We’ve had an extraordinary run of luck with nuclear weapons not being used in anger since Nagasaki. But these good times probably won’t last as the demon Moloch demands radioactive sacrifice.
After the “evil empire” collapsed, the United States took advantage of Russian weakness to expand NATO. Putin, who called the breakup of the Soviet Union “a major geopolitical disaster of the century”, is restoring Russian power, hoping, no doubt, to earn the title “Vladimir the Great” from future historians.
I think Putin intends to break up NATO by eating a bit of it. Imagine that this ex-KGB agent decides to steal a small piece of Estonia, using alleged mistreatment of ethnic Russians in the country as pretext. Since Estonia is part of NATO, by treaty the United States should treat any attack on Estonia as it would a taking of, say, Chicago. But would Obama really fight for Estonia, a nation few American voters have ever heard of? Sure, Obama would condemn an attack on a NATO ally and impose additional sanctions on Russia, but I doubt he would risk direct conflict with a nuclear superpower.
If, however, the United States did use conventional might to protect Estonia, Americans’ high tech military would probably beat back Soviet conventional forces. But, I predict, Putin would respond to a conventional victory by using small, battlefield nuclear weapons to protect his gains as the alternative would be to suffer a humiliating defeat that could drive the dictator from power. Of course, knowing that Putin likely wouldn’t accept a conventional defeat would make the United States less willing to challenge a Russian invasion, and taking this into account makes Putin more likely to invade.
If, however, the United States did let Putin keep part of a NATO country, faith in the U.S. nuclear shield would collapse, causing Germany and Japan to seek atomic weapons of their own. Germany would easily succeed, but China would probably try to block Japan from building nuclear weapons. I can envision China threatening a preemptive nuclear attack on Japan if Japan dares go nuclear since getting atomics would make Japan militarily superior to China, but if Japan’s nuclear ambitions are thwarted, China becomes Asia’s military supremo. Of course, taking this all into account, Japan probably has plans to quickly and quietly go nuclear. But China, foreseeing this, might have spies looking for signs of Japan acquiring nuclear weapons and a plan to quickly attack before Japan could succeed. A recent poll showed that most Chinese think their country will eventually go to war with Japan.
So what does this have to do with the demon Moloch?
Moloch was supposedly an ancient god who demanded child sacrifices, but more recently rationality über-blogger Scott Alexander has labeled Moloch as the forces which compel people to do things that are individually in our self-interest but collectively make us worse off. Imagine Moloch approaches two warring tribes saying to each “if you sacrifice ten healthy, loved children of the nobility I will give your warriors +3 killing power and deduct this amount from your enemy’s stats.” Even if you know that if both sides take the demon’s deal none get an advantage, the logic of rational conflict compels each to accept.
Moloch normally succeeds in getting everyone to use their best weapons. The United States and Soviet Union managed to ward off Moloch through a balance of terror in which both countries knew that a nuclear war would kill the leaders of both nations. But the end of a world dominated by only two super-powers probably means a lot more countries are going to get atomic weapons, giving Moloch more room to play. And a weakened Russia facing a demographic collapse has little going for it but buried natural resources and nuclear weapons. A world in which using nuclear weapons is unthinkable is one that cuts Russian power in half.
Putin’s incentives now align with Moloch’s.
James D. Miller is an associate professor of economics at Smith College and the author of Singularity Rising. He has a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago and a J.D. from Stanford Law School. He is currently researching how the Fermi Paradox should influence our long-term survival strategies.