Are we heading for Armageddon by accident?

Israeli psychologist warns dated nuclear protocols are putting the world at a minute to midnight


Atomic bomb realistic explosion, red color with smoke on black background

The end of the world is on Moran Cerf’s mind. Usually, his mind is on other minds. Cerf, who teaches neuroscience and business at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Chicago, studies the psychology of choice by wiring electrodes to the decision-making pathways of the brain.

We do not, he finds, assess risks and make decisions as rationally as we would like to think.

Cerf, 45, is now thinking about the protocols that govern the use of nuclear weapons.

America’s institutional pathways, he tells me by Zoom, were created in 1952. They have not been updated since.

The world is faster now, full of nuclear weapons, and fraught with additional risks for accidental launches or cyberattacks.In Ukraine and Taiwan, strategic tensions between major nuclear powers are higher than at any time since the early 1970s.

“I studied physics so I had a good understanding of nuclear energy,” Cerf says, “but nuclear weapons never felt like a big thing to worry about.”

This, he argues, is part of the problem. “These weapons are really, really big and bad. They could destroy the world. But until they’re used, we don’t really think about them. And when they are used, we’ll say, How could we not have seen the signs?”

On 13 January, 2018, a miscommunication during a drill at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency led to the issue of a false ballistic missile alert.

For 38 minutes and 13 seconds, the people of Hawaii expected an imminent nuclear strike. “They all assumed it was true,” Cerf says. “which is insane. That people in Hawaii can learn that a ballistic missile is headed their way and, instead of saying that it’s probably a mistake, just believe it’s real.”

Just under three years later, a day after the 6 January riot at the US Capitol, General Mark Milley, chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, informed his Chinese counterparts that, should Donald Trump go rogue and order a nuclear launch, he would do anything in his powers to stop it. If an American launch occurred, Milley asked that China should not respond. “There’s no evidence that Trump actually thought about that,” Cerf allows. “But the conversation itself is alarming.”

At the time, he discussed it with a colleague, Deborah Rosenblum. She is now an Assistant Secretary in the Defence Department’s nuclear, chemical and biological defence programmes. Her tasks include briefing the new president, Joe Biden, on nuclear threats.

“She said, ‘You know, there’s no real training for decision-making. No one trains the president on the process of decision-making. What would you suggest?’”

Cerf was born in France. “My grandfather was the head cantor of a small community in Strasbourg. My mum is Israeli. She was born in Rishon, moved to France after the army, worked in fashion and married a French-Jewish guy, my dad.”

The family moved to Israel when Cerf was five. He went to theatre school, was a regular performer on Israeli television as a teenager, and then, after military service in an intelligence unit, studied in the US. He is energetic and fast-talking, a popular TED talker with a magician’s box of psychological tricks, and an alarming insight into the ossification of our institutions.

Cerf proposes that the US “implement the science of decision-making” in its nuclear protocols. The current protocols date from the Cold War and the infancy of game theory. “The person that in a way I’m trying to complement is Thomas Schelling, an economist who won the Nobel Prize.” Schelling’s The Strategy of Conflict (1960) applied game theory to nuclear stand-offs.

Further refinements were added by John von Neumann, the Hungarian-born Jew who proposed Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) as a guarantor of the nuclear peace, and Hermann Kahn, also Jewish, who proposed in On Nuclear War (1960) that nuclear war might be survivable. Kahn became one of the inspirations for the title character in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964). Schelling advised on the script.

Sixty years on, our understanding of decision-making process has changed. Nuclear game theory assumes complete rationality in a closed system, but neither is possible. Daniel Kahnmann and Amos Tversky’s theories of irrational choice-making are studied at West Point, Cerf says, but “this is not incorporated at the strategic level at all”.

Meanwhile, the development of “tactical” or “battlefield” nukes as a term that makes it seem as if they are “smaller, less risky, nuclear weapons makes our brains desensitised to the risk”. This lowers the threshold for use.

Today, the decision to use American nuclear weapons is solely in the hands of the president. There is no clear procedure on how the advisory process should work, and the president must act under artificial time pressure. Cerf thinks that all of this must be changed, urgently.

“The 15-minute decision time is ancient. It’s a relic of the time when the US only had a land-response capacity. Extending the window for giving orders to launch will change the entire process: it will give you enough time to verify what has happened, if something actually happened, and to devise a proper response calmly and reasonably.”

An ostensibly rational decision is, Cerf says, alterable by the informational environment. If multiple options are presented, or if multiple decision-makers are present, then the relative appeal of the most popular option changes.

If the president declares his hand early, then others are more likely to agree. If, as Barack Obama did before deciding to kill Osama bin Laden, he leaves the Situation Room to allow his team to decide first, the outcome may differ.

“We learned that whoever speaks first and what they say makes a difference,” Cerf says. He suggests a cabinet discussion, probably led by the Secretary of Defence, and then two rounds of voting, one blind to “take the temperature in the room”, the other open.

The final decision should rest not with one person, but three: the president, the vice-president and the Speaker of the House. Only a unanimous vote yields a launch. This means you have more chances to cater to the slower and rational parts of our brain, and a little more optionality,” Cerf says.

Speaking before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Bill Perry, who was Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Defence, predicted a nuclear detonation within the next decade. If Moran Cerf’s thinking is correct, we are underprepared for a moment of decision that may be closer than we realise.

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