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Global threat of nuclear deterrence

by Ramesh Thakur

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. Email: ramesh.thakur@anu.edu.au

  • iamhe

    No nation wants or needs nuclear weapons except to deter sociopathic belligerent governments from attacking.

    Nukes make venues unsafe for war.

    A few Nukes can deter many nukes

    Mutual Nuclear Deterrence -MND- is Civil Deterrence, Civilized Deterrence, Civilizing Deterrence,

    MND leads to reduced war spending, arms reductions, voluntary disarmament, except for those nations trying to be the dominant military force of the world.

    Deterrence: inaction caused by the perception of danger.

    No danger, No deterrence

    deterrence good, danger good.

  • Enteringsandman

    finally, a voice of reason. Thank you.

  • iamhe

    What is the minimal nuclear capacity able to deter China, The US, any nuclearized government from attacking?

  • iamhe

    Mutual Nuclear Deterrence, -MND- Civil Deterrence, leads to reduced military spending, arms reductions, and eventual voluntary disarmament.

  • tipu

    After the advent of nuclear weapons the security environment has changed. There is no global war like WWI and WWII. No direct confrontation between the two super powers in cold war. Deterrence has become the corner stone of strategy

  • Tooba mansoor

    Nuclear weapons are destructive and have disastrous consequences out of no doubt. But still they play a major role in deterring states from going to a full fledge nuclear war. No state has gone to a war since cold war because of the induction of nuclear weapons in the international weapons. As far as non nuclear weapon states are concerned, its is under intl.law binding that no other nuclear weapon state would use it against NNWS. So nuclear weapons are good as long as deterrence is concerned.

  • rabia javed

    The United States cannot unilaterally eliminate its nuclear
    arsenal, nor can any of the other major powers. Yet continually threatening to
    destroy the world can only lead to disaster. Imagine that a man wearing
    a TNT vest were to come into the room and, before you could escape, managed to
    tell you that he wasn’t a suicide bomber. He didn’t have the button to set off
    the explosives. Rather, there were two buttons in very safe hands. One was in
    Washington with President Obama and the other in Moscow with President Putin,
    so there was nothing to worry about. You’d still get out of that room as fast
    as you can!

  • Nehaan

    It is hard to accept but its a fact that nuclear weapons are meant to deter one from any external security threats. How the nuclear weapons turned to be a global threat? The answer lies in the policies of great powers which emerged as a threat and develop security dilemma towards small states. It is the hostility and aggression which gather the answers in shape of nuclear weapons. Kenneth N Waltz and Scott D Sagan views on “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons” More may be better or worse gives a clear picture of the role of nuclear weapons in deterring states from going away from war with each other.

  • kir chovo

    Manhattan project has transformed the conventional art of war primarily defined by Master Sun zu , Machiavelli and other strategists . now the masses are similar vulnerable as soldiers in conflict zones. the catastrophic consequences and immense bloodshed have seen in WW-2. but the craze for nuclear weapons have not been limited rather states are more inclined to acquire nuclear weapon capability. this is because nuclear weapons are symbol of prestige for the nation and it ensures the security of the nantion which is conventionally weak to its rival.

  • Ushakiran Yatnesh

    Nuclear weapons are the
    most dangerous weapons on earth. One can destroy a whole city,
    potentially killing millions, and jeopardizing the natural environment and
    lives of future generations through its long-term catastrophic effects.

    But in broader thinking
    especially in the context of South Asia, it is impossible to prove that the
    risk of a nuclear conflict has been the overriding factor preventing another
    all-out conflict, there is good reason to believe that it has been a
    significant constraint on policy makers in Pakistan and India.

  • iamhe

    Civilized Deterrence is the result of Mutual Nuclear Deterrence. I believe this is a good thing, a very good thing, better than treaties, laws, politicians, it works, it works well.