Global threat of nuclear deterrence

Nuclear weapons are uniquely destructive and hence uniquely threatening to all our security. There is a compelling need to challenge and overcome the reigning complacency on the nuclear risks and dangers, and to sensitize policy communities to the urgency and gravity of the nuclear threats and the availability of nonnuclear alternatives as anchors of national and international security orders.

The transformation of anti-nuclear movements into coalitions of change requires a shift from street protest to engagement with politics and policy.

A nuclear catastrophe could destroy us anytime. Because we have learned to live with nuclear weapons for 68 years, we have become desensitized to the gravity and immediacy of the threat.

The tyranny of complacency could yet exact a fearful price if we sleepwalk our way into a nuclear Armageddon. It really is long past time to lift the shroud of the mushroom cloud from the international body politic.

Witnessing the first successful atomic test on July 16, 1945, Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project, which developed the A-bomb, recalled the sacred Hindu text the Bhagvad Gita: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.”

Birth and death are symbiotically linked in the Hindu cycle of life. So Oppenheimer recalled too the matching verse from the Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Let me put seven propositions regarding the role of nuclear weapons for defense and deterrence:

(1) The normative taboo against this most indiscriminately inhumane weapon ever invented is so comprehensive and robust that under no conceivable circumstances will its use against a nonnuclear state compensate for the political costs. We know this from the fact that nuclear powers have accepted defeat at the hands of nonnuclear states rather than escalate armed conflict to the nuclear level.

(2) Against nuclear-armed rivals, they cannot be used for defense. The mutual vulnerability of such rivals to second-strike retaliatory capability is so robust for the foreseeable future that any escalation through the nuclear threshold really would amount to mutual national suicide. Their only purpose and role is mutual deterrence.

(3) However, here too national security strategists face a fundamental and unresolvable paradox. In order to deter a conventional attack by a more powerful nuclear adversary, each nuclear-armed state must convince its stronger opponent of the ability and will to use nuclear weapons if attacked.

But if the attack does occur, escalating to nuclear weapons will worsen the scale of military devastation even for the side initiating nuclear strikes.

Because the stronger party believes this, the existence of nuclear weapons may add an extra element or two of caution, but does not guarantee complete and indefinite immunity for the weaker party.

If, for example, Mumbai or Delhi was hit by another major terrorist attack that the Indian government believed had Pakistan connections, the pressure for some form of retaliation across the border might well prove stronger than the caution about Pakistan having nuclear weapons.

(4) The role of nuclear weapons in having preserved the long peace among the major powers during the Cold War is debatable. How do we assess the relative weight and potency of nuclear weapons, West European integration and West European democratization as explanatory variables in that long peace?

Nor has there been any evidence produced to show that either side had the intention to attack the other at any time during the Cold War, but was deterred from doing so because of nuclear weapons held by the other side.

What is beyond dispute is that the Soviet Union’s dramatic territorial expansion across Eastern and Central Europe behind Red Army lines took place in the years of U.S. atomic monopoly, 1945-49; and that the Soviet Union imploded after, but not because of, gaining strategic parity. Therefore, the putative security benefits of nuclear deterrence have to be assessed against the real risks, costs and constraints, including human and system error.

(5) To those who nonetheless profess faith in the essential logic of nuclear deterrence, let me pose a simple question: Would they prove their faith by supporting the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran in order to contribute to the peace and stability of the Middle East which at present has only one nuclear-armed state?

The late professor Kenneth Waltz was one of the very few who had the courage of his intellectual conviction to argue that because nuclear weapons contribute to the stability of deterrence, a world of more nuclear-weapon states would be a generally safer world.

(6) It is equally contestable that nuclear weapons buy immunity for small states against attack by the powerful.

It seems highly plausible to postulate that the biggest elements of caution in attacking North Korea — that is, if anyone has such intention in the first place — lies in uncertainty and anxiety about how China would respond, followed by worries about North Korea’s conventional capability to hit Seoul and other parts of South Korea. Pyongyang’s current arsenal of nuclear weapons and the capacity to deploy and use them credibly is a distant third factor in the deterrence calculus.

(7) Against the contestable claims of utility, there is considerable historical evidence that we averted a nuclear catastrophe during the Cold War as much owing to good luck as to wise management, with the 1962 Cuban missile crisis being the most starkly graphic example of all.

Moreover, compared to the sophistication and reliability of the command and control systems of the two Cold War rivals, those of some of the contemporary nuclear-armed states are dangerously frail and brittle.

Almost half a century after the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was signed, the world is still perched precariously on the edge of the nuclear precipice.

As long as anyone has nuclear weapons, others will want them; as long as nuclear weapons exist, they will be used again some day by design, accident, miscalculation or rogue launch; any nuclear exchange anywhere would have catastrophic consequences for the whole world.

We need authoritative road maps to walk us back from the nuclear cliff to the relative safety of a less heavily nuclearized, and eventually a denuclearized, world.

Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Australian National University. This is based on a paper delivered at the Arms Control and Strategic Stability conference in Beijing.

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