod6moOK, you've convinced me! Nice!

Interesting! For (1) how do you expect the economic superpowers to respond to smaller nations using nuclear weapons in this world? It sounds like because of MAD between the large nations, your model is that they must allow small nuclear conflicts, or alternatively pivot into your scenario 2 of increased global policing, is that correct?

1Jackson Wagner6moYes, that's what I'm thinking. As I'm continuing to develop this thought (sorry for being a bit repetitive in my posts), perhaps the main things that determine where the world might fall between scenarios (1) and (2) are: -How hard it is to establish stricter global governance: Is there an easy proliferation bottleneck that can be controlled, like ICBM technology or uranium mines? Can the leading nations get along well enough to cooperate on the shared goals of global governance? When everyone has nukes, how easy is it to boss around small countries? If the leading nations don't have the state capacity to pull off global governance, then we'll be stuck in a multipolar anything-goes world no matter what we think is preferable. -The "contagiousness" of nuclear conflict helps determine the value of strict global governance: if conflicts are extremely contagious (such that something like the real-world Syrian Civil War ends up with the superpowers at DEFCON 1), then small-scale wars are still extremely dangerous, and global policing is very desirable. If nuclear conflict isn't contagious at all and it's easy to stay out of a dispute, then it would be a lot more acceptable for the leading nations to just let nuclear wars happen, in the same way that the modern world often lets civil wars happen without intervening too much. Just play defense by being really paranoid about your ports/borders, and threatening to first-strike anyone who develops suspicious new long-range capabilities. I really don't know much about the question of contagiousness. Is there something special about nuclear weapons and the "nuclear taboo" that affects contagiousness? (Maybe nations feel like they have to "use or lose" their ICBMs before they are destroyed by opponents.) Or does all war seem contagious because it naturally erupts at the center of complex knots of geopolitical tensions and alliances? (Like the rapid domino-like declarations of war that set off WW1, or the agglomeration of seem

This seems like an interesting question! 

Here are some quick reactions (not really direct answers, and maybe not what I'd say if I'd researched this much more):

  • I don't know of any sources addressing your specific question (though I imagine some might exist; I just haven't looked), but a good starting point would be sources on the more general topic of the ex ante historical likelihood of nuclear weapons strikes, the likelihood of future nuclear weapons strikes, and the factors pushing those things up or down.
  • One factor that might reduce how many times they would've been used (compared to what a person would conclude if they ignored this factor) is that more proliferation might have reduced the overall number of wars/conflicts
    • See the nuclear peace theory
    • Though see also the "stability-instability paradox", a theory that "states that when two countries each have nuclear weapons, the probability of a direct war between them greatly decreases, but the probability of minor or indirect conflicts between them increases."
    • I still expect more proliferation would have increased the expected number of aggressive nuclear weapons uses over the period since 1950
      • But maybe less than one would think if one just imagined that the same conflicts would've occurred, but with more parties to those conflicts having nuclear weapons
    • (ETA: I've now seen that Jackson covered somewhat similar points, and I basically like that answer too.)

Great set of links, appreciate it. Was especially excited to see lukeprog's review and the author's presentation of Atomic Obsession.

I'm inclined toward answers of the form "seems like they would have been used more or some civilizational factor would need to change" (which is how I interpret Jackson's answer on strong global policing). Which is why I'm currently most interested in understanding the Atomic Obsession-style skeptical take.

If anyone is interested, the following are some of the author's claims which seem pertinent, at least as far as I can te... (read more)

Less important comments:

  • You link to the book Atomic Obsession. You (or other readers) might be interested in Luke Muehlhauser's notes on the book, and people's comments there."
  • "Interested in assessing the impact of proliferation on risk from WMDs for a differential technology strategy project." You ma
... (read more)

“[I know not what weapons will be used in world war 3, but I know that the next war after that will be fought with sticks and stones.]” My plain and immediate reaction in reading your question is “who knows, maybe we’ll survive one or two small-scale nuclear exchanges between regional powers, but civilization most likely will not survive to 2020.”

When literally every state has a nuclear arsenal, it doesn’t even take a crazed dictator to lead to nuclear war (although that is entirely possible), it just takes a few incompetent governments that

  1. have faulty warning systems and risky nuclear postures and/or
  2. can’t protect their arsenals from a committed terrorist group

To set off a chain reaction that quickly pulls more and more powers—eventually all major powers—into a nuclear exchange in a matter of hours (maybe days), not weeks/years like in other world wars. Eventually, the nuclear exchange will lead to nuclear winter, and civilization will collapse (which could lead to even more nuclear exchanges if there are still such capabilities). In the end, I think the number of catastrophe scenarios and the seemingly inherent instability of such a reality puts a really heavy burden on someone to disprove/rebut the idea that this would lead to destruction.

I think this is plausible, but less obvious than you imply. Some reasons to doubt your conclusions:

  • A common mistake in forecasting/counterfactual reasoning is to imagine a world in which X is different, and then imagine the direct effects that that difference would have if everything else would held constant - in particular, if no one too active countermeasures. In this case, some countermeasures that might be taken in a world with far more nuclear proliferation include:
    • Stronger systems of global governance
    • More vigorous promotion, verification, enforcement
... (read more)
1Harrison D6moThose are some valid points; more generally I'll admit that I might have been jumping the gun/overselling it a bit (in retrospect I think that many small-level regional exchanges may not spark a chain reaction if the world restructured the international system to avoid chain gang alliances). However, I still think it's more likely that nuclear catastrophe would occur than not by 2020. In part, I think it depends on how you set up this counterfactual: if we are talking about a world in which everyone goes to sleep one night in 1960, then they wake up and surprise every state now magically has a nuclear arsenal--i.e., the counterfactual status/event wasn't brought about by the intentions of states in the counterfactual world--then I think the chances for peace are reasonable, because most states probably didn't want that event/status in the first place. However, if the counterfactual is one where almost all the states now have nuclear weapons because they sought out the nuclear weapons and were easily able to acquire them, etc. (which is the assumption I was operating on), I would expect that coordination would be much more difficult. As it is, I think that the fact that states around the world were willing to get nuclear weapons is indicative that they don't trust/won't abide by "global governance" (or, more directly, that "global governance" is ineffective). More generally, I think that people might be overestimating the ability for some 100+ states to coordinate when there are no global superpowers: who sets the rules? Who enforces the rules? Who enforces the enforcement? Collective action problems in international affairs have been hard enough even when we were in a bipolar and unipolar system; enforcing anti-terror laws and related provisions may get a lot easier with collective buy-in (even would-be state sponsors of terrorism would be extremely worried that their proxies may disobey orders or even turn on their masters), but if we are talking about verifying
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I appreciate the answers so far!

One thing I realized I'm curious about in asking this is something about how many groups of people/ governing bodies are actually crazy enough to use nuclear weapons even if self-annihilation is assured. This seems like an interesting last check against horrible mutual destruction stuff. The hypothesis to invalidate is: maybe the types of people assembled into the groups we call "governments" are very unlikely to carry an "activate mutual destruction" decision all the way through. To be clear, I don't believe this, and I think there is good evidence that individuals will do this, but I feel sufficiently confused about the gov dynamic to ask.

Of all the national regimes and regional ruling factions since 1950, how many would have used nukes even if they new an adversary would retaliate with overwhelming force? Have there been any real situations where non-great power govts were pushed so far as to resort to nuclear (enemy + self) destruction?

For example, my extremely amateur read makes it seem like Israel was at least somewhat close to nuclear in the Yom Kippur War. And I'd guess that some of the more insane genocide-y civil war factions like the Khmer Rouge wouldn't have been that concerned about the self-destruction bit, though I don't know enough history to say for sure, or if they were ever pushed to a breaking point.

I'm familiar with all the standard US-Russia examples of this (I think) and when I put my skeptic hat on/ try to steelman it seems like its hard to know how many additional "filters" would need to be cleared before actual launch. I'd be interested in cases where something of the form "and then [the gov't or civil war faction or w/e] took some action which they indisputably believed at the time would lead to a large scale tragedy, destroy themselves and all their loved ones, etc". Cases where the group definitely believed they slapped "defect" in the mutually assured destruction game (at least on some scale). Maybe none exist outside of cults and terrorist groups? Though some of those group might be more govt-like than others.