Monday, November 12, 2007 19 Comments

Nuclear neocolonialism: a formalist design for nuclear law

Formalism is the idea that conflicts can be eliminated by specifying their results in advance. The idea is that people seem to fight a lot less when both sides know what the outcome will be. As long as the obvious answer and the right answer to this question are both obviously the same, no one has any temptation to test the system, and therefore it is stable.

For example, you are in a state of precise internal formalism if, whenever anyone fights the law, the law always wins. Precise internal formalism is always desirable. It is the same thing sometimes known informally as "rule of law."

However, nuclear weapons are generally considered overkill in domestic situations. (BTW, what's up with Sarkozy? Wasn't he supposed to be doing something with some sort of German power-washing machine? Wiping the scum off the streets, like Travis Bickle? It's always pretty embarrassing for France when the Italians start to get ahead of her.)

Anyway, in this piece we are considering precise external formalism. This of course matches the old-school entity once known as the law of nations. Note also that the connection between Vattel and our present-day concept of international law is, um, quite attenuated.

However, we are considering neither the old law nor the new law. Frankly, we are not sure either can be described as an absolute and total success. And there is no reason why either should apply particularly well to the nuclear era. So it seems sensible to start from scratch.

The goal is a simple and stable system of rules in which neohominids are very unlikely to find themselves getting fried in their own homes and apartments. Even in a world where H-bombs of hellacious destructive power are getting easier and easier to make. (Frankly, it was pretty stupid to think that this technology, awesomely cool yea though it be, could remain a secret for the next umpteen gazillion years.)

For precise external formalism, our design goal is not to prevent nuclear war, but simply to predict its result. Will Nepal be able to annihilate Bangladesh, roasting Dhaka to a fine crisp, without any harmful result besides a dose of the West's usual heart-drippings? Or will vast burning clouds rise like new peaks in the Hindu Kush? (Frankly, you can't get too War Nerd with this stuff - no sane person can take it seriously.)

Under nuclear formalism, the goal of inspection is not to prevent, just to inspect. Nations manage their relationships according to their nuclear capabilities. This is basically how it works now, anyway. You just get it smeared with ponds of gooey self-righteousness.

So let's say West Bumfuck declares that it has a nuclear program.

Fine. We know all about you West Bumfuckers. Frankly, we're surprised you can stand on a box to snag a banana. And what can we say about your mothers? What can't we.

But you say you have a bomb. Okay. We are going to hire us some inspectors. (You will be paying for this inspection. Every cent is billed to you, O taxpayers of West Bumfuck. Our guys fly first class, and they expect good food. If you have any good food in West Bumfuck.)

Our inspectors will expect you to disclose the complete state of your nuclear program, which except for technical secrets they will forward to the public. Their goal is not to dissuade you from building bombs. It is just to understand your capabilities.

How many bombs do you have? What are your delivery mechanisms? Do they actually work? Etc, etc, etc.

The inspectors will certainly demand all kinds of testing. They will probably take your word for it that the warhead and missile actually work correctly in a single strike. You won't have to pick out a Polynesian atoll and nuke it from halfway around the planet.

But inspectors will want to see testing of both designs in a way that demonstrates that assembly is at least feasible. They will want to look at your entire production chain. And they will especially want to see where you got your gear from, if you didn't reinvent it yourself.

The idea is to eliminate uncertainty in nuclear conflicts, which is the most plausible cause of an actual outbreak of actual nuclear war. Gun nuts say that you shouldn't point a gun at someone unless you're ready to use it. They are trying to protect others from their own stupidity, but they are also trying to protect themselves: the less plausible it is to criminals that their victims won't shoot if they lunge, the less likely they are to test the proposition.

To make comparison easier, an inspection authority - which can be a private business - can define formal, standard levels of nuclear capability, which entrants to the nuclear game may try to achieve. Standardized capability levels let nuclear strategists think in simple categories about nuclear game theory. Since in a democracy, every citizen gets to be a nuclear strategist, simplicity counts.

Under precise external formalism, any formal system of rules for disputes between sovereign organizations (or sovorgs) with nuclear arms (note that the same model of inspection may, of course, be extended to conventional weapons) must take into account the relative military power of the sovorgs.

(Today's nation-states are of course sovorgs. At least, all are nominally sovereign. But there is no reason why relatively informal terrorist, mafia or guerrilla organizations cannot play the nucular inspection gameshow, although it is difficult to see how they can compete unless they at least control some substantial contiguous component of territory.)

The whole point of formalism is that formal law should match informal power. It is all very good to say what the law should be, but no law can enforce itself. Whether or not it is officially announced and precisely described, whatever gets enforced is the law, and whatever doesn't is just a bunch of bullshit.

It is pretty lame to have one system of law which is official, and another which is actually enforced. However, it does seem to happen a lot. Sometimes there are even reasons for it.

Speed limits in the US are a good example. There is a reason that speed limit enforcement in the US is discretionary. It allows cops to use their discretion. When this discretion is abused rather than used, as in the notorious Port Orford speed trap, we feel violated, as if we'd been ass-raped with a flashlight. (And we decline to eat in Port Orford ever again.)

But whether we like it or not, there is a use for discretion in domestic law enforcement. This is not true, however, in the law of nations. At least not under precise external formalism.

Precision is essential when designing rules which bind competing sovorgs. Your territorial waters may end at 200 miles, or 173 miles, or 389.2 miles, from your coastline. They have no good reason to end at "a couple hundred miles" or "farther than the eye can see" or "a safe and prudent distance."

When rules are imprecise, they may be interpreted differently by different sides in a conflict. This can confuse these sides into believing that they are acting in self-defense. Unless you are so stupid that you abjure self-defence, a condition in which there is simply no hope for you, you have to act. In most recent wars, both sides have held this perception.

In nuclear deterrence, imprecision is especially expensive. It can result in a nuclear exchange.

It is impossible and counterproductive to expect nuclear weapons to not be used for conventional deterrence. NATO itself used nuclear weapons for conventional deterrence. It is really difficult to castigate the West Bumfuckers as some kind of huge moral sinners - let's say they're Nazi racist cannibals who eat Jews for lunch, using their slaves as tables - for adopting the same nuclear strategy as NATO.

But if you use nuclear weapons for conventional deterrence, you have to have some kind of red line beyond which no attacker may go. While this line may be determined by an independent system of formal resolution rather than by you yourself, if it is not actually red, there is no point at all in having it. And if the line is defined imprecisely, an attacker may interpret as aggression what you interpret as self-defense. Thus both sides are acting in self-defense, the normal mental attitude in any state of war.

This is one essential engineering principle of nuclear law. The other principle has already been mentioned above: formal power and informal power should match. In other words, there should be no informal incentive to break the formal rules.

This is why we need formal nuclear performance inspections. With nuclear performance inspections, we can understand the informal game structure of any conflict between sovorgs. This allows us to devise formal rules which preresolve the conflicts.

For example, here is one simple system of nuclear law that relies on performance inspections. This design is conflict-free and nonproliferative. However, it is not politically correct.

First, there are two types of sovorgs, nuclear sovorgs and nonnuclear sovorgs.

Second, delivery is assumed, and inspection is as simple as possible: anyone who can test a working bomb is a nuclear sovorg. Inspectors define "working" by their own judgment.

Third, every nonnuclear sovorg must maintain an official affiliation with one, and only one, nuclear sovorg. The nonnuclear sovorg is the client of the nuclear sovorg, which is the protector. A nuclear protector and its affiliates are a nuclear bloc. Either the client or the protector may sever this relationship, for any reason, at any time.

Fourth, an unaffiliated nonnuclear sovorg, or total defector, has no protection. Anyone may conquer and retain it. If multiple forces make the attempt, they should try and agree on a partition beforehand.

Fifth, in all suits between nuclear and nonnuclear sovorgs, whether or not the latter is affiliated with the former, the nuclear power prevails in all disputes except those solely affecting the territory of the nonnuclear sovorgs, in which case the nonnuclear sovorg prevails. Essentially, a nonnuclear sovorg controls its borders, everything inside them, and nothing else.

Sixth, all suits between nonnuclear sovorgs within a single nuclear bloc are judged by the protector. All suits between nonnuclear sovorgs in different blocs are judged by arbitrators appointed by agreement of both protectors. The same is the case for suits between nuclear sovorg, which hopefully will be rare.

Seventh, no nuclear sovorg allows its territory or the territory of its affiliates to be used for the planning or preparation of military attacks against any other sovorg, noting only that this rule cannot be invoked to demand any restriction on free expression.

Eighth, missile defense systems are prohibited, until they can be made as reliable as missiles. If this technical assessment changes, this rule should be revisited, but any missile defense system should be a joint effort between all nuclear sovorgs, designed only for total defectors.

It should be clear that anyone who feels the need to break these rules is a major psycho, and needs to be suppressed or at least contained by any means necessary. The idea of asymmetric war - a war in which different sides play by different rules - is one of the sickest jokes of the twentieth century. If you could explain this concept to Emerich de Vattel, he'd be retching for hours with awful, agonizing laughter. Washcorp can stop playing this game any time it decides it's done.

It should also be clear that this design is antiproliferative. A nuclear protector has absolutely no incentive to allow its clients to go nuclear. It would lose a customer and gain a competitor.

Therefore, it will require that any client which does not have a nuclear program be prepared to prove it. And it will sever its ties with any client which does not comply. Presumably the latter will happen in time for the client to be devoured, like a shark in the shark tank, by its local competitors. Perhaps with some military aid from the protector if absolutely needed. If the rogue sovorg is to find another protector, it will face exactly the same ban.

Nuclear powers will also place golden handcuffs on their nuclear scientists, paying them like rock stars and placing restrictions on their movements and communication. There is no reason to do otherwise. Not all scientists will accept this bargain, but enough will.

Note that this system of nuclear law does not come with any transition plan. There is no obvious way to get from here to there. Perhaps it involves blowing some shit up, though, which would definitely be cool. (It's hard to escape the feeling that the postwar West is suffering from a serious case of progressive miliphobia.)


Blogger Byrne Hobart said...

Either the client or the protector may sever this relationship, for any reason, at any time.

If there are low switching costs, you're creating instability unless all Sovorgs are equal. If they're not, the most powerful ones may charge extra for protection, and if so any of their clients who want the same protection at a lower price, the client state has an incentive to subsidize the nuclear program of another potential sovorg.

November 12, 2007 at 8:56 PM  
Anonymous Seamus McCauley said...

Difficult I think to formalise the delivery element. It should be trivial to assess whether a sovorg has a working ICBM and can launch nuclear missiles inter-continentally. It may be less straightforward to precisely measure whether that sovorg, lacking ICBMs, is likely to gamble that it can sneak a suitcase through customs at JFK best out of three (and to factor into those calculations how good customs at JFK really are at spotting suitcase nukes).

The formal approach is sound in theory but in practice people will often take a gamble, and then you're into the potentially less precise arena of working out the probability that they understand the probability of the gamble coming off.

November 13, 2007 at 2:11 AM  
Blogger Daniel A. Nagy said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

November 13, 2007 at 3:58 AM  
Blogger drank said...

MM, I feel like you've missed the boat with this one. You're absolutely correct that uncertainty increase the risk that nuclear weapons will be used, but...

The inspections that you describe do not remove any of the significant sources of uncertainty in the contemporary nuclear world. To pick two potential combatants, North Korea has a handful of bombs of dubious reliability and has mid-range missiles as a delivery system, also of dubious reliability. The US has over 10,000 nuclear weapons and a wide variety of delivery systems which can put them anywhere on the planet with high accuracy on short notice. Do you really think that any of this is not already known to George Bush, Kim Jong Il and everybody else in the chain of command of both countries? If a missile launches from North Korea and blows up Seattle, there's no practical uncertainty about the US response. So that implies that North Korea will probably not use their nuclear weapons in that fashion.

But what if a weapon is detonated from a container ship in New York Harbor? And if then it takes two weeks to figure out where the plutonium came from? And if the source turns out to be Pakistan who swears up and down that the material was lost to terrorists? And if China draws its own red line around the suspected culprit? And who's the president answering all these tough questions anyway?

The point is that even if we had perfect knowledge of the technical capabilities of all nuclear powers, such a multipolar system may not be stable under any set of rules. Certainly your proposed 9 rules do nothing to resolve conflicts between two nuclear sovcorps. And who's forcing everyone to play by these rules anyhow? Sooner or later, someone is going to decide that they can roll the dice with acceptable odds.

November 13, 2007 at 8:51 AM  
Blogger Daniel A. Nagy said...

Worst UR post. Ever.

I would suggest you read this piece by my humble self first.

Of course, you may point out that you have prohibited missile defense, but the idea can be generalized.

I am pretty sure, for example, that right now, the overwhelming majority of Russian and American nukes are dysfunctional. They simply don't and won't work.

If, under your system, I were in charge of a nuclear sovorg, I would spend most of my budget on corrupting and misleading the inspectors into reporting that I have bad-ass nuclear capabilities, because it is still cheaper than actually having them and nobody in their right mind (or so I hope) will call my bluff.

Formalism can't work except where bluffs are not much cheaper than actual capabilities (such as in cryptography). Everywhere else, people will try (and succeed) in saving on the actual dog, once they have put a "Beware of the Dog!" sign on their fence.

November 13, 2007 at 1:16 PM  
Blogger George Weinberg said...

Given the unliklihood that such an arrangement could be brought about in the first place there probably isn't much point in speculating on whether it would be stable or desirable. But I happen to be in the mood for pointless speculation, so...

Unless the nuclear sovcos could agree to form some sort of cartel, it seems to me the antiproliferation argument would not hold. Assuming the costs of being a client are fairly high, it seems a client would be willing to pay a lot to a nuclear sovco which would allow and even assist in its becoming a nuclear sovco in the future. The nuclear sovco wouldn't really be sacrificing its future "protection money" profits, since those would likely be going to some other nuclear sovco anyway.

I think if you want stability in this model you have to ditch the idea that clients can easily change protectors.

November 13, 2007 at 2:46 PM  
Anonymous tggp said...

I don't feel like commenting on this post, but speaking of colonialism, Robert Lindsay defends Mugabe and Aristide against those who claim they prove third world countries need to be managed by westerners here. I disagreed in the comments section, but I think his post was wrong enough to merit more than my brief comment.

November 13, 2007 at 6:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm... Everyone seems to agree it's a bad idea, but nobody can agree why.

November 14, 2007 at 3:33 AM  
Blogger Aaron Davies said...

Robert Lindsay defends Mugabe and Aristide against those who claim they prove third world countries need to be managed by westerners here.

Absolutely surreal. Sometimes I think universalists are a bit like dancing bears--the wonder is not how they think, but that they think at all. I have a hard time understanding how someone with that poor a grasp of reality manages to tie his shoes.

November 14, 2007 at 6:13 AM  
Anonymous PA said...

Absolutely surreal. Sometimes I think universalists are a bit like dancing bears--the wonder is not how they think,

A common thread with Universalists is their real or perceived disconnect from Tradition. In other words, they don't see themselves as a link between their grandparents and their grandchildren.

Instead, they see themselves as rootless cosmopolitans. (Houellebecq would call them "Elementary particles.") Since their fundamental self-identification is not linked to a kind of Traditionalist continuity, they seek transcendence elsewhere.

To some, it involves thinking oneself as "smart" or above the "sheeple." Others embrace crass materialism. To others, finding meaning consists of dreaming of reordering the world, either to build a Kingdom of Heaven, or just because.

November 14, 2007 at 6:41 AM  
Blogger Aaron Davies said...

I don't see much value in tradition in the Burkean sense, tradition for its own sake, simply on the grounds that if it didn't work, we wouldn't do it. I guess where I differ is that I prefer to confine the majority of my radicalism to theory, rather than practice--too many universalists seem to enjoy actually tearing down the world and rebuilding it according to their whim.

But it's the willingness to reexamine the most basic assumptions that makes something like UR (or Objectivism, my primary affiliation) so much fun, so we can't really say that's the main problem with U'ism.

November 14, 2007 at 10:44 AM  
Blogger mtraven said...

I like how aaron davies manages to tar all universalists (a category which seems to include everyone from Stalin to the ACLU to the Diggers, old and new, to George Bush) as crazy based on the statements of one extreme outlier, while criticizing the thinking abilities of others

November 14, 2007 at 12:07 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

So due to my congenital optimism...

Then the consensus is that we should all continue assiduously hiding our nuclear capabilities?

Or would you like to improve/replace the idea?

In other news, MM has definitely had the "I has hammer, everything is nail" thing happen to him with Universalism. Note, this isn't a criticism of the idea per se.

November 15, 2007 at 2:33 AM  
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The goal is a simple and stable system of rules in which neohominids are very unlikely to find themselves getting fried in their own homes and apartments. Even in a world where H-bombs of hellacious destructive power are getting easier and easier to make. (Frankly, it was pretty stupid to think that this technology, awesomely cool yea though it be, could remain a secret for the next umpteen gazillion years.)

The interesting thing is that posters with the name "semtex" (or some of the anonymous posters) seem to dispute such a common sense assertion. Looks to me that they are afraid of things that might smash the Cathedral to pieces.

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