Clem Sunter | On the Brink of World War III – The Questions to Ask

The titan missile, built and owned by the United States, is one of the most powerful nuclear weapons in the world. (PHOTO: Wikipedia)

seven years ago, Clem Sunter raised several questions regarding the possibility of a nuclear conflict between Russia and the United States. The questions, in light of the recent invasion of Ukraine, remain valid.


In 2015, I wrote a book called Flagwatching – How a fox decodes the future. It was published by Tafelberg in November this year. I devoted 10 of the 170 pages to Ukraine and the possibility of a nuclear conflict between Russia and America. The following is an excerpt from this section of the book.

The red flag

This flag is an existential threat to the West and it is very red. It is Russia or, more specifically, Vladimir Putin, and it came up with the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Is the voluntary return of Crimea a likely scenario? The answer is no. Already, mission creep has crept into Russian strategy in that they are helping Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. Can the creep spread to other countries where there are large Russian minorities?

In a sense, Ukraine is Russia’s window to the West, as all other former Soviet Union members on its western border (except Belarus) have joined the European Union and are NATO members. If Ukraine were to do the same, it would pretty much complete Russia’s loss on its western front. Therefore, from Russia’s perspective, the stakes are very high and it is unlikely to reverse its policy – ​​whatever the economic cost of the sanctions. For Americans, the current Ukrainian government is perfectly legal and the Russians have invaded a sovereign state.

READ | ANALYSIS: Putin’s antagonism to Ukraine wasn’t about NATO, it was about creating a new empire

This brings us to the ultimate scenario of a total exchange of nuclear missiles between America and Russia. Putin continually mentions the nuclear option these days in a way that leaves American diplomats experienced in Cold War politics scratching their heads in disbelief. One of them said the other day that America had a sense of Russian logic during the Cold War; now they are totally mystified. They no longer know where nuclear weapons fit in Russia’s order of battle, or what would signal their imminent use.

Revisiting Nuclear Game Theory

Following the red flag, I have been calling for a revision of nuclear game theory for some time before the rivalry between Russia and America becomes unstoppable in its progression towards nuclear confrontation. Nobody wants a Third World War.

I cite the following event in support of this review. On October 31, 1961, Russia detonated the most powerful nuclear weapon ever, before or after. The site was a remote archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, north of the Russian coast. The explosion was equivalent to between 50 and 58 megatons of TNT or 1,400 times the combined power of the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in August 1945. Dropped in the center of any major city today, it would virtually flatten it and would instantly kill between a quarter and a third of its inhabitants.

Classical game theory examines all possible strategies a player must consider considering all of their opponent’s responses. This obviously also applies to nuclear conflicts. Now you have the most heavily armed nations locking horns like they did in 1962, eyeball to eyeball like two chess players bent over the next move. John von Neumann, a Hungarian American mathematician, was the founder of game theory in 1928. He later coined the acronym MAD which stands for “mutually assured destruction” in the nuclear game.

READ | The Risk of Nuclear Weapons: How Dangerous Are We and What Could Russia Do?

The argument was that neither player would resort to nuclear conflict if a first strike by one triggered a response from the other that caused crushing loss to the initial aggressor. So a second strike capability on both sides ensured peace between them on the principle of minimizing your maximum potential loss. The latter is a central element of optimizing your strategy according to game theory. In short, if you bomb me, I will bomb you, so let’s be reasonable and don’t bomb ourselves.

If John von Neumann were alive today, I would ask him the following questions. Perhaps someone from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where von Neumann was based, knows game theory well enough to act as a substitute:

  • Is MAD still a valid concept that makes nuclear conflict highly unlikely? Is the Doomsday scenario widely accepted? Or are military strategists now playing nuclear war games where they consider less apocalyptic sequels? If so, do they envisage a conventional war preceding a nuclear exchange, or the reverse?
  • What would be the estimated damage and loss of life caused by a nuclear conflict between the United States and Europe on one side and Russia on the other? What damage would be done to the environment in the short and long term?
  • What would be the impact on the rest of the world and would the whole world recover from such a world war as quickly as it did in 1945?
  • What are the odds that the current game in Ukraine will remain localized or deteriorate into a direct military conflict between major players with potential nuclear consequences?
  • Does the possibility of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons negate MAD since they belong to no fixed abode that can be destroyed if they attack first, and are willing to die for their cause?
  • How does emotion figure into mathematical models of game theory since patriotism as well as logic can be responsible for triggering nuclear war?

I couldn’t find a single word in print or social media, on TV or radio or anywhere in the public domain addressing this issue.

Fast forward to the present

It has been almost seven years since I wrote the aforementioned words, and the risks of World War III have increased dramatically. Yet no one I know has attempted to answer these questions. Maybe the subject matter is too gruesome to contemplate, but part of being a cunning futurist is thinking the unthinkable before it actually happens. In other words, you should at least play out the scenario, or a series of scenarios, and see where the narrative leads. Complex and unpredictable conditions demand this approach and right now Ukraine’s future is as unpredictable as it gets.

That said, the stark reality of war is that most strategic decisions are made by the leaders themselves and no one else – in this case, Putin and Biden. It would be a tragedy for the rest of humanity if the two of them fell into nuclear war when there were other alternatives available.

– Clem Sunter is a futurist, keynote speaker and scenario planner.

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