How big a deal would a nuclear explosion be?

I am no longer so sure, as I outlined in my recent Bloomberg column:

Until recently, my view was that any actual use of a nuclear weapon, no matter the scale, would dramatically change everything. Nuclear use would no longer be considered taboo, and the world would enter a state of collective shock and trauma. Other countries around the world would start frantically preparing for war, or the possibility of war.

But recent events have nudged me away from that viewpoint. For instance, I have seen a pandemic that arguably has caused about 15 million deaths worldwide, yet many countries, including the U.S. haven’t made major changes in their pandemic preparation policies. That tells me we are more able to respond to a major catastrophe with collective numbness than I would have thought possible.

Of course I am referring to a smaller tactical nuclear weapon, as might be used against Ukraine.  India by the way lost five or so million people during the pandemic and they didn’t even fire their health minister.  And:

I also have seen Trumpian politics operate through the social media cycle. Former President Donald Trump did and said outrageous things on a regular basis (even if you agree with some of them, the relevant point is that his opponents sincerely found them outrageous). Yet the rapidity of the social media news cycle meant that most of those actions failed to stick as major failings. Each outrage would be followed by another that would blot out the memory of the preceding one. The notion of “Trump as villain” became increasingly salient, but the details of Trumpian provocations mattered less and less.

Might the detonation of a tactical nuclear weapon follow a similar pattern? Everyone would opine on it on Twitter for a few weeks before moving on to the next terrible event. “Putin as villain” would become all the more entrenched, but dropping a tactical nuclear weapon probably wouldn’t be the last bad thing he would do.

To cite the terminology of venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, the tactical nuclear weapon might stay “the Current Thing” for a relatively short period of time.

Let’s hope we don’t find out.


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