In Stanley Kubrick’s comedic masterpiece “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” a series of unfortunate events has the world hurtling toward all-out nuclear war. Desperate to prevent this, the US president has the Russian ambassador brought to the White House’s top secret “War Room” for emergency consultations.
“Am I to understand that the Russian ambassador is to be admitted entrance to the War Room?” asks General Buck Turgidson, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a legendary scenery-chewing performance by George C. Scott.
“Are you aware of what a serious breach of security that would be? I mean, he’ll see everything!” The general starts gathering briefing books from the conference table to hide them from Russian eyes and then points in alarm to the giant wall map of nuclear force deployments and cries: “He’ll see the Big Board!”
And the president responds, “That is precisely the idea, general. That is precisely the idea.”
It’s a cinematic exchange from nearly 60 years ago that speaks to a modern dilemma. We want to abolish nuclear weapons — that, at least, is the stated policy of the United States, sworn to in treaties, reiterated in presidential pronouncements. But if nations eventually are persuaded to start zeroing out their arsenals, how can one nation confirm to its satisfaction that the others aren’t cheating?
In other words, who gets admittance to the equivalent of the “Strangelove” War Room? Who’s allowed to see the briefing books there, and the Big Board?
The bad news is: We don’t have an obvious answer — yet. There is no system of monitoring and confirming full nuclear disarmament that nations would be likely to accept for themselves and trust without reservation when applied to others. So, as has been the case for years, we remain in imminent grave danger. I’m not sure what’s worse: that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has never before set the hands of its iconic Doomsday Clock this close to “midnight” — or that if you act now, the Bulletin will sell you a coffee table book marking 75 years of the Doomsday Clock.
Thousands of nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert, poised to end the world after a panicky 30-minute briefing in Washington or Moscow. That has been the case for decades, prompting former defense secretary Robert McNamara, among others, to note along the way that we have so far avoided planet-annihilating nuclear war basically thanks to “luck.” With the current Ukraine crisis ratcheting up nuclear tensions, we once again find ourselves with fingers crossed, hoping for continued good luck.
It calls to mind a formulation by the late biologist E.O. Wilson: We are a species endowed with Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions — and God-like technology.
The good news is: That God-like technology — the technology itself, but even more so, the way this technology is remodeling societal norms around the globe — may help get us out of this predicament.
Consider again General Buck Turgidson and the Big Board. The general is understandably concerned about his nation’s privacy.
Ordinary people worry about privacy, too. But in recent years, citizens the world over have ceded huge territory on that front. Sometimes we’ve done so for a perceived greater good, as when we obediently march through X-ray machines at the airport or produce COVID-19 vaccine cards on demand. Other times we’ve surrendered privacy simply from laziness or in return for a slightly more convenient personal shopping experience.
Whatever the reason, the ongoing loss of privacy seems to be accelerating as fast as technology itself. Once, cameras monitoring road speed limits, or strapped to the bodies of police officers, would have seemed an outrageous infringement; ditto the idea of websites tracking your reading and spending. Now, persistent grumbling aside, society shrugs at all of this and even seems fine with overt listening devices such as Alexa and Siri stationed prominently in the home.
One more small example of this broad tendency: I work as an ER doctor, and my colleagues and I recently lost the privacy of our medical notes. As part of the CURES Act, patients can now access their records to see everything we physicians have written there. This used to be a space where doctors might communicate concerns or ideas about a patient — for example, we might document a suspicion of domestic violence or substance abuse in a teenager, and ask our colleagues to be vigilant. Now those notes can be thrown wide open to patients and parents.
Ultimately, access to one’s own medical record is probably a net plus. But in the short term it creates headaches, and it takes some getting used to — similar to what police officers no doubt find necessary in adjusting to body cameras. Meanwhile, there is even talk of having emergency medical care, like police encounters, video-recorded. What seems like it would be an outrageous invasion of privacy today perhaps will be a new norm tomorrow.
Nowhere is privacy more valued than in the top-secret world of nuclear weapons. Work on nuclear disarmament is a give and take of reluctantly shared secrets. Each side needs to know that the other is not cheating. But for now at least, each also seeks to hold back as much technical detail as possible — to prevent rival nuclear-armed nations from gaining an advantage and to keep non-nuclear-armed entities from learning something that might help them build a weapon.
This subtle task — to share as little as possible while still building trust — has been labored over for more than 35 years in arms control work between Moscow and Washington in particular. In that time, world arsenals have been brought down from a Cold War height of nearly 70,000 nuclear weapons to about 13,000 today. Impressive progress — but that’s still about 12,900 more weapons than it would take to cause abrupt global cooling that would crash world agricultural output, starve hundreds of millions, and end civilization as we know it.
Historically, nuclear disarmament has been confirmed through multiple layers of information — from industrial reports to satellite photos to on-site inspections. These small data points, when assembled, form a clear picture, as Matthew Bunn, a nuclear policy expert at Harvard’s Belfer Center, told me. As a result, if a nation reports it has dismantled, say, 200 nuclear missiles whose existence had long been documented, that is pretty easy to confirm.
It’s harder to prove that a nation is telling the truth if it reports it has gotten rid of all weapons. “How do I know there aren’t 200 [secret weapons] in a mountain somewhere?” he says.
Even so, today a nation that tried to cheat on its disarmament obligations would have to worry not just about, say, a team of multinational inspectors but also about its own citizens — any one of whom, in the spirit of our activist times, might post indignant video of government wrongdoing to the Internet. Bunn notes that nuclear secrecy — just like police privacy, physician privacy, and online privacy — is less than guaranteed in “the new era of social media, when everyone has an accurate video camera in their pocket.”
Technology is also making it easier than ever to peer down from the heavens. Scott Ritter served as a Marine intelligence officer in what was then the Soviet Union, helping implement arms control agreements, and later was a prominent UN weapons inspector in the run-up to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. He remembers when satellite imagery was so hush-hush that he wasn’t even allowed to say the word “satellite.”
“Today everybody knows we have this,” he says. “You can see high-resolution satellite imagery on TV.” (The US government still isn’t sharing its best satellite imagery).
In Ritter’s book “Scorpion King: America’s Suicidal Embrace of Nuclear Weapons From FDR to Trump,” he wrestles with the question of what would be required for total global nuclear disarmament. There’d need to be a multilateral UN treaty, with all parties compelled to submit to the same high level of verification scrutiny; multinational inspection teams; and the dismantling not just of nuclear warheads but also of delivery devices such as intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Of course, just because you and I have learned to stop worrying and love our loss of personal privacy doesn’t mean the nuclear weapons bureaucracies would ever do the same. After all, national security agencies and ordinary people are often not on the same page.
Alicia Sandres-Zakre is the policy and research coordinator for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, or ICAN, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017. She cites an ICAN report about European NATO nations in which polls show that strong majorities favor total global nuclear disarmament. Yet those same nations officially oppose joining the recently adopted UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. “So there’s more work to be done to get many of these democratic governments to adhere to the will of their people,” she said in a Zoom interview from Geneva, Switzerland.
Meanwhile, the unglamorous work of disarmament verification soldiers on. A little-known initiative called IPNDV — pronounced by those in the know as “IP-and-DIV” — gathers experts from 25 nations, with and without nuclear weapons, to brainstorm how we might in the future verify nuclear disarmament activities without getting more up close and personal than nations today would find comfortable. For the past several years, the technical teams of the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification have been pondering riddles like how to prove that a sealed box contains a nuclear warhead without opening the box and without accidentally detonating the weapon.
I applaud the IPNDV but also hope that their work is fast made much easier by the march of social change. Every nuclear weapons disarmament expert I have spoken with has confirmed that verifying against cheating is entirely doable as a technical project; the only barriers are political. Total global nuclear disarmament could be achieved quickly — in return for nations radically surrendering privacy in a historically unprecedented way. And yet we live in an era when ordinary citizens do this every day in return for a lot less than preventing a threat to the survival of the human species.
Across entire societies from Asia to the Americas, ordinary people again and again have given up privacy in return for some new private or public good. If they are asked to give up national privacy, and to allow, say, a multinational team of weapons inspectors to wander around at will, in return for keeping us all safe from hidden nuclear weapons, that could someday become just one more new norm to shrug about and accept.
Dr. Matt Bivens, an emergency medicine physician, writes at mattbivens.substack.com. He is the immediate past chair of Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility. Follow him on Twitter @matt_bivens.