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The Future of Nuclear War: An Interview with Krzysztof Tyszka-Drozdowski
Plus cryptocurrency, revolt of the public, and Donald Trump
Krzysztof Tyszka-Drozdowski is a Polish writer and analyst, specializing in topics related to globalization, industrial policy, and international conflict. His essays have been featured in American Affairs, UnHerd, The Critic, and The American Conservative. Follow him @ktdrozdowski, and I hope you enjoy this conversation!
Infovores: At times during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the possibility of nuclear war has felt uncomfortably real. How do you assess the ongoing threat of nuclear detonation and have risks subsided at all in recent months?
Krzysztof: Certainly, we have become somewhat accustomed to this risk.
I don’t think anyone, except really anxious people, seriously considered the option of large-scale nuclear exchange. What was on the table were tactical nukes, which are meant to be counterescalatory, intended to check hostilities. If the Ukrainian side were to launch missile strikes deep into Russia, it cannot be ruled out that the possibility of nuclear strikes would become real. Since Putin made this threat, it appears to me that President Biden has sent a signal to the Ukrainians to refrain from this kind of behavior. President Biden also showed restraint after a Ukrainian missile deliberately hit Polish territory. This was a threshold he did not want to cross, he did not want to take this provocation as a justification for dragging NATO into a direct war with Russia.
On the other hand, the Western commentariat often argues that if Putin finds himself pushed to the wall, he may reach for nuclear weapons. It seems to me that Bernard Brodie, who worked on nuclear war theory during the Cold War, can provide a good point here. He noted that “Communists have strongly inculcated themselves to be ready to retreat when necessary without worrying about humiliation, except where the pretense of being greatly concerned is a useful tactical maneuver to impress the other side.” This applies to Putin, but also to Xi. Objectively speaking, the Soviets embarrassed themselves in Afghanistan, but there was never any question of saving face with a nuclear strike.
The logic that a side that is losing will use extreme measures, because there is nothing worse than losing, is unsupported by historical evidence. This reasoning serves as an argument for those who believe that this conflict can’t be limited. We don’t have many examples here, but when U.S. troops suffered defeat at the Yalu River during the Korean War, Washington did not resort to the nuclear option, even though the U.S. had the absolute advantage in terms of atomic arsenal back then.
In this context, it is difficult to assess accurately where concern about humiliation ceases to be a game and becomes a real factor influencing Moscow’s behavior. Perhaps this threshold is very high. However, discerning it requires subtlety. My impression is that Americans are not always good at reading these signs; sometimes they lack the appropriate cultural sensitivity. This lack of sensitivity was exemplified by Obama when he delegated a woman to Russian affairs, which Putin took as an insult. I don’t think Obama meant to antagonize him, he rather failed to anticipate his reaction.
Then there is the question of the so-called nuclear taboo. Tyler Cowen wrote a pessimistic article a few months ago in which he expressed his belief that if the Russians used tactical nuclear weapons, the world would quickly forget about it and soon after shift its attention to the new “current thing”. His teacher, Thomas Schelling, would probably disagree with him. He claimed that there is such a thing as a “nuclear taboo” that is very difficult to break. During the early 1950s, when Eisenhower was in power, there were discussions about treating nuclear arms like any other conventional weapon. However, Schelling asserted that such debates were primarily rhetorical and not actual calls for action. Under Kennedy, no one put conventional weapons and nuclear warheads on the same level anymore. In the afterword to Arms and Influence, Schelling cites Johnson, that nuclear weapons are not conventional weapons, and their use in combat would constitute “a decision of highest order.” Since then, they have not been considered in the context of their military effectiveness. This taboo, like all others, is based on an instinct, a feeling that these weapons are something qualitatively different. No one wants to be the one to normalize the use of nuclear weapons.
In his book on the Cuban missile crisis, Essence of Decision, Graham Allison gives so many examples of misperceptions and miscalculations that it is difficult not to concur with Kennedy’s assessment that the chance of an apocalypse was between one out of three and even. He opens with a quote from JFK from that time: “The essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer – often, indeed, to the decider himself. . . . There will always be the dark and tangled stretches in the decision-making process - mysterious even to those who may be most intimately involved.” Allison’s conclusion is that such situations should be avoided at all costs.
Infovores: One of your articles proposes the idea of "nuclear opacity" as a possible strategy for U.S. allies in Asia, particularly Taiwan, to enhance their security without triggering catastrophic consequences. Could you explain what this strategy entails and how it might alter the balance of power in the region?
Krzysztof: The idea of nuclear opacity was inspired by the way Israel acquired nuclear weapons. As for applying the concept to Asia, it comes from the fact that something like extended nuclear deterrence simply does not exist. De Gaulle said that in the age of nuclear weapons, alliances are obsolete. I think Taipei realizes that America will not risk exchanging nuclear blows with China to defend Taiwan. Washington won’t sacrifice New York or Los Angeles for Taipei. They have probably already come to the same conclusion in Seoul.
That extended deterrence is an illusion has already been demonstrated once in the past, in Southeast Asia, as a matter of fact. China’s nuclear weapons did not deter Vietnam from invading Cambodia. The Soviet nuclear arsenal did not deter China from attacking Vietnam.
Why do countries want nuclear weapons? For several reasons. The most important is the conviction that an enemy’s conventional force may become unstoppable over time. The second reason is the suspicion that a great-power ally will not respond to an attack by an enemy force. I believe that those reasons will shape both Korea’s and Japan’s strategic calculus.
I remain of the view that, as Bilahari Kausikan claims, the most viable means to ensure stability in Asia, as well as independence of countries like Korea, Taiwan and Japan, is to acquire nuclear weapons. At first glance, this sounds ridiculous. However, history proves that countries that acquire nuclear weapons go through a so-called nuclear learning process. Kenneth Waltz has argued – and history tends to confirm his views – that no matter how irrational a country’s leadership is, when it equips itself with nuclear weapons, that fact in itself overwhelms the character of states that possess them. It places limits on their behavior.
There is a great book about this, Cold War Statesmen Confront the Bomb. We read there, for example, how after Stalin’s death the fear of nuclear escalation drove the Soviets to seek a way out of the conflict. This was also the reason why Truman did not pursue further escalation. Even Mao, someone we couldn’t say was sane in a conventional way, was so concerned with the fear of nuclear war that he instructed the Chinese to “dig tunnels deep, store grains everywhere, and never seek hegemony.” Former advisor to Yeltsin and Putin, Sergey Karaganov, said something similar. He stated that the possession of nuclear weapons proved to be the single most effective means of purging the Soviet leadership of radical elements.
Waltz repeated that whoever loves peace should love nuclear weapons. First of all, where total annihilation of both sides is at stake, the conflict of interest cannot be total. Second of all, in this kind of situation it is hard to rely on rationality of the other side. This fact induces a great deal of caution.
It is also hard to overlook the fact that no nuclear country has ever been attacked. At the same time, it is important to realize that no American ally in Asia has nuclear weapons. As a result of American pressure on Korea and on Taiwan, both countries have had to get rid of them. As a result, they live in constant uncertainty about their own future, having to rely on Washington to secure their existence.
I believe that a slow, deliberate proliferation among U.S. allies in Asia would be the best solution. It would allow for what Jacob Hellberg called decentralized deterrence.
Transferring or installing nuclear weapons in Korea or Taiwan would, of course, amount to complete madness. For Beijing and Pyongyang, it would in all likelihood mean crossing a red line and would trigger a preemptive strike. I believe that Korea and Taiwan should acquire these weapons behind the screen of opacity, just as Israel has done.
Nuclear opacity is a situation in which a given country doesn’t admit openly it has nuclear weapons, but at the same time the degree of ambivalence is great enough that it influences the perception and behavior of other countries. Israel, or more accurately, a faction of its elites led by Ben Gurion and Shimon Peres, decided that nuclear weapons were Israel’s only option for a rainy day, only guarantee of its existence. They kept the project a secret from the public, from the political class and from the world. Opacity allowed Israel to build nuclear weapons in a way that did not undermine the American nonproliferation policy, while avoiding an aggressive response from its Arab neighbors. The Arabs never had evidence that Israel had acquired weapons of this kind, so they played down the whole issue. However, their suspicions were strong enough that it changed their attitude permanently.
Both Korea and Taiwan had their own nuclear programs. In the 1980s’ Taipei came to the conclusion that they could not count on America and had to take care of their own security. So the Taiwanese launched a covert project, building a bomb without conducting any test explosions. They used complex physical methods and computer simulations instead. The program was discovered because one of its main figures revealed everything to the Americans. Now that we are witnessing such rapid development of AI, one wonders if this kind of path to proliferation will not become easier? In any case, the man who defected to the U.S. side claims that if Taiwan still has the talent, it would not be a stretch to repeat this feat.
Taiwan’s nuclear opacity would be a strong deterrent to China for demographic reasons as well. Even if Taiwan didn’t have enough warheads to destroy the entirety of China, it would destroy enough of its military to cause an upheaval in Chinese society, because the well-being of Chinese society depends on young men, often the sole breadwinners of entire families (as a result of decades of one-child policy).
In Taiwan, civil nuclear is facing opposition, so they may have a shortage of talent in this field. Such talent is certainly not lacking in Korea, which is a major exporter of nuclear technology. They are in the middle of a 20-year program to export 80 nuclear reactors. In Korea, support for a national nuclear deterrent is steady, remaining consistently above 70%. It is also the only country that possesses submarines capable of launching nuclear missiles, yet officially has no nuclear weapons. It makes you wonder, right?
The fact that Japan is the only country that has the ability to reprocess plutonium and enrich uranium, but does not have nuclear weapons, also makes you think. In Japan, of course, tolerance for nuclear weapons is far lower, and it would be considerably more difficult than in the case of Korea to overcome ingrained resistance to this kind of weapons. But wouldn’t a drastic deterioration in the security situation break that reluctance? Tanner Greer had a great post about how losing Taiwan means losing Japan. The country would be cut off from fuel and food supplies. The consequences would be dramatic.
The late Shinzo Abe, after the invasion of Ukraine, talked about how the nuclear option could not be ruled out. Korea, Japan and potentially Taiwan have what’s called a technical deterrent. Just as Israel’s opaque nuclear program depended on the tacit approval of the U.S., so in Asia they need a green light. If Washington were to conclude that this nuclear ambivalence works in their interests in Southeast Asia, I imagine, following Kausikan, that a balance of mutual destruction would emerge. I believe it will be a difficult and frightening road, but it is probably the only way to achieve lasting stability and prevent Chinese hegemony in Asia.
Infovores: You wrote recently about a possible realignment taking place in which countries increasingly look to reduce their dependence on the US dollar. If a more fractured system were to emerge, what implications might that have for American hegemony more broadly?
Krzysztof: U.S. sanctions against Russia have made some people think twice about how secure they are within the dollar financial system. The weaponization of the dollar has not been seen on such a scale in quite some time. However, this does not mean the end of dollar hegemony or of the “exorbitant privilege”. It seems, however, that despite the fact that the bifurcation of the currency system has been discussed for years, it is now really starting before our eyes. The hysterical style of political thinking of our time impedes our ability to perceive the nuances. People want simplistic conclusions: the end of dollar hegemony or its continuation.
Visions put forth by Zoltan Pozsar, for example, may seem too bold. Adam Tooze has described some of his recent analysis as “financial fiction”. The birth of the petroyuan certainly indicates that we are moving toward a multipolar world, but how far down that road are we? China is still firmly entrenched in the dollar financial infrastructure. There is no doubt that outside the West, the climate of opinion regarding the dollar has shifted. Recently, Brazil and Argentina consulted on creating their own trade unit in mutual trade to avoid paying each other for goods in dollars. ASEAN countries have been discussing abandoning the dollar, euro, pound in mutual transactions to move to settlements in local currencies. This does not mean a collapse of the dollar system. These are long processes. Let’s remember that until the middle of the last century sterling still financed half of world trade. So I won’t risk any predictions, other than to say that “the game is afoot”. What is your take as an economist?
Infovores: These past few years have been truly strange in ways that tend to disrupt old assumptions and ways of doing things, to a degree that hasn’t been fully internalized by most tenured academics.
Global inflation has returned in a big way, and many of the hardest hit currencies were already fairly precarious. So while I don’t claim extensive expertise on these matters, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more experimentation aimed toward taming hyperinflation without resorting to dollarization or otherwise relinquishing monetary control to the Fed. In that vein, I found your writing about Plano Real as a historical episode to be quite stimulating.
Another interesting angle I wanted to ask you about is how cryptocurrency fits into all of this. Not only has El Salvador adopted Bitcoin as legal tender, but grass roots adoption of crypto seems to have exploded in a lot of these places, to the point where that might even be a significant pressure on what central bankers decide to do. What are your thoughts there?
Krzysztof: Bukele seems to be an interesting character, a sort of postmodern Fujimori. If you remember, in The Sovereign Individual, one of the scenarios the authors considered was the emergence of leaders who would value order and efficiency, in the broad sense of the word, above democracy and liberal principles. In Bukele’s case it translates into relentless fight against crime. In Fujimori’s case it was the intransigent fight against inflation and various economic absurdities of Peru. One wonders, given both the brutality and the incompetence of the Macron regime, whether he is not a French caricature of Fujimori. But that’s a topic for another conversation.
BTC does not have such a strong penetration among Salvadorians. Nic Carter pointed out that in the case of Bukele, it may not even be about financial efficiency at all. It is rather an another symbol of dissent from the liberal order. Investor Michael Green also argued something along these lines, but in a tone of concern, claiming that BTC constitutes a threat to the dollar and could be used by malicious actors such as China.
The likely scenario – though I hope it doesn’t come true – is that crypto will be slowly suffocated by regulations, and Central Banks will introduce their own digital currencies. I am not a libertarian, but the vision of the state having even more control over our financial lives is deeply concerning.
CBDCs could lead, in the long term, to undermining of national currencies. Currencies that are less convenient or more volatile could be displaced by more stable ones. If the dollar or renminbi becomes easily available in digital form, national currencies of weaker, less prominent states could wither away. The era of digital currencies, which began with the dream of decentralization, may therefore end with even greater economic concentration. Let’s hope that won’t come to pass.
Infovores: One of my favorite pieces of yours is about the Paris student revolts of 1968, which I confess were obscure to me beforehand. What makes this historical episode so noteworthy in your opinion and what lessons should Americans take from it?
Krzysztof: These were historic events for several reasons. France was experiencing an economic boom at the time. The generation that was born after the war was the most privileged generation in the history of France. Economic growth was at an all-time high, unemployment was negligible. And yet they rebelled. The revolt, however, was not about the means of existence, like the revolutionary movements of the past, but about the way of life, just like in Berkeley. It can be argued that the phenomenon of overproduction of elites during the late 1960s may have played a significant role in the events that unfolded during May 68. Never before have so many young people enrolled in higher education as during that time.
Jean-François Revel, a forgotten French liberal (the very fact that he was a liberal in a country and an era when admiration for Mao was greater than for Adam Smith is a testament to his contrarian temperament), believed that this type of rebellion, “dissent”, as he called it, was invented in the U.S. He interpreted it as an innovation in the field of political revolt, pointing out that the French – and others, since similar movements also arose in Germany or Italy – were merely imitating the Americans. Perhaps this was the first time after the war that Europeans thought they were accomplishing something spontaneously while actually copying Americans.
In a way, it can be said that May 68 was similar to the nihilism of modern revolts that Martin Gurri describes so well. French students did not proclaim any specific demands beyond slogans like “all power in the hands of the imagination” or “demand the impossible.”
Also noteworthy is the fact that the revolt erupted at a time when de Gaulle was undertaking profound reforms in the country. Raymond Aron stated that May 68’ killed Gaullism. The general wanted to introduce a series of modernizing reforms. However, the French rejected them in a 1969 referendum and de Gaulle left office. This is a good example of Tocqueville’s paradox: a system is never as fragile as when it wants to reform.
The romantic, anarchist slogans and vague philosophy of May 68 had a profound impact on the intellectual atmosphere in France. This influence intensified from the late 1970s, into the 1980s and beyond, as this generation began to capture state institutions, media and business. What is most striking about the victory of this ideology is its anti-productivist, ecological, anti-industrial dimension and a pronounced distrust of science. In his book La désindustrialisation de la France, Nicolas Dufourcq argues that the widespread adoption of this ideology is to blame for the contemporary French elites’ incompetence in industrial matters. This mentality, in his opinion, facilitated the deindustrialization of France. I think this is the most important lesson for America. Ideas have consequences, and anti-productivist ideas have the most serious consequences, undermining economic growth and technological progress, which then translates into erosion of national vitality.
Bruce Gibney writes something similar about Boomers in A Generation of Sociopaths. He cites research from the early 1970s showing that of all groups, Boomers were the most hostile and distrustful of science and technology. He accuses them of being unable to maintain the pre-1970 pace of technological development at best, and of derailing progress at worst. Tracing the ascent of these anti-productivist ideas in different countries, how the empirical mindset has been supplanted by an emotional attitude toward the world – as can be seen, for example, in data showing occurrence of vocabulary related to feelings in different languages – would certainly be instructive.
Infovores: As I understand it, Gurri’s thesis is primarily about digital devices causing upheaval. Does the existence of such close parallels long before the internet existed challenge his concerns about “the fifth wave” or is there a way to reconcile the apparent contradiction there?
Krzysztof: To me, it seems that this process commenced prior to the rise of social media. The roots of this phenomenon were already recognized by Guy Debord in Society of the Spectacle (1967) and by Baudrillard in his book In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities (1978). Today, this trend has become particularly acute, but upon reading these authors, it becomes apparent that its origins date back to an earlier time.
At the beginning of his book, Debord observes that in modern societies, life resembles a “collection of spectacles”, where actual experiences are supplanted by mere images. At the same time, the spectacle isn’t solely a collection of images, but a new type of social relations that determines the “irreality” of post-war Western societies. He wrote this a year before the outbreak of student revolts, where this irrealism, mesmerization with images, would be something conspicuous: young people would declare themselves Maoists or Castrists, although, after all, this did not entail any realistic project for transforming reality. Debord writes that the practical capacity to reshape reality has become disconnected from the society and established for itself “an independent realm within the spectacle.” This makes me think of social media, where many people believe they are reliving the 1930s: everyone is either defending democracy against fascism or fighting “neo-Marxism” and so on, although in reality they are nothing more than dopamine junkies.
Baudrillard writes in 1978 that information does not provide any structure or direction to society. It converts society into a mass detached from traditional social institutions. He observes that this mass, the “silent majority”, constitutes a black hole – it absorbs images, information and ideas, but gives nothing back in return. This is somewhat reminiscent of the way Gurri describes contemporary protests, as nihilistic outbursts, negative and detached from reality.
Gurri – consciously or not – develops the most relevant ideas of these French thinkers. His unquestionable advantage over them lies, among other things, in the fact that he does it with admirable clarity, while Debord and Baudrillard envelop their reasoning in obscure jargons of Marxism and structuralism.
Infovores: Many of the topics you write about connect to themes I associate with Donald Trump—the downsides of globalization, concern with national identity, greater hawkishness toward China. How would you characterize Trump’s impact on European politics, and what form do you see that influence taking in the longer run?
Krzysztof: This is an excellent question and one that is too seldom asked. The election of Trump for Europeans, whether they hold populist or liberal sympathies, amplified the impression they got from Brexit. They had a sense that history was in motion. That’s a rare feeling in Europe.
The right wing and populists, which in Europe, as in France, for example, can hold resentment against America, felt the wind in their sails. It was an emotional reaction. Cooler minds, such as sociologist Emmanuel Todd, saw the more subtle effects of Trump’s presidency. There was this recognition that liberal dogma about free trade is not true in every period of history. For Todd, and here I agree with him, Trump marked the return of protectionism. His rhetoric, the trade war with China and, to a lesser extent, the EU, sobered the Europeans. They understood that they had to bring back economic statecraft, that the time of mercantilism was coming. Not everyone needed to be reminded of this; Germans’ position in Europe was, after all, built on neomercantilism disguised in rhetoric about European integration.
Trump’s historical merit is the one that Gary Gerstle grants him: he shattered the waning neoliberal order. The U.S. and Asia are adapting quickly to these changes, Europe at a much slower pace. His second historical merit was to dissipate illusions about China. In Europe, it is difficult to look at China objectively, as the tone is imposed by Germany, a country whose foreign policy is dictated by the industrial lobby, Beijing’s biggest ally on the continent. Consider: after the pandemic, German FDI to China doubled.
Trump’s election has created the impression that political change is possible. However, I get the feeling that the populists or the right have not changed much, they have not drawn lessons from Trump’s presidency. They have no vision for development, economic issues do not interest them much. They are absorbed in the culture wars. I have talked to many French populists. They have a literary culture, limited interest in the world outside their own country, know little about Asia, they distrust technology, flirt with the ideas of degrowth. Europe is too inward looking.
Sovereignty today means energy independence, a vision of national development, a distinct view of trade. Can you have all those things while staying in the EU? According to Dominic Cummings, it’s not possible. Populists don’t touch upon those matters. The EU constrains their room for manoeuvre, but they’d rather have their hands tied than lose their chance at gaining political power. So they’ve rejected sovereignist demands out of opportunism.
There has been a lot of talk recently that UK productivity growth has stalled. But few have noticed that Italy has had virtually zero productivity growth since 2000. What ideas do Meloni or Salvini have to change that?
It seems to me that the populist experience in Europe, with the exception of Orban and maybe partly Kurz’s Austria, is a political mist, a vapor, big slogans stirring emotions. Otherwise they follow the same path as the rest of the EU, only at a slower pace.
Brexit has been the biggest disappointment. It has not revived dynamism in the UK. I am convinced that Brexit has given the British the conditions of possibility to solve all their problems. They just don’t have the elites capable of achieving that. Jean-François Revel, whom I mentioned earlier, claimed that Europe has lost the ability to create “political and cultural prototypes.” I would like to believe that this is not the case, but it certainly seems like it.