My guest today is Paul Ingram, who is the Academic Programme Manager at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) at the University of Cambridge.
Up to a few months ago, he was also the Director of Emergent Change, which he established to further the understanding and practice of the Stepping Stones Approach (SSA) to nuclear disarmament. Prior to that, he was the Executive Director at British American Security Information Council (BASIC) where he developed the Stepping Stones Approach along with his colleagues from the Swedish Foreign Ministry. Throughout his extensive career, Paul has worked across the world on many projects related to nuclear disarmament.
Some of the topics we covered are:
- Paul’s journey into research of existential risk
- Likelihood of getting rid of atomic weapons
- Whether existing global structures can help mitigate catastrophic risks
- The importance of context and history when dealing with rogue actors
- Importance of inclusion and diversity
- Challenges of quantifying risk of nuclear war
- Explanation of how nuclear deterrence works
- What happens if Russia, as we know it, collapses?
- NATO , US, and B61-12 nuclear bombs
- Nuclear weapon command systems and current safeguards
- Nuclear disarmament and the ‘Stepping Stones Approach’
I made mention in the preamble about a report on the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. You can find that report here.
You can also find out more information about Russian nuclear weapons in this article by Hans M. Kristensen from 25th February 2022.
If you like what you’ve heard, please consider liking and reviewing the show wherever you get your pods. You can also support the show on our Patreon page here.
Listen to the podcast here
Paul Ingram – On The Threat Of Nuclear War And Hopes Of Disarmament
Before we get to the next episode with Paul Ingram from The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, I want to highlight that this episode was recorded in mid-June. However, given what is going on in Ukraine, I think you’ll find the discussion very relevant. The only event we discussed, which has occurred in the interim, is the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, which occurred in August. It ended without any substantive outcomes due to unsurprisingly opposition by one-member state. There are no prizes for guessing which state that was. Enough preamble, and I hope you enjoy the episode.
My guest is Paul Ingram, the Academic Program Manager at The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge. He was also the Director of Emergent Change, which he established to further the understanding and practice of the Stepping Stone Approach to nuclear disarmament. Prior to that, he was the Executive Director at British American Security Information Council, where he developed the Stepping Stones Approach, along with his colleagues from the Swedish Foreign Ministry. Throughout his extensive career, Paul has worked across the world on many projects related to nuclear disarmament. He joined me to discuss some of our greatest existential risks, with a particular focus on nuclear proliferation. Paul, thanks for joining me on the show.
It’s great to be here, Maz.
Paul, as we first started chatting, you have one of those absolutely amazing careers that seemed to be difficult to package in a short biography. How do you describe what you do?
It’s difficult. I work at Cambridge University, which I feel is a bit of a cosmic joke because I’m not an academic, but they call me an Academic Program Manager. I’m starting to realise that academics are waking up to the fact that there is a real world out there that is not something you can get to grips with by theories, but you actually have to experience it. At the centre, we are often doing foresight exercises and imagination, but also going deep into the emotions and the full sense of what it means to face the end of the world. That’s what we are looking at.
Our centre was set up to think about the end of the world, asteroids and volcanoes. Asteroids hit out the dinosaurs, but most of the threats that we face are of our own making. Nuclear weapons are obvious, but climate change, artificial intelligence, and the possibility of machines taking over. The breakdown of supply chains and collapse in the civilisation, which basically come about because of greed or fear or inability to get global governments off the ground. That’s what I’ve spent most of my whole career on. It’s the dysfunction of global governance.
We have this system whereby people get elected, appoint themselves, or come into power by coups. They run their countries, and they fight wars or engage in conflict of a variety of ways. It’s deeply problematic. Some famous people earlier in the last century, started talking about world governments and other means. That almost reproduces the same problem because of the power battles. My challenge to myself, to the centre, and to all your audience is how do we organise ourselves in the 21st century in a way where we won’t ever eliminate, but reduce the potential threat that we face as a species and one that we impose upon the Earth?
It’s a fantastic question to open up with. I didn’t plan to go there, but how do we do it? What are your thoughts? You’re talking about incentives or what motivates people to seek power, then of course, retain power, which ultimately seems to be a product of the human species. Where in-group versus out-group competition, in-group bias, etc., all of that plays into it, which is then incentivised through our economic system. It’s a complex problem.
It’s a deeply complex problem. There are no simple solutions, in fact, possibly no solutions. I don’t have an answer. It’s a deliberately open question. It’s a question that I think demands open inquiry exchange of ideas and possibilities. One thing I would do, right from the get go on this question is to say, “We don’t have the answers and we are operating on a number of assumptions that are deeply ingrained.” You articulated a couple, particularly around the idea that, as species, we are inevitably competitive. True and false.
The reason why homo sapiens prevailed in the evolutionary competition, and it is a competition, is because we cooperated. Homo sapiens do have the ability to cooperate over large groups, and maybe there are ways and means, technology and changes in behaviour or deliberate choices where we could actually start to roll out that cooperation at a much higher level.
That’s what I’m looking at in my collaboration with the whole series of governments. We exist in a world where the threat of nuclear annihilation is real. With the Ukraine War, that threat has become all the more clear and obvious. It doesn’t necessarily have to be like that. We need for our own survival to start challenging those deep assumptions and search for ways in which we can encourage it.We exist in a world where the threat of nuclear annihilation is real. Click To Tweet
This isn’t about wishing away the problems of the world. It’s about nibbling away at some of the worst dimensions of them so that we can control the situation. For example, I’m not encouraging states to say, “We can do without nuclear weapons next year.” It’s not that easy. What I am encouraging states to do is to think about ways in which we can strengthen the systems that control the nuclear weapons when nuclear weapon states can deepen their guarantees to non-nuclear weapon states that they won’t threaten them with nuclear weapons. We work together rather than in competition to try to build the structures of international society in a way that reduces the likelihood of nuclear conflict.
I often say on the show, I’m as close to a pacifist as one could possibly be wearing uniform, which basically suggests that I do, somewhere deep down, hold the belief that humans can live without war as much as we are proving to ourselves that we find it very difficult to achieve. I do often come up with the debate, even in my own head, that it comes down to the purpose of a particular social group. That’s what the leadership will do, will set the purpose and a course for a particular nation.
If that purpose or if those interests underpinning that purpose clash with someone else, then it becomes very difficult to negotiate or cooperate because then it becomes a competition. I serve in the military, whose mission is to protect Australia and Australia’s interests. I haven’t signed a dotted line to fight for Australia’s values, which is often the debate that I have about interest versus values.
We’re trying to build the world underpinned by certain values and norms, but we will leave the world and vote for leaders who will pursue interests on our behalf. If those interests don’t align, then of course we’re seeing clashes. The challenge seems to be we need a common enemy, but could that be one of these existential threats that potentially force us into cooperation?
That is fascinating, and it’s one of the things that I’m asking governments that I’m in cooperation with. We have established the United Nation system on the basis of ultimately trying to bring peace and security to the world through cooperation between governments. The 21st century challenge is how do we ensure that these global governance structures that we have assist us in collaborating to avoid the global catastrophic risks that we face now? The peace and security part of this is retained, but it’s only part of the broader issue, which is that we, as societies, the way in which we interact and pursue self-interest is at the root of the catastrophic risk that could end us all.
People often ask me, “Don’t you get depressed when you are constantly looking at the end of the world? My depression is not so much about the possibility of the end of the world. It’s actually about recognising that the root causes lie not just in those people over there, the Russians invading Ukraine. It’s bad. The Russians, Ukraine, I condemn them every moment if you ask me. It’s not just the Russians, it’s within each one of us.
What you were articulating is interesting. If we recognise that these conflicts are internal as much as they are external, if those of us who are within the Armed Forces think about what are the deep values that draw us into a life of service. How can we live that life of service with integrity? What does integrity mean?
I will spend all my days with somebody asking those questions, rather than somebody who says, “I’m a pacifist. I reject all conflict. I reject this, that, and the other. I’m going to remain pure,” because I’m not interested in people who want to be pure. What I’m interested in is people who are willing to struggle internally and externally for the values and the integrity that drives them into a life of service, whether that’s in uniform or in another form because that’s what we are all called to do.
You are hitting on so many of my own triggers because my partner and I spent a bit of time in Bosnia to establish a not-for-profit. It was a sports centre. It was the country’s first CrossFit gym. We did establish it as a not-for-profit. We did some charity work and tried to build a community. One of the things that I realised is that most people want to do good and are fundamentally good. They just need to have the bumpers in place to allow them the opportunity to exercise their goodness.
Even when they’re bad, as I would perceive them as bad, in their view, they’re doing something good for whoever it is that they’re trying to represent. I totally I agree with you when you say about, “It’s not just the Russians,” like the Russians don’t live in isolation from the rest of the world. None of us live in isolation from the rest of the world. We’re a part of the same ecosystem.
There’s an interplay and an action-reaction, and this current war didn’t start on the 24th of February, nor did it start in 2014. It started decades ago. This is a manifestation of that. That’s the point that you’re trying to make. Value is something much deeper than short-term interests. Before we get too much deep with that, I do want to ask why and how did you get interested in nuclear weapons and nuclear war in particular?
I started at the other end of the spectrum. I was very much one of those people that was a purist and a pacifist. I used to break into Air Force bases. I would organise those peace marches. I worked very closely with Jeremy Corbyn when I was in the Stop the War Coalition. I represented the Greens and organised the massive demonstrations in London at the beginning of this century against the Iraq war.
I come from that stock. I was active in the Green Party. I was possibly the most powerful Green in this country in the UK when leading Oxford City Council. I was the Green Party’s defence spokesperson. The truth of it is that I got involved because my brother, who was my hero, was at college and got involved in the campaign for nuclear disarmament.
When I heard about nuclear weapons, I felt this chill, but it was also anger. It was an anger towards these elderly White men who were holding the world to ransom. I made a decision very early on in life, even before I was a teenager, that I was going to devote myself to trying to get rid of these things. I come from that purist stock, and as a result, I have quite a lot of judgment for that purist approach. It’s very much a holier than thou clarity. It’s a black and white clarity. The world out there is complex, messy, and difficult.
Along the way, I was teaching The National School of Government, Systems Thinking and Leadership Skills to very senior civil servants at one stage in 2007, 2008. I had a bit of a Road to Damascus moment because one of these guys came up to me and said, “I love what you’re teaching. I can see why it’s important to include all the different perspectives. This idea of pluralism and the holistic treatment, seeing the context and understanding the mess. What I don’t understand is how you apply it to your own life in the Green Party?”
I looked at him, and I saw at that moment that I didn’t. I thought this was something other people had to do who were in power. I could remain pure. At that point on, I thought, what I want to do is to remain within the broader sense of the peace movement, but I want to bring this thinking, this approach that values different perspectives, understands that the world we live in is complicated, that values people with very different experiences, different understanding, different culture to my own because they’re the ones that have things to teach me.
I was a TV talk show host on an Iranian state television. I took up that position because I thought I’ve got lots to tell the Iranian people about how British thinking is and politics. I rapidly came to realise that they had more to teach me about Iranian culture, understanding, challenges, and difficulties over the years, the way in which the British legacy within Iran has created or led to the Iranian experience. How millions of Iranians are suffering under regime that is very oppressive, partly as a result of the injustices meted out to Iranians by the British in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.
We have to understand people’s history, their pain and trauma, and to actually have empathy, and sympathy for that trauma. Just as today, we have to understand the trauma that Russians have been going through for centuries, mainly at the hands of other Russians. It is a particularly brutal society, but it’s also a society that has been dealt all sorts of negative hits by other societies. If we are going to come through this conflict without nuclear weapons being used, and without a huge wound going through Europe for the next few decades, we have to put greater effort into drawing the Russians into a collaborative relationship in Europe.We have to understand people's history, their pain and trauma, and to actually have empathy, and sympathy for that trauma. Click To Tweet
I’ll pick up actually one point, because I think there’s something you said there that resonated strongly with some of the teaching that I do. That’s about trying to see the world from someone else’s perspective. When you’re talking about the Iranians and getting to understand their worldview, it’s something that is so easy for us to get and throw away. We’ve seen this in Afghanistan. We see this in Iraq. We see this in any place where certainly from a military context where we’ve deployed. We paint a very simple brush over the social group that we’re engaging without forgetting they have their own history.
That history has been forged over centuries, in some cases, through interplay interaction with other social groups. Nothing exists in isolation, and everything leaves a mark in some sense and shapes behaviour, perceptions, and how they will interact with us. I’m sure you’ve heard this a thousand times, “They should get up and revolt and change their own country.” How do you answer to those people? We hear this about Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, and Russia. How do you answer that question?
It varies depending on the situation because everybody’s culture is different, their legacies, the dramas, and the drivers. I would say several things. It’s difficult. I’ve run social movements in this country. Sometimes I’ve been successful in a Democratic election, but it’s taken years of slog and sacrifice. I hate to think what it would be like to be trying to do the same thing in a society where violence is much greater, where the state uses all sorts of oppressive techniques to keep control. It’s very easy for us in safe states to appeal to other people to overcome their challenges. The general response I see in all states is one of people getting on with their lives.
I see it in my own country here. The cost of living crisis is mushrooming. People are getting on with their lives and trying their best to survive. The more pressure there is on them, the more likely it is that they’re going to hunker down and try and make the best of it. I don’t judge people for doing that. We do need to wake up to the bigger challenges and pictures. It’s important that we recognise that all of this we’re experiencing is under significant threat from a whole variety of different places.
I don’t judge people for trying to avoid that because it’s difficult. Coming back to what I was saying, I think one can respond to those big challenges with despair or focusing on one’s own life or trying to survive. There are quite fulfilling, meaningful opportunities for people to raise their sights beyond their own lives, and find meaning and value in working for bigger causes. There is an opportunity for people in oppressive regimes to find meaning and purpose in challenging that regime. It requires a great deal of innovation, novelty, and taking risks, which I don’t think anybody has a right to judge other people for choosing not to.
It takes information and opportunities. If you’re saturated in one stream of information that tells you only that the West is evil and bad and horrible and wants to exterminate, if that’s all you’re hearing, it takes some strange bumpers in your life to push you in a different direction. We’re seeing the very impact of poor information diet in social media and the fragmentation of, particularly, Western societies that are being targeted left, right, and centre into stoke pipes. In US and UK, it’s very difficult to accuse someone and not going and finding the information or asking a question. They don’t know what they don’t know.
Let me take a big risk here. The Russians have a point. The Iranians have a point. When they talk about the way in which they have been treated as a society by the West, they have a very strong point. It’s easier for these oppressive regimes to survive, and even to some extent, thrive within their own borders because of the actions of our government. That’s not to say it’s all the West’s fault. I’m not saying that for a second. I’m saying that we are contributing to the problem there. To some extent, that’s inevitable because we’re not perfect. I equally don’t judge people in my own country for voting for Boris Johnson, even though I detest the guy.
They’ve got their reasons. Their reasons are often associated with feeling marginalised, being disempowered, and all the rest of it. People like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump seem to have a way of cutting through and talking to people’s feelings of isolation and marginalisation. Those of us who are interested in fixing this, in trying to take steps, we can’t solve these problems, but we can improve them.
If we are interested in taking steps to create governments that are more functional, and then an international system that is more functional and addressing these catastrophic risks, we have to actually work with the grain of people’s sense of marginalisation and exclusion. In other words, this global project is one of inclusion and is one of respecting diversity. It’s a multicultural, massive project of global proportions, which all of us need to exercise a certain degree of humility when we engage with people who have perspectives that are very different from ours.
I couldn’t agree more. It’s a rather inspirational note, particularly given what I’m about to ask you. We’ve already alluded to it, but the invasion of Ukraine, to what extent has the risk truly increased from your view and from your institute’s view of an actual nuclear first strike, but either NATO or Russia? Biden promised a no-first strike in their nuclear review. It could be anyone.
That’s an important point to begin with, we often point the finger of blame or risk at others, and we’re contributing to it. There’s a whole host of different technical reasons why the Biden administration has failed to follow through on the President’s promises before the election to consider. He promised a sole purpose, as in that the reason why the Americans have nuclear weapons is to protect against the use of nuclear weapons by others. He hasn’t even said that.
The Americans retain a policy, as far as we can tell, because The Nuclear Posture Review is still not public. They are retaining the right to use nuclear weapons against a state that attacks them without nuclear weapons, and that’s a real problem. Coming to the core of your question, coming up with any clarity when it comes to quantifying the risk of nuclear exchange and conflict is challenging because nuclear deterrents and nuclear weapons, it’s relatively easy to measure the number.
You can go to a state’s policy, but in the end, they are there to affect the psychology of their opponents. How do you get into the minds of the opponents? It’s challenging. The Americans have a view that the reason why they have nuclear weapons is to threaten other people so much that they won’t do what they would otherwise do.
I don’t think the Americans have a significant intent to use nuclear weapons, but they have people within their Armed Forces that are planning on the use of nuclear weapons, and they’re doing so every day. The reason for that is to have a credible threat. You can’t have a credible threat unless you’re willing to use nuclear weapons. The risk of nuclear use is inherent in the possession of nuclear weapons.The risk of nuclear use is inherent in the possession of nuclear weapons. Click To Tweet
It’s pointless having them, if the competitor or position thinks that you only use them. It’s built into the system.
The Brits try to skirt this by saying, “We’ve got nuclear weapons. They’re hidden in a submarine in the depths of the ocean, out of sight, out of mind. We don’t talk about using them,” although occasionally they do have leaders that do talk about them. That’s the exception rather than the rule. Everybody knows we’ve got them. The phrase is, “We speak softly, but we carry a big stick.” The problem with that is people doubt whether the Brits would use them in any circumstances.
The credibility of their nuclear deterrent is brought under question. You could imagine a situation where the Brits use their nuclear weapons and surprise everybody because nobody expects them to use them. The Americans have taken a very different approach and talk about nuclear weapons a lot more. There’s much more discourse about them. President Putin has been talking about them a lot.
He’s a lover of it as well, and it’s openly threatening.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that there is every intention of the Russian leadership to use nuclear weapons. It could simply be signalling. If one believes that it’s simply them posturing and not having any intention of using them, but basically using this situation to remind people that the Russians have a massive nuclear arsenal, then you’ll think that the risk of nuclear use is quite low.
If, on the other hand, you start to unpick this and say if the West carries on arming the Ukrainians to the degree that they have been and increasing as the months go by, long-range missiles, you’ve got quite a significant number of men under arms in Ukraine that match the Russians, or even outmatch them. You’ve got morale within the Ukrainian Armed Forces that is sky-high compared to the Russians.
You’ve got an Army that is defending rather than attacking. All of those point to the possibility of Ukraine, at the very least, holding the Russians back and, in the medium-term, actually pushing them out of Ukraine. What then happens? That’s the risky point. It does bring on the question the sustainability of the current Russian leadership. If they lose this war, it’s very difficult to see Putin saving face and coming up with a narrative.
This is why people talk about the need for the Russians to have what’s called an off-ramp. It’s an ability to move out of this war without completely losing face, having something to say for the war. If they don’t have that off-ramp, the leadership starts looking shaky. It’s when a leadership looks shaky that the probability of nuclear war goes up from, I don’t know, let’s say 0.1% chance to 1%, 2%, 3%, 4%. It doesn’t necessarily sound too bad, but the consequences are massive. If the probability of nuclear war starts to get to 1%, that’s scary.
I’ve had some guests discussing this, particularly in relation to the war in Ukraine, the credible risk of a collapse of the Russian state posts a Ukrainian victory or pushing out the Russian troops out of Ukraine. Russia has over 6,000 warheads in its inventory. That’s insane. Is this something you also think about as part of your scenario building, it’s securing all those warheads, it does not necessarily mean that Russia or Putin is going to push the button? How will we secure all those warheads post a potential collapse and scrambling internally, and all the various threat groups that might seek to hold even parts of a nuclear weapon to exploit for their own advantage?
We have faced this problem before. I’ve been involved in this game long enough to remember 1991, 1992, and 1993, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, we were incredibly concerned by this, the control of nuclear warheads. At that point, we were talking about tens of thousands of nuclear warheads under Soviet control. Ukraine itself, everybody knows had its own nuclear weapons or at least nuclear weapons on its own soil.
We were also concerned at the time with the number of Soviet scientists that would end up finding their way to Iran, North Korea, or other countries, and earn several times their salary in order to assist those countries with nuclear weapons programs. That could well have happened in North Korea. It didn’t happen in Iran, interestingly, but it’s a problem.
At the time, the US Congress passed a resolution called the Cooperative Threat Reduction that paid for Americans to cooperate with Russians, to pay Russian scientists to cooperate and to dismantle Soviet nuclear warheads. Take the plutonium over to the US and burn it in US reactors. A large number of warheads were reduced in that way. The Russians received quite a bit of money for that purpose.
Cooperative Threat Reduction does not have a good name within Russia now. There’s been a lot of history rewriting by Putin and his administration, basically saying that the Americans came in and used their money to defang Russia, and that Russia needs to build itself up again. It’s a strange story because most of those warheads were pretty defunct anyway. It would have cost Russia a lot of money to keep them going.
That supports a narrative though.
All of our politicians use narratives to justify things that are unjustifiable. The Russians are hardly alone here, but if the scenario comes to pass that there is a collapse of the Putin administration and some chaos within Russia, it is a significant problem. Most of these warheads are under pretty secure care at the moment. The 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons that we believe they have are all in central storage. None of these are out with the Russian military. As far as we know, there are no nuclear warheads in or around Ukraine. Though I had heard a rumour, it completely unsubstantiated. It’s a bit wild that there were some suitcase nuclear weapons within Ukraine.All of our politicians use narratives to justify things that are unjustifiable. Click To Tweet
How do you confirm that? How do you know that that’s not the case? Also, is that far-fetched? Is that an actual potential threat, a suitcase nuclear bomb?
We do know that the Soviets had suitcase nuclear weapons. They’re big suitcases. It would be difficult for one person to carry them. The rumour was that they did develop these nuclear warheads so that they could be smuggled to their targets rather than delivered. It makes sense from a nuclear deterrent mindset. Logically, it is possible that the Russians could have smuggled suitcase nuclear weapons into Ukraine, or for that matter, into London, Perth, or anywhere else. The reason why I’m sceptical is because it’s very easy and quick to be sensationalist about this. It’s important not to fall into the trap of sensationalism when frankly speaking, nuclear weapons are sensationalist enough as it is.
How do we know who’s got what and where they’re kept? How trustworthy is the information that we have? I’m referring to SIPRI from January ‘22, World Nuclear Forces graph, which has more than 13,000 in total across the nine countries that have nukes. There are deployed on subs, aircraft, or in land units that are readied for rapid deployment. They’re stored in cold storage, like you’re saying. Not somebody sitting at the nuclear headquarters somewhere, but how do you and I know this, and how trustworthy is that information?
There’s no such thing as 100% certainty. It’s important to treat the numbers with some level of scepticism. There is also a danger of groupthink. One organisation or government publishes the numbers, and then other people use them as sources. It’s like any information at this level. There are a variety of different sources that reference each other, and that’s the way intelligence operates in secret as well as these public listings.
We don’t know, but we are pretty confident. If I were to give you an example, the US deploys within NATO states a number of free-fall nuclear weapons. They’re called B61s, the most recent one, B61-12, modification. These bombs, at the time of war, will be loaded, handed over to the host country, who will then fly them towards the target and then drop them.
NATO doesn’t declare which countries host these bombs, but we know with pretty clear almost certainty that they are deployed in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Italy, and Turkey. They used to be deployed in the UK, but no longer. The way in which researchers, particularly an incredible guy working out of the Federation of American Scientists called Hans Kristensen, look at these things is through satellite imagery. Looking at the different air bases and the way in which the troops deploy, and the protocols.
How many troops are guarding particular buildings, and compares them with nuclear protocols, looking at which air bases deploy in certain exercises, particularly NATO Steadfast Noon annual nuclear exercise, how they deploy, what kinds of aircraft, whether those aircraft are nuclear-capable certified? The Americans are particularly open about these things with their US Congress, and a lot of those background information is public.
You can put all your eggs into the different evidence baskets and come to a conclusion that there are probably something in the region of 30 to 40 warheads in this particular base. They are stored in these particular hangars. There are so many American servicemen who have a history of stewardship of nuclear weapons, etc. It’s looking for needles in relatively small haystacks and finding the evidence so that you can accumulate the number of warheads in each of these different air bases and come to the conclusion that the US deploys somewhere in the region of 200 to 240 B61-12 nuclear bombs that are delivered by allied aircraft.
I’ll give you another example. Israel does not declare that it has any nuclear weapons, but everybody knows. There’s no official information to go by at all, but the reason why people feel confident in being able to estimate rough numbers of nuclear warheads is because of the core component being fissile material plutonium that the Israelis have developed over the last few decades. We can judge the quantity of materials by the operation of the nuclear power plant that produces the plutonium. We don’t know, but we have a sense that the Israelis have roughly 100 to 200 nuclear warheads.
I was going to say it also makes sense for those nations deploying warheads as well, is to also not necessarily completely try and disguise any of this or mask it. Part of the deterrent is the fact that these things are out there and that they’re ready to go. There’s a symbiotic relationship between those looking for it and those wanting to be found, notwithstanding the fact that there is a high-level security arrangement as to how they will actually be deployed, who will deploy it from where, at which point in time, or who will make the ultimate order to deploy them.
We know that we’ve been close to nuclear war a number of times over the decades. This has always been a question of mine when it comes to nuclear threats. What measures are actually in place to prevent a nuclear war occurring purely by accident? We famously know of Stanislav Petrov, who some say saved the world because he refused to pass on the information to his chain of command that allegedly what he saw on his screens was American ICBMs being launched. They should have obeyed orders and actually informed the superiors, which would have escalated the situation and potentially counter-attacked. What are the safeguards that exist that you’re aware of in preventing these accidental nuclear wars?
The first thing to say here is that nuclear weapon command control systems are extremely complex. They are different in different states, but they involve machines and human beings. Any complex system involving machines and human beings can fail. There is no fail-safe with these systems. There is always the possibility of accidental launch, miscalculation, or escalation getting out of control. Those three dimensions are possibly the most important of all when it comes to the risk of nuclear use.
States do not want to be using nuclear weapons by mistake, by accident, or by escalation unless there’s an important reason why they’re using them. They do have mechanisms to try to protect them, to ensure that there is verification of early warning missiles incoming. There are protocols. There are mechanisms whereby one person is not the person who is taking the decision, but it requires several people, and each one of those people deciding to launch needs to go through some system.
In the end, there are ways in which those systems may fail. That’s the unfortunate thing with nuclear weapons. It only takes one failure. They try to have strong systems to avoid the use, but as I say, it’s not possible. It’s also important to say that this is getting a bigger problem, rather than a problem getting better. You’d think technology and the rest would improve the situation. What we’re witnessing at the moment is the arms race moving into a much more qualitative arms race, where we have emerging disruptive technologies, such as artificial intelligence and incredible sensing capabilities, that are starting to disrupt the stability, such as it was of these commander control systems.
I’ll give you an example. The British have this system where they have a submarine out at sea at any one time stuffed with at least 40, and it could be more warheads on Trident missiles. The whole system is predicated on the idea that this submarine cannot be detected. This submarine does not communicate with headquarters. If that submarine were to be taken out at any time, the British Navy would not know it.
We have the development of drone technologies, sensing technologies, artificial intelligence, and networked autonomous systems emerging at a rapid pace, which suggests to me, if not to the British Navy, that those submarines could be detected much more easily in a few years’ time than they have been in the past.
You can imagine a scenario where the British are squaring up to some opponent, believing that they have nuclear weapons in the back pocket to deter that opponent. The opponent may be able to take that submarine out, and know that they’ve taken it out, and then square up to the breadth so that there’s overconfidence in the strategic conflict that then emerges, which makes it all the more likely that there would be some serious strategic conflict with global consequences.
I like the overconfidence piece. I interviewed Ned Dobos, who’s a Professor of Military Ethics here in Australia. He looks at this in war as often a cause for war because overconfidence and your confirmation bias will make you believe that you are stronger than you arguably are. I guess we’re seeing that very much play out in Ukraine.
It’s an interesting question because we’ve seen the oftentimes abysmal state of Russian weapon systems be their vehicles or any of their artillery pieces that we’ve seen where the tires were blown out because they haven’t been serviced. The maintenance has been rather poor. Can we trust that their nuclear arsenal has at least been kept up to scratch, and that it’s not going to decay or malfunction purely because of poor maintenance?
Trust is not a word I would use in this situation. We do know very little about the maintenance and stewardship of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. We know a lot more about the American stewardship of nuclear weapons. We know that in recent years we’ve had a number of people fired for being drunk whilst in charge of nuclear weapons, people who have cheated in exams. We’ve had nuclear weapons flown by mistake from one base to another without any authorisation. There are plenty of examples of lax behaviour within the US system, and it’s understandable.
Most military people do not like nuclear weapons. They’re boring. When you are preparing for conflict, and it’s hand-to-hand fighting, the training is exciting, and the execution has a certain drama to it. With nuclear weapons, you are sitting there doing nothing, twiddling your thumbs, filling in a lot of paperwork, and your principle task is to avoid detection. It’s like going slowly and cautiously, even being seen as a bit weird because you are not going towards the enemy. You are running away.
It’s like everything about nuclear weapons is demoralising, and the potential use of them is even worse. I’m not at all surprised that it’s difficult to keep human beings motivated when it comes to deploying nuclear weapons. In Britain, we’re finding it difficult to crew the submarines because of the young people on those submarines. There’s a lot of discipline required. It’s a lot of sitting around doing nothing.
You are one of the designers of the Stepping Stones Approach to this armament. Maybe to pivot onto some more positive and optimistic angles of this story, what does the approach offer and what underpins it?
You and I are speaking now in advance of the first meeting of state parties to The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons happening in Vienna. That’s otherwise known as the Ban Treaty. The reason why I start there is because the Ban Treaty grew out of a deep frustration amongst non-nuclear weapon states with the progress or rather a lack of progress of nuclear disarmament obligations that the nuclear weapon states, the recognised five, and that’s US, Russia, China, Britain, and France had agreed to in 2010. They agreed to a 64-point action plan.
There’s been little progress. It’s fair to say backsliding in the nuclear disarmament agenda, and a whole bunch of states went through quite a process which ended up with the United Nations General Assembly agreeing on this treaty. We now have quite a sizable number of states that have joined this. It bans nuclear weapons, but of course, it only bans nuclear weapons in those states that sign it.
What I saw in that approach was I thought, “This is understandable, but it’s not actually going to get us closer to the nuclear disarmament that we need.” We’ve created the protest, the anti-nuclear brigade, and that’s crucial. That brigade is crucial to putting pressure on and articulating the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. We also need people on the inside working with the nuclear weapon states to take the step-by-step approach to get rid of nuclear weapons because we can’t wish them away. They’re not going to go away tomorrow. We need to build a regime gradually that will get rid of nuclear weapons.
We have the vision articulated by the Ban Treaty, but I also persuaded the Swedes. This is a story worth telling. I worked with officials within the Swedish Foreign Ministry for about a year on creating this Stepping Stones Approach that articulates the vision of nuclear disarmament approaches the nuclear weapon states with ideas and proposals of how they may reduce the risk of use, start to build confidence, and trust that is necessary towards building down the nuclear arsenals, and gradually releasing their grip on nuclear deterrence postures.
As non-nuclear weapon states, we would approach the nuclear weapon states with these ideas as openings for dialogue. The idea was that we would propose X, Y, and Z, saying that X, Y, and Z we recognize probably don’t work, but if they don’t work, then tell us what will work and let’s work together to build the confidence necessary to take these first steps. As we take those first steps, relationships start to strengthen, the world changes a little bit, and perhaps steps start to emerge that we weren’t aware of before. We can start to walk along a path that is a little uncertain at this stage, which takes us to greater confidence.
In a sense, it’s a combination of radical vision guiding the process along with very pragmatic, collaborative, inclusive steps. The Swedes like this approach, but their foreign minister was unconvinced. I had a meeting planned with her in New York. I was staying in an Airbnb with a friend of mine, John. I was about to go to this meeting and I thought, “I’ll take John with me.”
We go to this meeting. We sit opposite the foreign minister with nine of her officials beside her. I start to introduce myself. I said, “I organised demonstrations, break into air bases. I believe passionately, I’ve devoted my life to nuclear disarmament, my views have not changed, but my methods have evolved. Stepping Stones Approach is what I’m trying to persuade you of. Here’s John.” John said, “Hello, Minister. I’m Rear Admiral John Gower. I was Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff in the UK, responsible for the whole nuclear weapons enterprise. I commanded nuclear weapons submarines, I believe passionately in nuclear deterrence, but I think Paul’s onto a good thing here and we are cooperating together.”
The rest of the meeting was done because we personified what it is we are trying to achieve globally, which is nuclear weapon states working with non-nuclear weapon states, working with each other, Russia and the US. Even in the middle of a war, it’s important that we work together with people whose views make our skin crawl. It’s only if we actually start to recognise and have empathy and compassion for people who have beliefs that we fundamentally disagree with that magic can happen in the world. When John and I get together, we disagree on all sorts of things, but we understand where each of us is coming from.It's only if we actually start to recognise and have empathy and compassion for people who have beliefs that we fundamentally disagree with that magic can happen in the world. Click To Tweet
We have some compassion and willingness to share our perspectives and to understand each other even whilst we disagree. That’s the model for the world that we need. It’s not about giving up one’s own ideas. It’s not even about compromise. It’s more about understanding that truth is multi-dimensional. We only have partial access to truth. Our access to truth is important, and we need to hold it, but not to grip it too hard and force it on other people.
The density of relationships is absolutely fascinating. It keeps coming up the empathy and understanding what motivates the other person and therefore, stroking those motivators to look for a common goal or purpose. It might not be tomorrow or next week, it might be 50 years from now, but I guess that’s the Stepping Stones idea.
We don’t know where we’ll end up. It’s actually opening to the idea that not knowing where we end up is actually a strength because it means that we can have humility. It means that we can open up to other people coming in and co-creating the situation rather than us driving it in a very forceful way. Once we had convinced the Swedes, they persuaded fifteen other significant countries across the world to join them in their initiative.
That Stockholm Initiative, based upon our Stepping Stones Approach, has become possibly the most hopeful dimension within the nuclear disarmament diplomatic world as we speak. It’s very difficult to tell because there are so many factors in play, including the Ukraine War. We are working towards the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in August, which has this enormous shadow of the threat of nuclear use in Ukraine hanging over it. The Stockholm Initiative, the Stepping Stones Approach, is a small beacon of hope in an otherwise very dark situation.
It’s obviously an important one. Judging by the passion that you tell it, that’s a guiding light for you. There are many other questions I could ask, but I think I want to leave it on that positive or optimistic note because it is important not to be overshadowed by the darkness of this topic. There are people like you out there who are actually trying to do something and moving it all along. It does feel for us regular everyday civilians or people who don’t live and breathe this problem, it feels so distant, and it’s easy to feel helpless about being able to do anything about it. If there is anything that we can do about it, what would it be?
It would be actually to let go of the focus on nuclear weapons, and to think about how the challenges that nuclear weapons are a symptom of flow through all of our lives. I talked a lot earlier about nuclear weapons command and control and all the rest of it, but the interesting thing is how human beings interact with each other and how they can sometimes reach for tools or techniques that damage relationships.
We all know how we can fall into conflict with our neighbours or with members of the family and over foolish stupid things. If we can instead start to value the differences of perspective that we all have, then that’s probably the best way of achieving nuclear disarmament, tackling the global catastrophic risks we face, be it climate change or anything else, and building a better society.
It happens. The first steps are inside. The first steps are coming to recognise that some of the difficulties and challenges that we face are opportunities to learn about how we can be effective members of society. The next challenge is to have compassion and empathy for those that appear to have a very different perspective, culture, understanding, worldview, and to engage with those people with openness and curiosity rather than a feeling of threat or challenge to one’s own view. Letting go a little bit of the defensiveness and opening up to the wonder that is this world that we live in.
Such a wonderful message. Particularly relevant with all the divisions, not just nuclear, but all of our culture wars, climate change, and everything else where we’re being pushed to extremes. We need to recognize that we agree on most things. We should embrace that bubble in the middle. Paul, I knew this would be a fascinating conversation. It’s been a long time coming, but it certainly surpassed my expectations. Thank you very much for all the work that you do. It’s absolutely important work that happens, fortunately, as far as the weapons are concerned, but about the work that you and your colleagues do. Thank you very much for your time and for everything you do.
I appreciate it. I’m hoping that we can work together coming in the future.
I hope so.