Tag Archives: nuclear philosophy

Is there a traumatic kernel to deterrence?

Preparing a paper for the ISA conference in San Francisco on Cyber-Deterrence, I wondered what happened to the “terror” of deterrence. Today deterrence is a merely theoretical shell expressing a rational calculus.


On Cyberdeterrence

Since the beginning of the atomic age it was immediately clear that access to this force allowed for a direct connection – a shortcut – to power. The paradox to be solved was, how nuclear weapons can be “used” and not be “used”, how they will never explode but still be useful. The answer was deterrence theory

2nd Wave Deterrence.

Deterrence theory laid out the rules how states can “use” the destructive force of the atom to play a rational game that allows them to participate in the power struggles of the new, the nuclear world order.

By representing the dilemma of nuclear deterrence with new game theoretical methods and rational choice theory which rationalized and mathematized social processes, deterrence theorists were able to fabricate a new texture of meaning for the thing, which has the capacity to disrupt this web of meaning itself, to destroy the symbolic order itself. They took seriously that the new strategy was not to use the bomb ever (explode it), and redefined the “use” of a weapon to be a threat to others.

This made nuclear weapons useful items, powerful items in the sense that their destructive force had to be translated, transferred, displaced to be useful and be used in power relationships and negotiations between states. Such, a new language – the language of nuclear deterrence – was developed and invented. Today the system of nuclear deterrence is in place allowing states to hedge the destructive power of nuclear weapons in a meaningful way while still engaging in power politics.

3rd Wave.

The third wave of nuclear deterrence theory in the 1970s expressed critique on some of the assumptions of deterrence theory. The superficial question asked by third wave deterrence theory is how perception, culture and norms influence the values of a quadrant in a payoff matrix or if a utilitarian rational actor without internal dynamics and differences can be reasonably assumed. The third wave of deterrence theory laid open all the flaws in the second wave. But to consider all accessible psychological and circumstantial and norm based factors etc. also stabilized the “rational choice approach to understand actor’s strategic decision-making”. Although it “did not resolve the deficiencies it identified” and did “not replace rational deterrence theory” below the surface nuclear deterrence was made fit on an operational level to address new challenges, while still reaffirming the nuclear order.

During that process the core of what constitutes nuclear deterrence was subtly altered. Deterrence was genereralized, abstracted, augmented to apply in a topological sense to examples beyond the nuclear realm.

But nuclear deterrence is not only the threat of individual denial of benefits or a threat of punishment, a microeconomic rationalization of calculus or bargain with a payoff matrix.

The disturbing fact which has to be actively displaced, concealed, obfuscated, hidden, occluded is that nuclear deterrence is not only the threat of mass murder on an exorbitant scale but the threat to be responsible to literally destroy the world, the threat of absolute death. It is second order death, the death of the network of meaning itself.

One could of course argue that this apocalyptic dimension can be represented again in a payoff matrix, were the costs are almost infinitely high. I want to argue that absolute death is not representable in a rational game and nuclear deterrence is since its invention secretly participating at this ethical dimension. In political science literature such an ethical dimension of nuclear deterrence is sometimes partly captured by emphasizing the influence of norms on the practice of deterrence, based on the amorality of nuclear weapons – a nuclear taboo. But despite the fact that norms “channel constrain, and constitute action” this does not capture what in a slight alteration of Nietzsches aphorism would be: if you are gazing long into the nuclear abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.

So, the question is: Is the theory of deterrence structured around this ethical dimension and does it change the theory of deterrence substantially if it is translated or applied to other fields like cyberdeterrence? Is each application of “a” deterrence theory unique, and do these other fields of application impose their own unique norms, changing the metric of deterrence itself?

I am not going to say much about cyberdeterrence here.

But to develop the grammar or metric of cyberdeterrence it is common to compare it to nuclear deterrence. Most authors agree that cyberdeterrence and nuclear deterrence have only few similarities, but that the nuclear example in general can give important lessons.

The main difference though between both is that nuclear deterrence is deterrence by punishment and threatens large scale destruction.

Cyberdeterrence operates in an environment unsuited to traditional models of deterrence. It will be most effective in deterrence by denial strategies and will probably not have a strong deterrence by punishment element. The obvious question is, what these substantive/topological differences in the logic of deterrence mean for cyberdeterrence and for attempts to produce the deterrence effect.

Can cyberdeterrence go beyond a mere cost/benefit calculation and is the metric of deterrence going to work effectively? For the strategic role cyberdetereence could play it will be decisive, if cyberdeterrence is an effective language that allows an actor to participate in power relationships like with nuclear weapons



By displacing the ethical dimension, the traumatic kernel in nuclear warfare, nuclear deterrence theory allowed to solve the deterrence paradox of nuclear use/non use and made nuclear weapons useful. While hedging their destructive force nuclear deterrence allowed nuclear armed states to engage in power politics and provided a common language. In the last decades the concept of deterrence subsequently diffused by applying the deterrence “skeleton”, the empty frame of rational calculation of costs and benefits, to non-nuclear fields. But the principal difficulties of the deterrence calculus remained. How do we measure goals and values, how do we quantify credibility, how do we treat epistemological and ontological uncertainty about the perspectives of the other? Deterrence is a blunt tool, it worked with nuclear weapons while survival was at stake.

Even if there is a clear declaratory policy for cyber deterrence strategies and an integration of deterrence with other policy tools, the question remains, if deterrence without large scale destruction is operationally/causally working or if deterrence is a theoretical shell to capture aspects of the metastructure of antagonistic adversarial relationships, but in the end it is quite unpredictable if the imagined deterrence calculus will work in the real world.


In that sense I am using  deterrence by denial or punishment on a day by day basis, to deter my daughter not to take unwanted action. (But even there I sometimes deter her e.g. from eating berries or mushrooms by claiming they are poisonous and deadly, which they are not – most of the time.)

Pathways to the Bomb

A contact in the Pentagon asked for a cheat sheet on nuclear technology. Putting something together that is technically correct and concise, while introducing all the policy-relevant terminology is a challenge. Matthias, John, any suggestions/corrections?

There are two “pathways” to the bomb: uranium enrichment and plutonium.

Diagram from: http://www.isisnucleariran.org/sites/weapons-fuel-cycle/

1. Uranium enrichment
Natural uranium is plentiful in nature, but to be weaponized it must be converted into a form that can be used to sustain a nuclear chain reaction, the physical process that releases energy. This 15 minute video from the 1950’s is my favorite explanation of nuclear fission: A is for Atom

Natural uranium is made up almost entirely of two isotopes, one of which is the slightest bit heavier than the other. Only the lighter isotope, U-235, is useful for sustaining a chain reaction. Fortunately, at least from a nonproliferation perspective, natural uranium is 99.3% U-238, so in order to be weapons usable it must be “enriched” to separate out the desirable U-235 from the undesirable U-238–or fed into a Heavy Water Reactor, which I will come back to when I explain the plutonium pathway.

The process of enrichment is mechanical. Natural uranium in its gaseous form (UF6) is fed into a centrifuge:

Image from: http://fissilematerials.org/library/ipfmreport06.pdf

Because U-235 is lighter than U-238, when you spin UF6 the heavier U-238 flies toward the outside wall and collects in the bottom of the centrifuge. The “depleted” stream of U-238 can then be funneled out. The enriched uranium, U-235 along with the remaining U-238, is siphoned off and into another centrifuge. The process is repeated thousands and thousands of times until the desired level of enrichment is achieved.

At first the enrichment process goes very slowly. Getting from the .7% U-235 found in natural uranium to 3-4.5%–the minimum amount necessary to fuel a light water reactor–requires 70% of the time and effort it would take to produce weapons-grade material (90% U-235). By the time uranium is enriched to 20% U-235, you are already 85-90% of the way there. This is why the cut-off for what counts as low enriched uranium (LEU) is set just below 20%. There are no reactors that require more than 20% enrichment and if you go any higher you basically already have what you need to create a bomb. (Jeffrey Lewis has a nice post about this on Arms Control Wonk.)

So, to summarize:
Natural Uranium = .7% U-235
Low Enriched Uranium = < 20% U-235
High Enriched Uranium = 20-90% U-235 (90% of the way to weapons grade)
Weapons Grade Uranium = >90% U-235

2. Plutonium
Plutonium, in theory, could appear in nature. However, in practice, it must be generated through a nuclear chain reaction. All nuclear reactors produce plutonium, but there are many kinds of reactors and some are better for plutonium production than others. If a country wants to build a nuclear explosive device without having to enrich uranium, it can use a heavy water reactor. Unlike light water reactors, which are cooled with regular old H2O, heavy water reactors are cooled with water that has an extra isotope of hydrogen (D20), which enables natural uranium to sustain a nuclear chain reaction. The plutonium necessary for a bomb can then be separated out from the spent fuel. This is what North Korea did.

Iran has uranium enrichment facilities, a heavy water research reactor and another under construction, and light water reactors for training purposes and energy production. For more information than you will possibly need on Iran’s nuclear sites visit ISIS’s page on Nuclear Iran.

Ich bin ein target

Obama BrandenburgLast week on June 19th President Obama stood on the eastern side of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate to announce that he would reduce the US deployed strategic nuclear arsenal by a third to approximately 1,000 weapons. His announcement confirmed rumors that the Obama administration plans to obviate a difficult treaty ratification process like the one the administration went through with the New Start Treaty in 2010. Although the reductions will be undertaken in concert with Russia, Obama is seeking a pact, not a treaty. This a significant change from business as usual, but it didn’t make much of an impact on the German public. The coverage of Obama’s visit was dominated by questions from reporters about the PRISM program–the US National Security Administration’s post-industrial spying machine.

The heavy symbolism of his return to the place where President Kennedy made his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech 50 years ago speaks to Obama’s desire for nuclear reductions to be remembered as one of his signature accomplishments. However, rather than being remembered for his heroic efforts to end the indiscriminate targeting of populations with nuclear weapons, Obama’s legacy may lie in his administrations perfection of the practice of precision targeting–the ability to scan large amounts of data and pick out the ‘high value individuals.’

I happened to be in Germany at the time of Obama’s speech visiting Paderborn for the conference on Tracking, Targeting and Predicting. Presentations at the conference fell into one of two groups: papers on mechanisms of public data collection and its manipulation, and papers on the role of perception and survellience in military training and operations. There were an impressive range of topics covered: the history of visual perception and the “martial gaze,” DHS Fusion Centers, the Revolution in Military Affairs, biometric identification techniques, public health data tracking, US survellience of internet data, and the mania of “Drone-a-rama.” I presented a paper I am co-authoring on US Joint Special Operations and “zone warfare.”  In addition to the German presenters, there were participants from the US, England and Canada. Most of the case studies focused on US programs and behaviors. There were no presentations on nuclear weapons.

My expereince at the conference was consistent with my past impressions of Germany. Every time I visit I am always struck by how different the center of gravity is in public conversations about national security. Germans have a different perception of risk than Americans and a stronger aversion to the language and practice of targeting. Under Angela Merkel Germany has asked the US to remove its Cold-War era nuclear weapons from its terrirory, began the process of phasing out nuclear energy, maintained the value of personal privacy as a social good, and continued to express zero-tolerance for torture of any kind. In contrast, Obama’s nuclear reductions appear modest, his justifications of the PRISM program with his back turned to ‘the West’ provokes the wrong kind of Cold War symbolism, and targeted killings continue to proliferate.

There was something incredibly uniting about the radical equality of the threat to humanity posed by nuclear war, and President Obama renewed a collective sense of purpose in countering that threat when he held out the promise of  ‘a world free of nuclear weapons’ in his 2009 speeach in Prague–especially since most of us have lived our entire lives as “countervalue targets” in a nuclear war plan. However, it turns out that we are now targets of a different kind. In constrast to the collective threat of nuclear war, we are caught up in a general cultural trend toward the use of social data to single out individuals based on demographic data and past patterns of behavior–from identifying terrorists to the Obama campaign’s “precision targeting of persuadable voters.” Usually we think nothing of it, but presiding over this shift in security culture is likely to be the defining feature of Obama’s presidency. We are all ‘high value inviduals’ in at least one of Obama’s targeting plans.

The Two Bodies of Osama Bin Laden

In the Situation Room watching the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound.

According to official US statements Osama bin Laden is dead, but the fight against his legacy is not over. He lives on in the militant jihadist network he envisioned and then seeded. US counterinsurgency missions continue in the Middle East and Africa against ‘high value individuals’ associated with Al Qaeda’s network. Bodies pile up in a relentless cycle of tracking targeting and killing, but no matter how many ‘kills’ officers in US Special Operations Forces (SOF) collect, they continue to miss their target. They are unable to hit the object of fundamentalist Islamic political theology, that magical thing which makes bin Laden so attractive to his followers and repulsive to his enemies. The existence of this other body, bin Laden’s ‘body politic’, is larger than any individual life and transcends death. The US should be careful that it does not sacrifice its own body politic to endless targeted killings that always miss their mark.

Long before President Obama gave the order to take bin Laden’s life, bin Laden was already little more than an idea for all but his most trusted and intimate supporters. Having gone underground to evade execution, his public persona no longer had any physical presence. There are no pictures of him “looking at things” in the manner of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He rarely released video footage of himself with messages for his followers or enemies. The weight of his presence in the symbolic order–the everyday practices and beliefs that constitute lived reality and guide our actions–had already become so disassociated from his physical being, that his death felt overdue.

Bin Laden’s physical death had little meaning because his natural body is just as absent in death as it was in life. His corpse was never made available to the public for viewing and pictures of it remain closely guarded. President Obama explained his rationale for this policy in an interview on 60 minutes, saying that “We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies. We don’t need to spike the football…That’s not who we are.” The corpse was reportedly buried at sea, a decision which deprived bin Laden’s followers of any burial rites or destination to visit in reverence and respect, but also left the American public with out the satisfaction of a carnal victory.

Not surprisingly, a desire for bin Laden’s physical body persists, circulating in the form of garden variety conspiracy theories and, more importantly, a law suit demanding the release of Top Secret photos taken by US officials for internal circulation. Recently, a federal appeals court ruled that the Central Intelligence Agency was under no legal obligation to release photos of Osama bin Laden’s body. The determination of the three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit was unanimous. They agreed that releasing pictures taken while US military personnel buried the Al Qaeda leader’s corpse could “could cause exceptionally grave harm.” The photos will remain classified as Top Secret, and therefore exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

For now, the only visual confirmation of Osama Bin Laden’s death available to the public is the iconic photo of President Obama and his top aids in the White House Situation Room on the afternoon of May 1, 2011, watching intently as Joint Special Operations Forces carried out a raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. The degree of remove between the event and direct access to any sensory knowledge of that event is remarkable. In so far as the picture communicates anything of substance, it depicts the gravity with which the principal US decision makers experienced the event–the intensity of Obama’s gaze and the tension evident in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s gesture, her hand raised to cover her mouth.

What we do not see is any still image from the live stream on which their gaze is fixed. Our view of the event is mediated first by the feed sent from thousands of miles away to the Sit Room and then by the camera lens of Pete Souza, the White House photographer. The image that we see is at least two degrees of separation from the people who are carrying out the mission. In an address at the US Naval Academy, Clinton revealed that the exact nature of what the officials in the Situation Room were watching was not clear, even to them. She reported that they “could see or hear nothing when [the SEALs] went into the house. There was no communication or feedback coming so it was during that time period everyone was particularly focused on just trying to keep calm and keep prepared as to what would happen.” Their experience of the event is also mediated, transmitted over thousands of miles, and obscured by technological limitations on real time communication.

Katherine Bigelow’s film, Zero Dark Thirty, has sparked an intense debate about its portrayal of torture, but its brilliance lies in the much more prosaic observation that it gives us our first and only glimpse of bin Laden’s “body.” In its climatic portrayal of the raid on the bin Laden compound, we, as viewers, get to watch the live stream as if we too were in the Sit Room with Secretary Clinton and President Obama, watching not what they actually saw, but what we desire them to have seen.

There is a sublime quality to iconic figures like bin Laden that makes even the most mundane aspects of their everyday existence an object of fascination: What does he eat? Where does he live? Is he like us? What makes him different? This same type of curiosity is what sells gossip rags with paparazzi photos that reveal celebrities live, “Just like us!” They shop, take their kids to the park, work out, and have bad hair days. And yet, the more ordinary details that these magazines reveal, the more special the ordinary aspects celebrities appear. Our collective fascination attaches itself to them. The more is revealed, the more we desire, and the deeper the mystery becomes. They are just like us, and yet, they are different because the mundane details of their lives carry a fascination and appeal that are banal when observed in others.

The problem for the United States is that it turned out that when the public finally had access to information about bin Laden’s material existence, he was, in fact, living ‘just like us’. Contrary to the musings of President George W. Bush, he was not hiding in a cave. Unlike Saddam Hussein, he was not retrieved from a hole, abandoned by his people, and begging for his life in a shameful moment of defeat. The announcement of bin Laden’s death revealed that he had been living in a compound in a wealthy suburb of Abbottabad, Pakistan surrounded by his family and supported by his network.

At that point, the US was a decade into two of the longest and most draining wars in US history and bin Laden’s death brought no victory or resolution. Although the US has withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan, it is still carrying out targeted killings, especially in western Pakistan. However, as scholars at Stanford and NYU have shown, the more individual bodies they collect, the larger the body of resistance grows. In their report, Living Under Drones, the scholars make four points, all of which deserve to be repeated:

  • First, while civilian casualties are rarely acknowledged by the US government, there is significant evidence that US drone strikes have injured and killed civilians.
  • Second, US drone strike policies cause considerable and under-accounted-for harm to the daily lives of ordinary civilians, beyond death and physical injury.
  • Third, publicly available evidence that the strikes have made the US safer overall is ambiguous at best.
  • Fourth, current US targeted killings and drone strike practices undermine respect for the rule of law and international legal protections and may set dangerous precedents.

The US should ensure that the actions it takes in the name of national security meet standards of democratic accountability and transparency and that they comply with international humanitarian and human rights law–not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because staying true to democratic principles is the best strategy. If the US wants to hit its target, killing individual terrorists should remain secondary to maintaining the health of its own body politic.

Elegant and Simple

I am usually loath to out myself as an admirer of Waltzian structuralism. However, if there is one thing that even Kenneth Waltz’s most acerbic critics can admire about the legacy he left when he passed away on May 13th, it’s having written a book that others never tire of criticizing. Waltz’s Theory of International Politics replaced Hans Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations as the foundational text within the American field of International Relations (IR). Waltz’s obituary in the New York Times does an excellent job of describing the substantive contribution of his text to the field of IR. However, the staying power of his book is found in its particular combination of substance and style. As Waltz himself explains, his theory derives its power from its elegance.

Back when I was in grad school at Chicago, Bob Pape taught the ‘Intro to IR Theory’ seminar for graduate students. That was the course in which we read Waltz’s Theory of International Politics as well as the edited volume in which the responses to it were collected, Neorealism and Its Critics. What I remember from that course is how Bob delighted in Waltz’s rhetoric. In Waltz’s theory, states interact as if they are firms competing in a market. His primary contention is that this competitive space is governed only by the potential or actual use of military force. Therefore, the only factors that should be considered relevant to the explanation of state behavior are those which contribute in measurable ways to military capabilities. These capabilities are what determine the balance of power. All other factors that differentiate states qualitatively such as regime type (ie democracies versus authoritarian regimes), or qualities of individual leaders (ie charisma) are “reductive.” They dip inside the black box of the state to a lower level of analysis. These lower levels were messy and complex. They increased the descriptive quality of the theory, but reduced its “explanatory power.” Powerful theories are “elegant.” This is what Bob loved. He chuckled as he explained how no one wanted to be accused of being “reductive” or working at a “lower level.”

The irony, of course, is that the most damning critique of Waltz’s work in the accompanying edited volume came from Richard Ashley, who accused Waltz of a brand of reductivism all his own. Where Waltz saw elegance and simplicity, Ashley saw an impoverished depiction of a rational international system from which all political practice had been eliminated. Ashley’s work points towards the potential for another type of critical social theory, one which does not treat power as if it were an object that could be measured and weighed, but rather as a practice.

More than three decades later–after institutions and norms and the ‘tragedy of great power politics’–Waltz’s grand theory of international politics has yet to be displaced the way that Waltz displaced his predecessor. (Wendt’s contribution to this debate is best left for another post). I find myself repeating Ashley’s critique of Waltz, trying to find a way to make the charge of reductivism stick to its proper target. Escaping from the apolitical system of Waltz’s neorealist thought is one of the primary purposes of Nuclear Philosophy as an intellectual project, which is perhaps the highest compliment I could offer, barring the admission of my weakness for elegant theory.