Deterrence and disarmament: Are they both magical thinking?

THE DEPROLIFERATOR — More loose nuclear ends. . .

• In 1982 the well-known astrophysicist and science popularizer Carl Sagan coined the term “nuclear winter” to describe the environmental effects of nuclear war. Since then, like climate change, it’s garnered its share of deniers. In the recent Scientific American, Alan Robock and Owen Brian Toon write (emphasis added):

People have several incorrect impressions about nuclear winter. One is that the climatic effects were disproved; this is just not true. Another is that the world would experience “nuclear autumn” instead of winter. But our new calculations show that the climate effects even of a regional conflict [such as between India and Pakistan] would be widespread and severe. … far more than enough to destroy agriculture worldwide. … Even the warheads on one missile-carrying submarine could produce enough smoke to create a global environmental disaster.

Nuclear winter: the cherry on top of climate change.

• In recent months, concerns about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear missiles have been spreading. But the dominance that its military is once again asserting over its executive branch is testimony to its ongoing strength. Even infiltration is unlikely to result in the loss of a nuclear weapon or two to a terrorist group.

Still, despite its recent crackdown on the Taliban, there are some who think the Pakistani military might actually consider transferring its nuclear weapons to the Taliban or Lashkar-e-Taiba (the group thought to be behind the Mumbai attacks). As if possession of a nuclear weapons by one of those entities weren’t frightening enough, chances are it would let al-Qaeda in on the deal.

It’s bad enough when a state trades nuclear technology and know-how with another state, as the founder of Pakistan’s nuclear program, A.Q. Khan, did with impunity. But what would spur a state like Pakistan, or its military, to dole out its weapons to a terrorist group? After all, chances are the latter will one day bite the hand that feeds it and use a nuke on Pakistan?

Shaun Gregory is the director of the Pakistan Security Research Unit in the United Kingdom. Writing in the Sentinel, the West Point Combating Terrorism Center’s publication, he refers us to another author for some insight:

One argument for this, described in Philip Bobbitt’s Terror and Consent, is that states can become pressurized or incentivized to transfer nuclear weapons to terrorist groups because they are responding to threats from an external power but fear the consequences of being identified as the origin of a nuclear strike. In the context of severe international pressure on the Pakistan Army—particularly by India or the United States—the risk exists that Pakistan might be similarly incentivized.

In fact, if a state made a nuclear hand-off to a “non-state actor” and the latter made use of its nukes against an enemy the two have in common, it faces retribution from the world. As I’ve written about in a previous post, the developing science of nuclear forensics would likely be able to trace the nuclear weapons to their country of origin. Thus, transferring nuclear weapons to a terrorist group is doubly self-destructive if not suicidal.

• At Slate, its respected foreign-affairs columnist Fred Kaplan makes an, uh, provocative statement: “The thing is, the substance of nuclear-arms accords has little effect on the prospect of nuclear war.”

It’s unusual to hear the claim made that, in and of themselves, arms control treaties lack preventive powers. Usually, those in favor of disarmament have faith in the ability of treaties to thwart nuclear war. Hawks, meanwhile, claim they weaken us and invite attack. But what’s Kaplan getting at? He writes:

In the 1970s and ’80s, arms control negotiations were a surrogate for other kinds of diplomacy. They were useful not so much because of the treaties they produced but, rather, because they provided a forum for the two sides to talk about something. . . at a time when political differences precluded talks about anything else.

Kaplan doesn’t deny that. . .

. . . while relations are relatively healthy, Obama and the Russian leaders should nail down a new strategic arms-reduction treaty [START], which will reportedly cut each side’s “delivery vehicles”—the long-range missiles and bombers that carry nuclear weapons—from roughly 1,600 to 800 and the number of actual bombs and warheads from 2,200 to 1,500. …

But of a second set of talks planned to capitalize on the momentum of the new START, he writes:

. . . if Obama is serious about trying, in follow-on talks, to reduce the number of tactical nuclear weapons and nuclear warheads in storage, he will run into a set of near-intractable issues [because] intrusive inspections would be mandatory. Even talking about such matters in formal talks may. . . exacerbate tensions.

As for:

. . . “nuclear-wannabes” [they’re] not likely to drop their ambitions simply because they witness the spectacle of the United States and Russia engaging in substantive arms reduction. In fact, as the larger powers hold fewer and fewer weapons, it may become more and more tempting for small powers to jump into the arms race, as it would put them in a position closer to parity.

For the most part, that’s an argument advanced by hawks — which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not true. Kaplan adds:

The main point is this: The United States and Russia. . . now have the opportunity—in the post-Cold War, post-George W. Bush era—to work out common approaches and policies. There are only so many hours in the day, so many diplomatic forums requiring presidential involvement. It would be a shame to waste [the administration’s time and energy] on a full-bore immersion into the trap-strewn pit of nuclear-arms negotiations.

Again, he’s not speaking of the START renewal, but its “follow-on” talks. (As I’ve noted before, what’s wrong with “follow-up”?) In the end, what Kaplan seems to be saying is that, instead of concentrating on arms control, it makes more sense to instead focus on putting the relationship between the United States and Russia on the best footing possible. Then arms control will take care of itself.

However steeped in wisdom, that approach tempts fate. What if our next president harkens back to George W. Bush or the first term of Ronald Reagan? Aside from START, we’d be left with outdated agreements such as the Treaty on Nuclear Non-proliferation or those in limbo such as the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty.

• Proponents of deterrence claim that should it fail and nuclear war break out, we’d still come out ahead of where we would be if deterrence hadn’t been our policy all these years. Today, though, most don’t want to hear naked calculations about the possible sacrifice of millions of lives to save hundreds of millions.

But we caught prominent political scientist Daryl Press — currently working on a book about nuclear deterrence with frequent writing partner Keir Leiber — going all Herman Kahn in the comments section of an Arms Control Wonk post.

A deterrence failure that kills 10 million people would be terrible — but how does that tragedy compare with the benefit of avoiding the “missing” great-power war of the 2nd half of the 20th century? … Remember that great-power war — which killed roughly a hundred million people in the first half of the 20th Century — stopped happening when people developed nukes.

He’s assuming that deterrence kept the temperature down on the Cold War and prevented a third world war, a premise on which agreement is less and less unanimous. Press continues (emphasis added):

Nuclear “optimists” are often portrayed as being naive — e.g., they simply ignore the possibility of accidents, as you wrote. It’s just not true. Accidents will happen, and when they do lots of people may die. The argument of nuclear optimists is different: nuclear weapons may have ended once and for all one of the most destructive human activities: major, great-power wars of conquest. If so, that achievement may be well worth the continuing risk of accidents or war.

In turn, a nuclear “pessimist” might ask: How can the death of 10 million possibly be spun as a national-security success? How does the nuclear optimist justify thinking that’s the best we can do?

First posted at the Faster Times.

2 replies »

  1. Special thanks to Brian for alerting me to the nuclear winter story in the Scientific American..

  2. Are we sure that the deployment of nuclear weapons ended WWII? I’ve read multiple accounts that Japan had offered surrender at least once before the Enola Gay flew off to change the world. It’s not as if WWII would never have ended without deploying nuclear weapons.

    In 2000 i was eating what was probably radioactive reindeer meat (reindeer is just delicious, btw). Years after Chernobyl the lichen of the Karelian Peninsula still had plenty of fallout for the reindeer to get glowing noses from. I would think that even a few nuclear deployments would cause agricultural havoc; and i’d really prefer not to see the weather/climate affect.

    In terms of US-Russian relations and nuclear weapons, i really think that someone will need to man up and go first. It’s not going to be Russia this time, not with the overly-threatening posture and position of the US military. I do think that Putin (yes i know, but he makes the big decisions) would reciprocate a first step by the US. I don’t see Russia feeling threatened by conventional, US forces at home or in her near-abroad. Not after the struggles in Afghanistan and the failure in Georgia.

    Unfortunately, i don’t see Obama going first…the spinal requirement is too high.