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I wondered if a policy of mutually assured destruction favors rogue states.

I think it is fair to assume that a rogue nuclear state would have less regard for its people and their life and wellbeing which gives them the upper hand in any conflicts against smaller countries as theoretically they can more easily risk an escalation. Not to mention that they can prepare for that earlier.

Is there a way for a democratic power to act against it? It just seems there is no way out.

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Not necessarily, not on several levels:

  • Even a government with callous disregard for its people may draw the line at having them all killed.

  • Even a government which still did not care would have its own members and their families killed as a result of a full nuclear war. This would also be true of members of the armed forces.

  • A prototypical small rogue state, like North Korea or a nuclear Iran, does not have the nuclear firepower to do impose like MAD to a larger country, but it can still get destroyed itself.

  • Ultimately, "winning" a large scale nuclear exchange means you have no country left. As a rational leader, you would only do that if your attacker was already planning to destroy your country or at least your own place in government. So the onus is on the other guy not to put a knife under your throat.

  • To take an historical example, even Hitler, about as far one can get on irrationality and callousness, did not deploy gas weapons in combat. This was probably because the sum result would have been negligible advantages for all parties concerned - all parties were ready to switch over to chemical warfare and no one would have benefited asymmetrically. Ditto Saddam in Gulf War 1.

To take an informed opinion, about well, a totally hypothetical example, here's what Alexei Kozyrev a former Russian foreign minister had to say about Putin.

But there are fears that Mr. Putin, feeling cornered, might be tempted to follow through on some of these threats. Is the fact that the war is going poorly for his forces making the situation even more dangerous?

Cornered? Yes. But suicidal? No, I don't think so.

I mean, those guys — I mean, the top of the clique, including, of course, Putin himself — they are life lovers. They like good wines. They like good cognac. They like good … entertainment and all that. And they have families, also. Some of them have families in the United States. Probably some have [families] even in Canada. And most of them, of course, have [families] in London or in Europe.

And all of those [family members] will die — I mean, we all will die if it comes to nuclear war.

The nuclear blackmail should be just eliminated from the calculation here. Otherwise, he will win all over the place. He wants [to be] the world dictator, not only a Russian dictator. Imagine if you give him Ukraine now for nuclear blackmail. Where does he stop? I mean, it would be like a magic wand in hands of a black sorcerer.

It is quite possible that Kozyrev is overly relaxed. But as, just to take an example, Putin is not backed into a corner, he should be as little motivated to go nuclear as his Soviet predecessors. Or indeed as the US government itself was on several occasions during the Cold War.

There are some concerns about an irrational leader (just another example, doesn't mean I am supportive of this assessment which probably had good deal of political name-calling motivating it) carrying out a launch because of too permissive command and control systems - (because the PM/President/King/Big Kahuna has the ultimate authority to launch) - but those aren't necessarily tied to the political system of the country per se (i.e. it would be a rogue leader, not a rogue state).

The more often humanity, because we are all in this together here, is put into situations like these, the more risk that the odds will catch up with us eventually. So nuclear weapons are not without risks, far from. But each individual crisis sees relatively little probability of their use, especially if cooler heads prevail.

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