Notes on ‘Atomic Obsession’ (2009)

Lately I’ve been reading about the history of nuclear weapons so that I can extract potential lessons for the governance of powerful AI technologies. One interesting and fairly contrarian book is John Mueller’s 2009 book Atomic Obsession (h/​t Holden Karnofsky).

In short, I think Mueller is right that nuclear weapons have turned out to be less important than most people in the 1940s thought they would be, and less important than many (most?) security-related policymakers seem to think. I’d guess they’re also less important than most GCR-focused EAs seem to think (including myself 12mo ago), but that’s hard to assess. I also agree with Mueller that nuclear weapons have proliferated less than originally expected, and that’s probably as much or more due to their surprisingly low military and diplomatic utility and high cost as it is to counter-proliferation efforts. Their danger is often exaggerated, and nuclear terrorism appears quite unlikely. Cooperative security treaties may have contributed little to nuclear security, and may even have been net harmful.

That said, (1) the book doesn’t say much about the worst-case scenarios I worry most about (large-scale nuclear war and nuclear winter), (2) I continue to worry that the so-far (apparently) perfect safety and security record for nuclear weapons will eventually end, which could (but probably won’t) have global catastrophic effects, and (3) I suspect there are highly cost-effective things worth doing in nuclear security (but they might require lots of hard-won expertise to identify).

Obviously I’m not an expert on nuclear weapons history, and my impressions might evolve dramatically on some points as I continue to read more or hear from experts on the topic. If you know of evidence for or against the claims below, especially evidence not covered in Mueller’s book, I hope you’ll post it in the comments.

Below, I quote the author’s own summary (from the epilogue), with my own quick reactions added below.

Obsession with nuclear weapons, sometimes based on exaggerations of the weapons’ destructive capacity, has often led to policies that have been unwise, wasteful, and damaging

Yes, many exaggerations have definitely occurred, even at the highest levels, as Mueller documents.

Nuclear weapons have been of little historic consequence and have not been necessary to prevent World War III or a major conflict in Europe.

I think this was one of the weaker parts of the book. I think it’s unclear and hard to know how important nuclear weapons have been to reducing conflict involving nuclear-armed states (including the possibility of WWIII or “a major conflict in Europe”) via deterrence, but Mueller seems to argue for something like “pretty/​very unlikely that WWIII or major European conflict would’ve happened without nukes,” and I think that’s too confident. I think he gives too little weight to:

  1. WWII happened immediately after WWI even though everybody could see the devastation of WWI.

  2. In 1945, Stalin had just seized half of Europe, and it seems plausible a priori he’d have seized more if he’d been capable, which he plausible was at the end of WWII if the U.S. hadn’t had the bomb; his troop counts in Europe were much larger than those of all of Western Europe at that time. Mueller pretends all the evidence points to Stalin not having further expansionist ambitions, but actually the evidence is mixed, e.g. see here.

  3. After Stalin, the USSR did seriously explore the options for launching a new European war (but it’s unclear how much they were deterred by nukes vs. other factors).

And of course, a few years after Mueller’s book came out, Russia did engage in Westward invasion and expansion, and only in a state not under the nuclear umbrella (Ukraine).

Throughout the book Mueller does give some credit to the notion that nuclear weapons have deterrent power (in contrast to their low utility for conquest or compellence).

Militarily, the weapons have proved to be useless and a very substantial waste of money and of scientific and technical talent: there never seem to have been militarily compelling reasons to use them, particularly because of an inability to identify suitable targets or ones that could not be attacked about as effectively by conventional munitions

Seems true so far. I pretty confidently agree the nukes were not needed for Japanese surrender. Japan was already asking Russia to mediate surrender talks ~1mo before Hiroshima. Not sure they would’ve agreed to unconditional surrender without nukes, but conditional surrender would’ve been ~fine.

Although nuclear weapons seem to have at best a quite limited substantive impact on actual historical events, they have had a tremendous influence on our agonies and obsessions, inspiring desperate rhetoric, extravagant theorizing, wasteful expenditure, and frenetic diplomatic posturing

As mentioned elsewhere, it’s hard to tell what the deterrence effect of nukes has been, and I think the deterrence effects might be substantially bigger than Mueller thinks, but it’s also plausible Mueller’s right. Certainly the threat has been exaggerated via “desperate rhetoric” and resulting in “wasteful expenditure” and so on — as is also true with e.g. terrorism.

Wars are not caused by weapons or arms races, and the quest to control nuclear weapons has mostly been an exercise in irrelevance

The first clause seems mostly true at least as far back as WWI; I’m less familiar with wars before that. One exception is the 2003 Iraq war, which Mueller seems to agree (ch. 10) was about preventing Iraq from getting nuclear weapons (certainly that was the public reason).

The 2nd clause might be true, though even Mueller praises some nuclear control measures such as Nunn-Lugar. My guess is that Mueller is underweighting the impact of nuclear control/​counter-proliferation measures, but not by a ton. I’d guess he’s closer to right than people involved in implementing those measures tend to be.

The atomic bombs were probably not necessary to induce the surrender of the Japanese in World War II

True, as mentioned above.

Those who stole American atomic secrets and gave them to the Soviet Union did not significantly speed up the Soviet program; however, obsession about that espionage did detrimentally affect American foreign and domestic policy, something that led to a very substantial inflation in the estimation of the dangers that external and internal enemies presented

Mueller admits that Soviet spying may have sped up the Soviet program by “a year or two,” and “18mo or more” is the most common scholarly estimate I’ve seen (for the speed-up from Klaus Fuchs passing along basic facts about the plutonium path, which is the one the Soviets pursued). In the context of a 4-year U.S. nuclear monopoly, a ~2yr speed up for the Soviet program is pretty significant! Mueller seems right that if the Soviets had instead pursued the uranium path (which AFAIK they would’ve done if not for learning about the plutonium path via spying), they might’ve gotten there just as quickly, but that’s unclear.

As for the effects of obsession about espionage, that’s definitely true w.r.t. the 1946 revelation of Soviet spies in the Manhattan Project, which dramatically affected domestic legislation w.r.t. control of atomic energy, and maybe affected attempts at international control also. Mueller talks more about the 1950 arrests (in particular the Rosenbergs), which may also have affected policy but I haven’t read as much about that yet so I’m not sure.

Changes in anxieties about nuclear destruction have not correlated at all well with changes in the sizes or the destructive capacities of nuclear arsenals

True AFAICT, though Mueller admits that “Nuclear fears have been determined far more by the levels of political tension,” which seems reasonable if people aren’t scope sensitive after “millions killed quickly,” which was feasible every year after ~1949 (but fluctuated in probability based largely though not entirely on fluctuating degrees of political tension). On the other hand, I’m not that sympathetic to scope-insensitive views. :)

Arms reduction will proceed most expeditiously if each side feels free to reverse any reduction it later comes to regret; formal disarmament agreements are likely simply to slow and confuse the process

This claim is interesting and I don’t know whether it’s true. This and several other contrarian takes in the book about the actual effects of well-intended policy are worth thinking about in the context of what might be done w.r.t. international control of AI (e.g. ML ASICs).

The economic and organizational costs of fabricating a nuclear arsenal can be monumental, and a failure to appreciate this has led to considerable overestimations of a country’s ability to do so

Probably true. I was surprised by how many quotes Mueller had of people saying it’s trivial to build a nuke, given that we already know it sometimes takes entire nation-states decades to succeed even when devoting substantial resources to the challenge (e.g. Pakistan).

The proliferation of nuclear weapons has been far slower than routinely predicted because, insofar as most leaders of most countries (even rogue ones) have considered acquiring the weapons, they have come to appreciate several defects: the weapons are dangerous, distasteful, costly, and likely to rile the neighbors

The proliferation of nuclear weapons has definitely been slower than routinely predicted before 1945 and thereafter. Of course the causes are harder to assess.

The nuclear diffusion that has transpired has proved to have had remarkably limited, perhaps even imperceptible, consequences

Mostly depends on your view about their effectiveness in deterrence.

Nuclear proliferation is not particularly desirable, but it is also unlikely to accelerate or prove to be a major danger

Certainly that is the trend so far.

Strenuous efforts to keep “rogue states” from obtaining nuclear weapons have been substantially counterproductive and have been a cause of far more deaths than have been inflicted by all nuclear detonations in history

It’s not his paradigmatic example, but the example of Taiwan is interesting. In the late 70s, the U.S. pressured Taiwan to abandon any activities relevant to developing nukes, but I do wonder if the world would be better off if Taiwan had nukes, as a deterrent against mainland China. And in the late 70s, China’s struggles were such that it might not have been able to stop Taiwan itself.

The part about “far more deaths…” is of course true.

The weapons have not proved to be crucial status symbols

Well except for Russia (a pretty important case!) and North Korea (both cases Mueller admits), and Libya’s program (which didn’t get far but Mueller admits was largely about ego/​status).

Not only have nuclear weapons failed to be of much value in military conflicts, they also do not seem to have helped a nuclear country to swing its weight or “dominate” an area

Hard to say for sure, but AFAICT this is probably true.

Given the low value of the weapons and their high costs, any successes in the antiprolifertion effort have been modest and might well have happened anyway

Strenuous efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation can act as a spur to the process, enhancing the appeal of — or desperate desire for — nuclear weapons for at least a few regimes, an effect that is often ignored

The pathetic North Korean regime mostly seems to be engaged in a process of extracting aid and recognition from outside, and a viable policy toward it might be to reduce the threat level and to wait while continuing to be extorted rather than to enhance the already intense misery of the North Korean people

If Iran actually does develop something of an atomic arsenal, it will likely find, following the experience of all other states so armed, that the bombs are essentially useless and a very considerable waste of money and effort

Although there is nothing wrong with making nonproliferation a high priority, it should be topped with a somewhat higher one: avoiding policies that can lead to the deaths of tens or hundreds of thousands of people under the obsessive sway of worst-case scenario fantasies

It is likely that no “loose nukes” — nuclear weapons missing from their proper storage locations and available for purchase in some way — exist

I haven’t found evidence against this claim, but didn’t look that hard.

It is likely there is no such thing as a true black market in nuclear materials

Less sure about this one. From 1993-2018 there have been 12 state-reported cases of theft or loss of highly enriched uranium, but the combined amount is much too small even to build a bomb with 1/​10th the yield of Hiroshima. CFR claims that “Russian authorities say that in the past three years alone they have broken up hundreds of nuclear-material smuggling deals,” but they don’t list a source and I haven’t looked harder.

The evidence of any desire on al-Qaeda’s part to go atomic and of any progress in accomplishing this exceedingly difficult task is remarkably skimpy, if not completely negligible, while the scariest stuff—a decade’s worth of loose-nuke rumor and chatter and hype—seems to have no substance whatever

Because of a host of organizational and technical hurdles, the likelihood that terrorists will be able to build or acquire an atomic bomb or device is vanishingly small

Seems true AFAICT, at least for “atomic bomb.”

Despite the substantial array of threats regularly issued by al-Qaeda (the only terrorist group that may see attacks on the United States as desirable), and despite the even more substantial anguish these threats have inspired in their enemies, the terrorist group’s capacity seems to be quite limited

One reason for al-Qaeda’s remarkably low activity in the last years is that 9/​11 proved to be substantially counterproductive from alQaeda’s standpoint; indeed, with 9/​11 and subsequent activity, the terrorist group seems mainly to have succeeded in uniting the world, including its huge Muslim portion, against its violent global jihad

Any threat presented by al-Qaeda is likely to fade away in time, unless, of course, the United States overreacts and does something to enhance their numbers, prestige, and determination—something that is, needless to say, entirely possible