Nuclear Winter
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Reclaiming the Future: How to End the End of Civilization

Abstract: Circumstances require the rethinking of defence and security doctrine. Denial is more provocative than previously thought, while conventional and nuclear deterrence are both under conceptual attack – neither is reliable in a proliferating world. What is needed is an entirely new approach to conflict itself, one which will not demonize the Other as a prelude to conflict prevention.

Bottom-line-up-front: We need a new paradigm for conflict prevention and termination; our present course leads inevitably to disaster and possibly the end of civilization.

Problem statement: Conventional deterrence is under threat from new technologies and their implications; nuclear deterrence is far more fragile and fraught than previously understood; we as security professionals must therefore forge new theory to fit our new circumstances.

So what?: Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis-era “We dare not tempt them with weakness” must finally give way to “We dare not scare them into pre-emption.” The threat of nuclear winter precludes any reliance on nuclear deterrence.

Nuclear Winter

Source: shutterstock/nouskrabs

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic of 2019-2021 (and counting) has forced many to rethink their most basic assumptions: That one can travel freely and interact with friends and loved ones pretty much as one pleases, for example. The last four years have also led many observers to rethink, e.g., the utility of NATO, where the President of one major Ally has frequently accused the others of underpaying running costs[1], and the President of another has declared the Alliance “brain-dead” for treating Russia and China as foes.[2] (It would help, of course, if Allies could agree on a raison d’être for NATO in the 21st century; however, Alliance politics have rendered that goal elusive since the fall of the Soviet Union.[3])

Yet it is the field of defence and security affairs which has undergone the most serious challenges to its collective Weltanschauung in the last decade, and for several reasons:

  • Current defence doctrines such as anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) and the related concept of denial in general, previously seen as an adjunct to restrained grand strategy,[4] are increasingly viewed as dangerously provocative[5];
  • Recent conflict in the Caucasus shows that the proliferation of smart munitions and ever-more-sophisticated and -available unmanned delivery systems casts increasing doubts on the ability of conventional deterrence to keep global peace[6];
  • Finally, and most unnervingly, the ultimate “security blanket” of nuclear deterrence has also been placed under severe challenge: It now appears that any detonation of 100 or more Hiroshima-sized (~15 kilotons) nuclear weapons over urban targets, far fewer than previously assumed, would trigger global nuclear winter, destroy global food security, kill millions, and potentially end civilization as we know it.[7]

As long as we as defence practitioners and theorists remain mired in 19th century security thinking, we have a problem.

What I call the Parabellum Paradigm – the idea that empathetic negotiation is to be eschewed in favor of demonization of the enemy, in concert with an insistence in almost all cases upon unconditional surrender for conflict termination – has certainly received a fair hearing. And it has failed.

In Crimea in 1853, in the American South in 1861, in Flanders in 1914, in Poland in 1939, across the global confrontation we call the Cold War from 1945-1990 (notably in the Falklands Islands in 1982), and in the years since then as the so-called War on Terror has taken shape, the Parabellum Paradigm has led to disaster, as the take-no-prisoners approach to pre-conflict negotiations has, time and again, resulted in unnecessary bloodshed and chaos.

Set against the context of failing doctrine and an increasingly uncertain future (denial is a risky and highly provocative strategy; conventional deterrence has never worked — apocryphal or no, Thatcher’s “there is a monument to the failure of conventional deterrence in every French village” strikes home; defensive alliances such as NATO are self-contradictory and provocative in se; and finally, nuclear deterrence is dead: Nuclear war will lead to nuclear winter), we are left with very little choice but to question the basic assumptions about conflict under which we have been operating.

What I propose for consideration is a vastly different way of viewing conflict, potential and actual: Trinitarian Realism. To be a Trinitarian Realist means:

  • That peccavi is important, but peccavimus is crucial – that all have sinned and fallen short, that no one comes to the table — any table, anywhere — with completely clean hands (a concept borrowed from the Christian Trinity);
  • That we must truly grasp Carl von Clausewitz’s “remarkable trinity”: War is the only human endeavor Clausewitz knew of which routinely combined the irrational (the citizenry facing prospects of war), the non-rational (military commanders accounting for chance in their preparations) and the über-rational (governments subordinating military action to policy), with totally unpredictable results thereby guaranteed;
  • And finally, that the July 16, 1945 Trinity Event in Alamogordo, New Mexico, the first nuclear explosion, changed conflict, diplomacy and international relations forever. Threats of war which can escalate, under any circumstances, into a nuclear exchange which approaches the threshold of nuclear winter are now and forever unacceptable.

Trinitarian Realism relies on strategic kindness for its basic approach, or, to put it another way, “leading with compassion.” As the global process of switching over from the neorealist Parabellum Paradigm begins, it may have to be armed compassion with which one leads, but this is a process, not an event. Informed, targeted charity and empathy become the means to address pre-crises and crises.

Clearly, this is a provocative thesis for a defence and security journal, and deliberately so. I hereby invite readers and contributors to respond with their own take on how we can all make it through the rest of this century in one piece – en garde!

Edmond Eggleston Seay III. Research interest: Conflict avoidance, amelioration and/or resolution. Prior publications: “Article 3: Ammunition/Munitions” in Weapons and International Law: The Arms Trade Treaty, (2015); United Nations Association of the UK,March 2013: “Theatre Nuclear Weapons in Europe: Status & Prospects for Change”. Fields: Strategic Intelligence/Political Economy/Arms Control. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone.

[1] Robin Emmott, “In Gesture to Trump, US Allies Close to Deal to Pay More for NATO Running Costs,” Reuters, November 27, 2019,

[2] RFE/RL, “Macron Says Russia, China Not NATO Allies’ Common Enemies — Terrorism Is,”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, November 28, 2019,—terrorism-is/30297520.html.

[3] Ted Seay, “Why is NATO Stuck?,” British American Security Information Council (BASIC), accessed 15 January 2021,

[4] Charles Koch Institute, “What is A2/AD?,” accessed December 20, 2020,

[5] Evan Montgomery, “Kill ’Em All? Denial Strategies, Defense Planning, And Deterrence Failure,” War on the Rocks, September 24, 2020,

[6] Montgomery, “Kill ‘Em All?”.

[7] Michael J. Mills, Owen B. Toon, Julia Lee‐Taylor, and Alan Robock, “Multidecadal Global Cooling and Unprecedented Ozone Loss Following a Regional Nuclear Conflict,” Earth’s Future 2 (no. 4), (April 2014): 161-176, .

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