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Is Nuclear War Inevitable?

Russian aggression and nuclear saber rattling have reminded us that the likelihood of nuclear war is a matter of both independent and interdependent probabilities. Paradoxically, reducing the probability of an all-out catastrophe requires that we learn to accept a certain degree of risk and uncertainty.

CAMBRIDGE – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and nuclear saber rattling against the West have revived a debate about nuclear weapons. Last year, when a United Nations treaty to ban such weapons outright entered into force, none of the world’s nine nuclear-weapons states was among the 86 signatories. How can these states justify possessing weapons that put all of humanity at risk?

That is a pertinent question, but it must be considered alongside another one: If the United States were to sign the treaty and destroy its own arsenal, would it still be able to deter further Russian aggression in Europe? If the answer is no, one also must consider whether nuclear war is inevitable.

It’s not a new question. In 1960, the British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow concluded that nuclear war within a decade was “a mathematical certainty.” That may have been an exaggeration, but many believed Snow’s prediction would be justified if a war occurred within a century. In the 1980s, Nuclear Freeze campaigners like Helen Caldicott echoed Snow in warning that the buildup of nuclear weapons “will make nuclear war a mathematical certainty.”