Moving From Myth to Reality

The first step in defusing the nuclear threat may not be to ratify treaties reducing weapons or ending testing, but to move from myth to reality in our thinking about national security. Don’t get me wrong. The New START Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty are both important steps that I strongly support. But if Russia is a modern-day reincarnation of Nazi Germany, what good would those treaties do? As with Neville Chamberlain’s 1938 attempt to appease Hitler with Czechoslovakia, it would end in disaster. Russia is not the monster of those nightmares, but enough Americans mistakenly believe that to be true that our foreign policy and national security posture are, at least in part, mythologically based.

Because nightmares cannot survive the light of day, most of this thinking tends to be hidden and only comes into clear view during crises, such as the Georgian war of two years ago. But, if our children and grandchildren are to have a reasonable chance at a secure future, it is important to recognize such dangerous thinking wherever it appears.

Page A2 of this morning’s Wall Street Journal had an article entitled “In Russian Thaw, Opportunity.” That’s a nice title, and the article does speak with guarded optimism about changes in Russia. But it also has an innuendo that feeds Russian fears and decreases our security:

All told, he [President Medvedev] described a relationship on the mend, just two years after Moscow’s military incursion into Georgia sent it into a tailspin. … Moreover, the last two decades illustrate the need to view signs of progress on the Russian front skeptically. … And Mr. Putin is still around … suppressing political opposition, cheering on a crackdown on Muslim activists in Chechnya and expanding the power of the Russian intelligence services.

The article is correct that Russia did undertake a military incursion into Georgia. But as noted at the time by conservative columnist Pat Buchanan and confirmed by an exhaustive European Union investigation, Georgia fired the first shots – many of which were artillery that hit civilians. Were Russian-American relations put into a tailspin by Russia’s military incursion into Georgia, or by American misperceptions encouraged by reports that emphasized only part of the story?

Much American reporting on Chechnya also has a dangerous slant. For example, the article is right that Russia has been cracking down on Muslim activists in Chechnya. But how would we respond if we suffered repeated terrorist attacks such as the 2002 Moscow theater takeover (170 dead), the 2004 Beslan school massacre (more than 300 dead, many of them children), the 2009 Moscow-St. Petersburg train bombing (28 dead), the March 2010 Moscow double suicide bombing of the Moscow subway (40 dead), plus many similar incidents? Our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq indicate that we too might crack down on Muslim activists in areas that bred such terrorism.

Ratifying the New Start Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty are important steps in defusing the nuclear threat. But, until we root out dangerous myths in our nation’s thinking, these treaties are less likely to be ratified and we will tend to react in ways that increase the nuclear threat. Moving from myth to reality is a critical first step in producing true national security.


While this post emphasized errors in our thinking about Russia, the same is true in many other critical areas. Earlier posts provided perspectives that are different from the mainstream on Iran, North Korea and missile defense.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Moving From Myth to Reality

  1. George says:

    The teaser of this article on the front page of the blog is highly irritating because it contains the undisputed question “But if Russia is a modern-day reincarnation of Nazi Germany, what good would those treaties do?” comparing Russia with Nazi Germany.
    Since I would expect that you hope that this blog is being read “by the other side” (the Russians) as well (because you’ll need both sides for an efficient risk reduction), you should be more careful with your wording (and possibly add “(which it is not)” to the teaser of the article. Otherwise these articles may discredit your credibility in an effort to reduce the nuclear threat.

    The second paragraph rectifies this, but is not visible from the start page, so this teaser is highly misleading.

  2. Nuclear Risk says:

    George, Thanks for pointing that out. I’ve moved an additional sentence into the teaser to rectify that problem. Martin

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s