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America’s nuclear-weapons policy is worse than you think, says Nukemap creator Alex Wellerstein. He argues that the Cold War-era arms we once feared were never really dismantled—they’ve just been adapted to the new geopolitical situation instead.

Wellerstein joined Quartz members for a conference call on Aug. 20 to discuss his recent article on the state of US nuclear policy. You can watch the full video above, or for the highlights, keep reading.

So… what’s the issue?

Nuclear-weapons technology is changing quickly and threatening to plunge the world back into an uncontrolled arms race—one that never really stopped. 

Since the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons have cycled in and out of the public’s psyche: One minute they’re top of mind—see: Russia’s recent nuke explosion—and the next they’re usurped by other news items. But just because we’re not talking about the problem doesn’t mean it’s gone away.

We are using almost the same bombs and missiles as were used during the Soviet era, but their accuracy has greatly improved; militaries can now pinpoint their targets with scalpel-like precision instead of using a sledgehammer. These developments in the US are pushing China and Russia to build counter-measures: “Some of these same arms-race dynamics are still going on,” Wellerstein says. 

Give me the key concepts 

It all comes down to deterrence. If you ask a country why they have nuclear weapons, the answer is almost always deterrence, Wellerstein says. In this sense, deterrence is a psychological tactic, not a military one. It relies not on the strength of your weapon—smaller players like China and North Korea wield more might through their threats than their pure annihilation potential—but instead on how your opponent might perceive the bluff. But how do you defend against defense?

Bears vs. house cats. That’s one way to think about the game being played between the US and North Korea or China. Hear us out: Say a bear were to attack a house cat. The bear has more power, but the house cat runs them off every time. Even if the bear caught the house cat, it wouldn’t be worth the small amount of meat or a scratched eye. (“It’s not a giant delicious thing—it’s a furry thing of claws,” Wellerstein points out.) Though the US has thousands of nuclear weapons and China has only a few hundred, the US won’t bother dealing the first blow to the house cat, as it’s just not worth the effort. The cost—China wiping out a chunk of the West Coast, which it could—would be much greater than the spoils of war (bragging rights). 

Arms-race dynamics cause rash decisions. When one country builds a weapon, the other country responds, sometimes in quick and dangerous ways. When technological advancements mean that a country now has 10 seconds instead of two days to respond to a risk, all of the ramifications of retaliation are not going to be thought through. In order to stop this cycle of panic and pressure, countries could consider getting rid of some of their weapons, says Wellerstein, instead of building more. 

What was the best quote?

“These things blow up. Even SpaceX’s rockets blow up! … Rocket science is still rocket science.”
—Alex Wellerstein on why we still have missile accidents

What can I do about nuclear war? 

Call your representatives. Asking local representatives what they think of the nuclear weapons issue is important, Wellerstein says. Politicians often don’t take time to discuss the issue because they don’t have a constituency for it. This pushes thought leadership into niche groups of nuclear experts who are excited by this new phase of nuclear war, anticipating new funding for experiments that are not always good for the world. 

Let’s live in a “realistic middle,” as Wellerstein puts it. We can’t be worried about nuclear weapons all the time, but we should also be pragmatic about the fact that they’re not going away. What we can strive for is something more stable that lowers the chance of people making bad decisions or something going wrong. 

How can I learn more?

Read about the US’s latest missile launch. The relationships between nuclear powers is constantly changing—and the US might have just shifted its relationship with Russia for the worse.

Watch this explainer about modern nuclear weapons. This helps us explain the weapons we’re actually confronting when we talk about nuclear war.

Listen to this podcast to understand how we got here. Joe Cirincione, author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons, helps us understand the current state of nuclear weaponry by looking at its past. 

When’s the next conference call? 

I’ll do you one better: The entire conference call calendar can be accessed here.