Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Black Swan Events: Nuclear War and Nuclear Terrorism

In my new Black Swan series of blog posts, I will be looking at a few of the potential surprises that history could have in store for us. Nassim Nicholas Taleb defines a Black Swan as an event that is very difficult to predict in advance, but radically changes the course of history. Some examples in the last 50 years include 9/11, the sudden collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War, the AIDS pandemic, and the invention of the birth control pill. It would have been very difficult for a futurist to predict any of those events in advance based on trends, and yet they have had a very large impact on the world. A Black Swan Event could throw a wrench into predictions for the future, which tend to be based on analyzing trends rather than anticipating surprises.

All of the predictions I have made about the future of technology, especially those in the more distant future, should have the following disclaimer: “Provided that we do not destroy ourselves.” Today I’ll be examining a Black Swan event that has been hanging over humanity like a Sword of Damocles for 65 years. A nuclear war has been widely viewed as the ultimate catastrophe. Very few things could set back the progress we have made in improving the quality of life in the past two centuries more than a nuclear war could. Where is the greatest threat of a nuclear war, and where is the greatest potential for destruction? Could a sovereign nation launch a nuclear first-strike against its foes, or are nuclear-armed terrorists the greater threat?

Let’s first examine the potential sources of an international nuclear war. While less likely than a nuclear terrorist attack, it has far more destructive capability. I think there are three main global flash points to consider: India-Pakistan, North Korea-United States, and Israel-Iran.

As with any Black Swan Events, we need to evaluate scenarios based upon both their likelihood and their destructive potential. The India-Pakistan flash point is very high on both measures, making it of supreme importance. This region has the greatest potential for an international nuclear war in my opinion. The two foes have 60-80 nuclear weapons each, and neither seems to have many qualms about nuclear brinkmanship. The extreme population density in this part of the world means that even a single nuclear volley could have enormous destructive potential. Despite (or perhaps because of) the instability of the Pakistani government, the two nations remain as suspicious of each other as ever.

North Korea is another source of a potential nuclear war. The nation makes a habit of antagonizing nearly every other country in the world, projecting an irrational image, and seems to perpetually be on the verge of either a power transfer or total collapse. In my opinion, the greater danger is an accidental nuclear launch against South Korea or Japan, rather than a directive from North Korea’s leadership. Little is known about North Korea’s nuclear weaponry, but it is unlikely that such an impoverished nation has adequate safeguards in place to prevent a Dr. Strangelove-style strike ordered by a rogue commander. If a North Korean weapon was used on South Korea or Japan, the United States would almost certainly respond with nuclear force of its own.

Another potential source of international conflict is between Israel and Iran. If Iran eventually gains nuclear weapons (as I think it will), either Iran or Israel may be tempted to strike the other first to solidify its position as the preeminent nuclear power in the Middle East. However, in my opinion conflict is unlikely, because neither Israel nor Iran would truly gain much from a nuclear exchange. It is far more likely that the two nations would come to an uneasy truce than fight a nuclear war.

But the greater danger comes from nuclear terrorism, rather than nuclear war. While far less destructive, it is also far more likely. Warren Buffett stated in 2002 that he believed an eventual nuclear attack on US soil was a “virtual certainty.” While I am not quite that pessimistic, it is hardly unthinkable.

Where could terrorists obtain nuclear weapons? Three nuclear powers – Russia, Pakistan, and North Korea – have had difficulty maintaining control of their stockpile, thus allowing the possibility of a nuclear black market. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the nuclear material was spread amongst four nations (Russia, Kazakhstan, the Ukraine, and Belarus). A small amount of it has never been accounted for. It may still be changing hands on the black market. North Korea and Pakistan pose even greater threats. North Korea may be on the verge of total state collapse. If the nation collapses and the neighboring powers do not take immediate action to secure its nuclear supplies, it is plausible that terrorists could eventually gain access to this material. The Pakistani government is increasingly unstable, and many elements of the military are sympathetic to terrorist groups. Many parts of the nation are not controlled by the central government. Furthermore, Pakistani nuclear officials under A.Q. Khan have a history of selling nuclear material on the black market.

While the end of the Cold War greatly reduced the threat of a nuclear conflict, the trend has now reversed as nuclear weapons continue to proliferate, especially in unstable regimes. The use of nuclear weapons is becoming more likely with each passing year. While I doubt that any terrorist groups have access to nuclear weapons yet, I think the day is coming in the near future unless the world takes immediate action to reverse the trend.

A nuclear weapon is detonated in a major world city by 2030 –
Probability: 50%
A nuclear war (defined as a nuclear attack and counterattack) occurs by 2030 –
Probability: 30%


  1. You think that if a nuclear weapon is detonated in a major world city there is only a 60% chance that that country or ally country will retaliate with nuclear force?

  2. Brandon,
    I think it depends on where it is set off, and who was responsible. In some cases, the targeted nation may not be able to retaliate or have allies who are willing to do so. But more likely, there may not be any obvious target to retaliate against.

    For example, if a terrorist organization were to set off a nuclear weapon in the United States, there wouldn't necessarily be a clear area to target for nuclear retaliation. Or if rogue elements of the Pakistani military used a nuke within their own country, the government of Pakistan wouldn't be able to retaliate with nuclear force against their own people.

  3. Do you think that a nuclear war can actually be seen as a black swan event? Agreed it has a high impact and people would be able to look at it in the hindsight and rationalize it, but would it actually come as a surprise considering the current situation?