Unravelling Norms

Unravelling Norms

A worrying lesson for many people of the Trump Presidency was that much of the order and process for politics in the United States is based on norms with little to no actual legal backing or consequence. Norms help set boundaries for decorum, help us learn how to navigate relationships and spaces, and in nearly all US presidential elections of the past, have helped us manage the transition of power from one president to the next.
 
 
Trump demonstrated that norms can be bulldozed by those who are either immune from the consequences of violating norms or by those who simply don’t care about the consequences. We also saw that when norms unravel, people get worried, something Steven Pinker writes about in the context of nuclear weapons in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. He writes, “a norm that rests only on mutual recognition of that norm is, of course, vulnerable to a sudden unraveling. One might worry … that nuclear nations outside the club of great powers … might not be party to the common understanding that the use of nuclear weapons is unthinkable.”
 
 
Norms are key parts of our institutional systems, even our international institutions as Pinker demonstrates. We rely on norms because writing down how every law should apply in every situation is not possible. There will always be important exceptions to rules and laws no matter how well we write the laws.  Norms guide us and allow us to navigate spaces and situations without having explicit and direct rules and laws for every possible scenario. But norms also become invisible until someone is suddenly violating them.
 
 
Tump was dangerous because he disregarded many political norms. Any news he disliked he dismissed as fake news. Even for the 2016 election, which he won, he never accepted the legitimacy of the electoral system. He refused to concede power after losing an election until enough outrage built following the storming of the Capitol. The outcomes were awful, but somewhat limited due to Trump’s laziness and incompetence.
 
 
As Pinker notes, norms also govern how most countries think about nuclear weapons. But there is no reason someone couldn’t disregard the norms around nuclear weapons the way that Trump disregarded American political norms. Pinker highlights the danger of a rogue actor or terrorist with a nuclear weapon. He writes about the danger of states like North Korea which may not adhere to our norms. If norms are all that bind the prohibition on the use and testing of nuclear weapons, then there is little that would prevent someone as rash as Trump or the North Korean leader from disregarding the norms and making a decision that could lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands or millions of people.
 
 
Norms are often invisible until they begin to unravel. When they do, it can happen suddenly and be very dangerous, especially when those norms surround major transitions of power or the use of nuclear weapons.
Nuclear Deterrence

Nuclear Deterrence

In the recent Marvel movie Eternals (I don’t recommend watching it) a brainy character helps the United States develop nuclear weapons which are used in WWII against Japan. The character later is at the bomb site and cries when he sees what his technology enabled. The idea within the short clip is that humans are not worthy of saving, and our development and use of nuclear weapons is evidence of how awful humans are.
 
 
But it raises an interesting question. Are nuclear weapons really our worst mistake? Some may argue that nuclear weapons our greatest tool for peace. Perhaps both can be true at the same time.
 
 
Robert Oppenheimer said that he had become death when the first nuclear weapons were used, but since that time no more nuclear weapons have been used in war. We have had tons of fears related to nuclear weapons and fallout, but we haven’t had any dirty bombs set off in major port cities, haven’t had any nuclear weapons used by a rogue state, and haven’t had any terrorists threaten to unleash a stolen nuclear weapon. Perhaps our timeframe is still too short, but nuclear weapons seem to have had a more positive effect on the world than we might think.
 
 
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “the Nobel Peace Prize to end all peace prizes should have been given to Robert Oppenheimer and his fellow architects of the atomic bomb. Nuclear weapons have turned war between superpowers into collective suicide, and made it impossible to seek world domination by force of arms.” In other words, nuclear deterrence has saved a lot of lives. Mutually assured destruction prevents massive wars.
 
 
I think we should still be concerned about nuclear weapons. I don’t exactly find it comforting knowing how many thousands of nuclear weapons are possessed by the United States and Russia. I think there is still a danger that a nuclear war could break out and end all human life – even if that possibility is exceptionally small. I do think Harari is correct, however. I think the nuclear deterrents have played a huge role in creating a safer world. I think they have reduced the chances that a major country invades another major country. I don’t think they are the only reason we haven’t had a great power war, but I think they play an important role. Even a victory won from using nuclear weapons would likely be repugnant to the victors, and I think that pressure, along with mutually assured destruction, has made the price of war too high for major conflicts on the scale of the past World Wars to take place. Oppenheimer’s bomb may have killed hundreds of thousands and may have been one of the lowest points of human history, but without it, perhaps millions more have been killed in war and perhaps many more would still be killed in war today.