Early View Article - Nuclear war as a predictable surprise

Nuclear war as a predictable surprise

Like asteroids, hundred-year floods and pandemic disease, thermonuclear war is a low-frequency, high-impact threat. In the long run, catastrophe is inevitable if nothing is done − yet each successive government and generation may fail to address it. Drawing on risk perception research, this paper argues that psychological biases cause the threat of nuclear war to receive less attention than it deserves. Nuclear deterrence is, moreover, a ‘front-loaded good’: its benefits accrue disproportionately to proximate generations, whereas much of the expected cost will be borne in the distant future. Recent surveys indicate that the US and Russian publics assign a surprisingly high likelihood to nuclear war. Nevertheless, earlier research suggests that it is probably not believed to be just around the corner. This, along with the absence of easy solutions, encourages governments and publics to give priority to more pressing concerns. The danger is that the pattern will continue clear up to the point that nuclear war arrives.

Policy Implications

  • Nuclear deterrence cannot be sustained indefinitely. Rather than focusing on its low probability of nuclear war in the short run, analysts, policy-makers and activists should emphasise its long-term inevitability.
  • Much of the expected cost of nuclear weapons is externalised to future generations, while present-day possessors capture the lion's share of their benefits. Disarmament proponents must reckon with this fact.
  • Since as things stand we are on track for nuclear war, governments should explore forms of deterrence that would limit the risk and extent of nuclear winter.
  • Proposals for international reform should emphasise strategies for achieving peace enduring enough for political or technological change to occur that mitigates the threat of nuclear weapons. International relations research should prioritise the study of stable peace, and governments should prioritise its funding.
  • Scholars and activists should recognise that nuclear weapons and climate change involve many of the same problems. They have much to learn from one another.


Photo by Kevin Burnell