MAD — Mutually Assured Destruction — might be the most ironic policy acronym ever. The theory behind it seems reasonable: if everybody knows that nuclear war will end in total destruction no matter who starts it, then nobody will start it.
The theory holds if both sides have sufficient fire power and neither has a foolproof defense or survival strategy. President Reagan tried to one-up the latter with his Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative, but it didn’t last. President Putin has made similar claims recently, but nobody seems to be taking him seriously. Thus MAD lives on. But if it’s so airtight, then why aren’t we relieved? Why do we still feel the “assured destruction” shadow?
Well for one thing, MAD can’t deter everybody. It only takes one nutcase with access to the button, and there’s always been one of those somewhere, either in charge of a nation that has the bomb or a religion, revolution, or other powerful institution that might get its hands on it.
“What we can say is that, as of this morning, those with the power to exterminate life have not done so. But this is not altogether comforting, and history is no more reassuring.”
The Deterrence Myth Aeon Magazine (Jan. 9, 2018) (Except where otherwise noted, the following quotes are also from this source.)
For another thing, “it is not legitimate to argue that nuclear weapons have deterred any sort of war, or that they will do so in the future” — even when there is an imbalance of power:
“Even when possessed by just one side, nuclear weapons have not deterred other forms of war. The Chinese, Cuban, Iranian and Nicaraguan revolutions all took place even though a nuclear-armed US backed the overthrown governments. Similarly, the US lost the Vietnam War, just as the Soviet Union lost in Afghanistan, despite both countries not only possessing nuclear weapons, but also more and better conventional arms than their adversaries. Nor did nuclear weapons aid Russia in its unsuccessful war against Chechen rebels in 1994-96, or in 1999-2000, when Russia’s conventional weapons devastated the suffering Chechen Republic. Nuclear weapons did not help the US achieve its goals in Iraq or Afghanistan, which have become expensive catastrophic failures for the country with the world’s most advanced nuclear weapons. Moreover, despite its nuclear arsenal, the US remains fearful of domestic terrorist attacks, which are more likely to be made with nuclear weapons than be deterred by them.”
Plus, however rational MAD may be in theory, it ignores the impetuous aspects of human nature:
“Deterrence theory assumes optimal rationality on the part of decision-makers. It presumes that those with their fingers on the nuclear triggers are rational actors who will also remain calm and cognitively unimpaired under extremely stressful conditions. It also presumes that leaders will always retain control over their forces and that, moreover, they will always retain control over their emotions as well, making decisions based solely on a cool calculation of strategic costs and benefits.
“Deterrence theory maintains, in short, that each side will scare the pants off the other with the prospect of the most hideous, unimaginable consequences, and will then conduct itself with the utmost deliberate and precise rationality. Virtually everything known about human psychology suggests that this is absurd.
“It requires no arcane wisdom to know that people often act out of misperceptions, anger, despair, insanity, stubbornness, revenge, pride and/or dogmatic conviction. Moreover, in certain situations – as when either side is convinced that war is inevitable, or when the pressures to avoid losing face are especially intense – an irrational act, including a lethal one, can appear appropriate, even unavoidable.”
Further, deterrence requires readiness — another rational-sounding ideal, but where to draw the line between self-defense and aggression is anybody’s guess.
“The military knows its purpose, and that purpose does not end with awareness and deterrence. The commander of Air Force Space Command is clear about the mandate. ‘Our job is to prepare for conflict. We hope this preparation will deter potential adversaries…, but our job is to be ready when and if that day comes.’”
Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang
That said, MAD’s fatal flaw might be that it promotes militarism as a shared cultural belief, which feeds the beast known as the “military-industrial complex” — a term usually associated with dissent, which belies its origins. More on that next time.
 The author of The Deterrence Myth is David P. Barash, who has written about demilitarization as a preferable strategy. See Strength Through Peace: How Demilitarization Led to Peace and Happiness in Costa Rica, and What the Rest of the World can Learn From a Tiny, Tropical Nation. See also Through a Glass Brightly: Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are.