With Nuclear Superpowers, Humankind Can’t Play Russian Roulette

This piece was published in mid-October, 2021


The likely fate of someone who plays Russian roulette repeatedly is virtually certain, because the laws of probability dictate that – given enough repetitions – what can happen eventually will happen.

Humankind should contemplate that lesson, for unless the international system gets transformed, we will be playing a global-scale version of Russian roulette.

That’s the lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Although that crisis (in 1962) was resolved peacefully, historians recognize it might have gone quite differently. We came close to a nuclear war that could have brought human civilization – and perhaps much of life on earth — to an end.

So long as the age-old anarchy in the international order is allowed to persist, other such potentially catastrophic confrontations between nuclear superpowers will occur in the generations and centuries to come. And eventually, humankind will happen upon the “chamber” with the nuclear “bullet.”

What occasions such thoughts is the growing possibility of a new “Cold War” between China and the United States.

Historians have long noted that these are the kinds of situations – a new power rising to confront a long-established power — that are most dangerous for world peace.

The classic instance of that dangerous circumstance was the challenge to the dominant British Empire posed by up-and-coming Germany —a destabilizing situation that, in the first half of the 20th century, plunged the world into two world wars.

The present peril emerges with the United States in the role of Great Britain and China in Germany’s role.

But that very peril also can make this an opportunity, by providing a motivational impetus for humankind to take steps toward achieving an international system that will at least greatly reduce this ongoing threat to the long-term survival of human civilization.

To take steps, that is, toward an international system where law, rather than war, settles conflicts between nations.

Of course, there is nothing new either about that dream or about that dream’s being kindled by perceived danger.

  • It was in the wake of the terrible carnage of World War I that the League of Nations was born.
  • And it was the global conflagration of the Second World War that gave the impetus for the creation of the United Nations.

That neither of those fulfilled the hope for a world governed by law rather than by weapons is no reason to abandon the effort. Change comes slowly in matters that run so deep, involving structures and behaviors so long-established.

The anarchic nature of the system of interacting civilized societies has been the source of nightmares since civilization’s very beginnings. From the outset, that anarchy – an inevitable result of the inevitable fragmentation of the emerging system of interacting civilized societies — inevitably condemned civilized humankind to a chronic “war of all against all.”

While that war-generating situation has persisted, the potential destructive impact of war has risen exponentially.

Even if, in the generations and centuries to come, the China-U.S. rivalry is peacefully navigated – as was the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union – there will surely be other rounds of this kind of nuclear-superpower-Roulette.

Unless the previously-inevitable intersocietal anarchy is finally reined in.

So complacency would be folly. Whatever can be done should be done.

So what can be done?

At the very least, the search for ways of moving things in that necessary direction should be one of the dimensions of the diplomacy between the nuclear superpowers. (Even one superpower urging the other(s) in that direction could be salutary.)

(It is the nuclear superpowers that have the greatest responsibility because, while it is the less powerful who have the greatest motivation to disarm mere might, it is the most powerful who can do most to actually displace the rule of raw power with the rule of law.)

One potentially constructive way forward could be for each superpower to willingly submit some matters of current dispute involving them (the more important the matter the better) to some agreed upon “Court” or panel of arbitration. And to agree to abide by the decision.

If (for whatever reason) no present institution – like the World Court – is deemed acceptable, the superpowers could work together to design a process that creates a Court by whose decisions they would agree to be bound.

After millennia of history in which – in Thucydides’ words — “the strong do what they can, while the weak suffer what they must,” it may seem naïve to imagine that any mighty nation would agree to substitute “right” for their “might.”

But better such naïvete than the heedless blindness of stumbling toward possible Armageddon. It is blindness to imagine that just because life’s experiment with civilization has muddled through for ten millennia, mudding though will remain viable.

The growth of human powers has made it plain: muddling through is disappearing as an option.

Five hundred years from now, I’d propose, the story of our species will have culminated in one of two roughly equally possible outcomes: either humankind will have gotten its act together for the long haul, or –through either nuclear holocaust or environmental destruction – the story of the civilization-creating creature will end in catastrophe.

The only sane course for humankind is to envision where we must go, and then to take whatever steps we wisely can to get there.


Andrew Bard Schmookler is the author of The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution and of Out of Weakness: Healing the Wounds that Drive Us to War.

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