Avoiding nuclear anarchy

Heather Williams on how the superpowers can cut the risk of deterrence failing

The World Today Published 31 March 2018 Updated 18 November 2020 4 minute READ

Dr Heather Williams

Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow, MIT

In the 1985 Cold War satire, Dunn’s Conundrum, its author, Stan Lee, equates the nuclear arms race with a Native American ceremony known as ‘potlatch’. In this ceremony, chiefs demonstrate their power by destroying gifts and objects of value. Dunn’s characters apply this logic to America’s nuclear weapons, arguing that they should not be judged on their military utility, but rather on their ability to force the adversary to engage in a wasteful contest in which valuable resources are sacrificed.

‘Does it force the Russians to throw something into the fire? Are they forced to build a similar weapon?’ asks one character in the book. ‘If they do, thus tossing more worldly goods into the campfire, then the weapon has already succeeded in its mission. It is only when the Soviets don’t spend money to counter it that the weapon is a flop.’

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