Obama Respite Open Thread

 The man whom Chancellor Angela Merkel calls “dear Barack” was back in Berlin on Saturday, his lanky figure and easy smile a reminder for Germans of a different era that ended not so long ago.

But former President Barack Obama had not come to speak about the past. He came to speak to the future: some 300 young leaders from across Europe, who had gathered for a town hall-style meeting in the German capital.

It did not take long for Mr. Obama to touch on one of his main concerns — and the reason he had come to what he called “the heart of Europe.”

Europe, Mr. Obama suggested, is one of the main battlefields between liberal democracy and far-right populism.

“Nationalism, particularly on the far right, is re-emerging,” he told a packed auditorium. “We know where that leads. Europe knows better than anyone where that leads.”

“It leads to conflict, bloodshed and catastrophe,” he said.

This past week was the tenth anniversary of Obama’s speech in Prague on nuclear disarmament. Here’s the transcript and also a video.

Open thread.








Curmudgeonly Post On Recurring Science Ignorance

Before I get more emails on this.

Boy, 14, creates nuclear reactor in his bedroom

What he built – not created, built – is called a fusor or fuzor. Instructions for building one abound on the internet.

A boy, yes a boy as opposed to a girl or gender-nonconforming kid, does this every few years, with adoring parents who manage to get him into the news.

I am irritated by the recurring science ignorance of the reporters who don’t just tell the parents to fuggetaboutit.

I am also irritated by the recurring meme of boy science genius. It’s a message to girls that boys are the only ones who do this kind of thing or will get credit for it. One of these BOYS, a few years back, was hailed as the next Einstein because he had some uranium ore in his garage. He didn’t even finish college. Have you heard of him? I can’t even remember his name.

That is all. Open thread.








Mike Flynn’s Nuclear Adventure – The Companies

 

Since elements of the story first appeared, I have been intrigued by the idea that Michael Flynn wanted to sell nuclear reactors to the Saudis. Too much of it doesn’t make sense and still doesn’t. A few things I’ve wondered about:

  • Flynn has no experience with nuclear reactors.
  • Why nuclear reactors? There are a great many problems in selling in building them.
  • Why Russian reactors?
  • Why is the administration so persistent in pushing this deal?

Most importantly, is this activity connected to other varieties of Trumpian corruption?

A simple theory can explain this. The Saudis want nuclear reactors to eventually build a nuclear weapons program. Flynn was at the head of a group of Trump-connected grifters who wanted to make money from that desire. Informed by a profound ignorance of nuclear economics and nonproliferation, it explains everything in a general way, but others also have the uneasy feeling that it’s more than that.

A few years back, I looked at Russian ambition to sell nuclear reactors. Reactors are one of the few manufactured export products Russia has on offer. They were so eager to sell the reactors that the business model they developed was that Russia would provide the up-front costs of building the reactor, which the customer country could then pay back out of electricity profits. That would make it possible for smaller, poorer countries to increase their electrical power capacity.

Something seemed fishy about that to me, too. I added up all the deals Russia had made, and it looked like they would bankrupt the country. I posted it, but the post is lost to internet decay. Since then, some of the deals have come apart, and others are moving slowly enough that they no longer look like Russia will go bankrupt from that any time soon. Read more








A Quick Post On Selling Nuclear Technology To The Saudis

Big news this morning about the continuing pressure to sell nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. Ken Dilanian was the first with the story, and Washington Post is catching up. Like a lot of stories about the Trump administration’s dicey connections with foreign governments, it adds some new information to a story that I’ve been following for a long time.

The current emphasis is that Saudi Arabia (which I’ll refer to as KSA) wants a nuclear program that might eventually be used to produce weapons. That misses a lot. Michael Flynn was trying to sell nuclear technology to the Saudis for quite some time. That attempt has continued. I have a copy of the report from the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, but what I want to do here is discuss the context of the actions described there. This post will be a quick outline, without most of the links it should have.

Early on, Flynn was working with IP3 to sell nuclear reactors to KSA. At the time, KSA said they wanted 16 nuclear reactors. Flynn’s plan included working with Russia and perhaps China to provide the reactors; it also included a heavy security plan that looked likely to include a contractor like Erik Prince to provide the muscle.

As the price of oil went down, KSA could no longer afford 16 reactors, and the plan cratered. But Flynn continued to try to sell reactors to them. He also included American reactor manufacturers. When Flynn was taken down by his Russian connections, interactions to sell reactors to KSA continued.

As recently as last week, Donald Trump was meeting with reactor manufacturers on the subject. Current concerns revolve around safeguards against KSA’s using its nuclear technology to develop nuclear weapons. To do this, the United States requires what is called a 123 Agreement, named for its legal basis. The trend has been toward disallowing uranium enrichment and reprocessing of spent fuel, the two pathways to nuclear weapons, although they can also be justified for peaceful use. KSA does not want those restrictions. It appears that the news today is that some in the administration are trying to meet KSA’s preferences.

The bigger story is that the administration, via Flynn and now others, has been eager to supply KSA with the technology it wants. Other recent news, like the administration’s unwillingness to admit KSA’s brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, suggests a relationship similar to Trump’s favoritism toward Russia.

In January 2017, Erik Prince met with Russian and Middle Eastern representatives in the Seychelles.

There is a nonproliferation issue here, but I think the larger issue is the quid pro quo. KSA wants the nuclear technology. What is the quo?

 








On The Lack Of Analytical Utility Of The Concept Of Deterrence

With the US withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, we will be hearing more about deterrence. That word is used far too broadly, muddying discussions of military strategy and focusing discussions of war and peace too narrowly.

As the Cold War progressed from open competition for bigger bombs in the 1950s, through the terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the realization that Ronald Reagan expressed so nicely, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” slowly formed, although seldom expressed openly by the governments of the United States or the Soviet Union. Nuclear war became more unthinkable, and communication and arms control measures were instituted to make it less likely.

That uneasy standoff continued through the fall of the Soviet Union. It is often attributed solely to both countries’ possession of enough nuclear weapons to destroy the other, that rough equality called deterrence. But there are many other reasons to avoid nuclear war, like developing a country’s economy and attending to other areas of instability. When those reasons are left out, discussions of strategy are distorted.

Deterrence is the ability to warn off another party from doing something bad to you. “If you do something bad to us, we will do worse to you.” The emphasis on mutual nuclear destruction pulled the term toward nuclear use, but it is more general. Deterrence theory is now largely about nuclear weapons and often descends into unrealistic game theorizing. Nuclear arsenals are often referred to as “deterrents,” a concretization and  further distortion. Deterrence is a relationship, not a thing in itself.

Deterrence can lead to an arms race as one party seeks to overcome the other’s power to deter.  That was why arms control treaties were a stabilizing factor in the later Cold War.

There are some current analyses that use the word “deterrence” but are talking about something else. Deterrence is treated as a concrete thing that exists on its own, when it is a descriptor of a particular relationship. If deterrence is a thing that can be imposed on a situation, or a characteristic of particular weapons, then much becomes possible.

 

Escalate to De-Escalate

Russia is believed by some to have a military doctrine of “escalate to de-escalate.” Russia would use a small nuclear weapon early in a conflict to indicate its willingness to go nuclear and thus scare off an opponent and end the war at a time favorable to Russia. There is a question as to whether this is in fact Russian doctrine. If deterrence depends on knowing what the other party is thinking, then it’s important to know whether this is Russian doctrine.

In response to such a move, more than one action is possible. The United States might indeed calculate that withdrawal and negotiations toward peace are best. But the decision equally could be to retaliate in kind: Russia nukes Tallinn, and the United States nukes Rostov. And then what? Or the response might be a different sort of attack. The decision depends on a calculation of costs and benefits. Use of a nuclear weapon has been felt to change the course of war fundamentally. Does that assumption fail to hold for a small and early nuclear attack?

Within the United States, those who assume escalate to de-escalate is Russian doctrine argue that low-yield nuclear weapons are necessary to deter that strategy or to meet it if its use is not deterred. The threat of meeting it, of course, is part of deterrence. It could also be argued that having only high-yield weapons (which is not the case) deters an escalate to de-escalate strategy because of the potential escalation to the use of those weapons. Instead, the argument is that the United States would hold back from using those weapons.

Those arguing that low-yield weapons are necessary to deter an escalate to de-escalate strategy are choosing one set of actions and responses, one set of motivations, out of that group. I do not see that clarity.

 

 “We Must Match Their Weapons”

Vladimir Putin claims that Russia is working on exotic new weapons – a stealth underwater drone to deliver a radioactive tidal wave, a nuclear-powered nuclear cruise missile, a hypersonic delivery vehicle. All seem to be impractical or not a material change in the balance.

I am highly doubtful that the first two will ever exist, and the third is a very expensive way to evade missile defenses that can be overcome with the numbers of nuclear weapons Russia possesses. Nonetheless, some people’s definition of prudence demands that we match those weapons. A pointless expenditure of billions of dollars may be what Putin is baiting us into whether or not those weapons are real.

The point of deterrence is to avoid war and to avoid the use of nuclear weapons. Decisions for war or use of nuclear weapons are much broader than matching weapon for weapon. There is an argument that deterrence requires that each new development be met with a new development on our side. This opens the way for all those imaginary weapons every boy ever wanted. And it’s not how deterrence works.

 

“This Weapon Is For Deterrence Only”

That claim is nonsense.

The weapons laboratories have long justified their work by saying that they design and build nuclear weapons so that they will never be used. That justification is attributed to Norris Bradbury, the second director of Los Alamos.

Deterrence depends on a believable threat to use force. The effectiveness of nuclear weapons in deterrence depends on the possibility that they will be used. But if deterrence works, they won’t be used. That’s the basis of the Bradbury justification. It’s a paradox.

To develop a new weapon and assure the public that it’s for deterrence only, not use, undercuts the believable threat to use it. If this is the justification, developing it is pointless because it makes no difference to the balance of power.

 

These three scenarios do not illustrate deterrence, but rather tactics that can lead to escalation. Deterrence means that war or nuclear use will be avoided. The decision is whether war or nuclear use will be disastrous for the whoever takes the step. That is a big, overall decision. The details worked out in these three examples would be a small input.

Although nuclear weapons were not used during the Cold War, it’s unlikely that nuclear deterrence was the only reason. Trade relations, treaties and other agreements,and  internal divisions within a country all influence decisions on peace and war. Diplomacy played a role. And the bottom line is that a nuclear war is in no country’s interest.

 

Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner.