Nuclear alarmism is reaching a fever pitch in Washington. President Donald Trump has responded to North Korea’s push toward a nuclear-capable ICBM with paroxysms of bluster: He warned that North Korean threats to the United States would “be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” proclaimed Kim Jong Un a “Rocket Man” (and now “Little Rocket Man”) on a “suicide mission,” and averred the North Korean regime “won’t be around for much longer.” Other members of the administration have echoed the president’s rhetoric: National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster suggested that Kim is undeterrable. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley trumpeted “plenty of military options.” The White House has engaged in open discussion of preventive war.
Growing tension on the Korean Peninsula has returned the unimaginable terror of nuclear war to the American public consciousness. The danger is a global one: Nine states possess nearly 15,000 nuclear weapons and the detonation of even one of these weapons could cause humanitarian and economic catastrophe. Although the use of a nuclear weapon by a state or non-state actor is unlikely, it is not impossible, and the risk may be growing. Indeed, such a rare event can be evaluated in terms of a simple risk-assessment formula: probability multiplied by consequences.
Given the enormous consequences of nuclear use, even small fluctuations in probability warrant attention. Some variation will arise from changes in the international environment, such as technological advances that make nuclear command and control systems more or less vulnerable to cyber-attack, or fluctuation in the level of tension between nuclear-armed rivals like India and Pakistan. But as the world’s most powerful state, with its own vast nuclear arsenal as well as a record of leadership in nonproliferation and nuclear security efforts, the United States plays an important role in moderating —– or enhancing —– the likelihood of nuclear use.