Published on December 12th, 20120
The Return of the Nuclear Bomb, Part II/III
Jo Jakobsen, NTNU
The so-called nuclear taboo stands a good chance of being broken in my lifetime. A nuclear war looms on the horizon. It does not have to be an all-out nuclear exchange involving thousands of warheads – that is in fact quite unlikely – but some state will eventually push the big red button and end the tradition of non-use. This article, the second of three parts of which is presented today, explains why this is so.
Strike One. To begin with current events and preoccupations: The nuclear non-proliferation regime – the core of which is formed by the much-cited Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – is under severe strain, as has indeed always been the case. A ‘grand nuclear bargain’ of the late 1960s, the NPT formalized the legality of the major powers’ (i.e. the U.S., Soviet Russia, China, the UK, and France) nuclear weapons, while it outlawed the possession of nuclear weapons by every other NPT signatory (India, Pakistan, Israel, and, as of 2003, North Korea are not NPT signatories; practically all other states in the world are, however). To effectuate this bargain, the majors did have to make a few concessions, the most conspicuous of which was that they were obliged eventually to disarm.
Perhaps needless to say, the ‘disarmament pillar’ of the NPT has had little or no practical impact on the nuclear-weapon states, if one does not count largely cosmetic U.S.–Russian disarmament deals that have been concluded over the years. That part of the bargain has thus been breached. Whether related or unrelated to that fact, the second main part of the bargain – that the other signatories would abstain from acquiring, or attempting to acquire, the bomb – rests on shaky foundations. Several states have cheated flagrantly on their NPT obligations, with Iran just being the most recent example. Cheating is really not that difficult, alas, especially given that, up to a point, developing nuclear energy for peaceful, civilian purposes involves exactly the same procedures and processes as harnessing nuclear energy for less benevolent uses.
The problem is that effective non-proliferation efforts require extensive surveillance, technical expertise, export and import controls, diplomatic skills, economic inducements, and threats and use of economic sanctions (and ultimately military action). In other words: steadfast, conscious, unrelenting non-proliferation strategies and actions. Here the U.S is the real linchpin of the NPT system. If Washington wavers on this score, nuclear proliferation will happen. And Washington will waver eventually, partly because non-proliferation is costly and tiring business, but mostly because the U.S. will soon have other, more prominent worries in East Asia (and perhaps elsewhere as well). Further nuclear proliferation is hence a matter of time considering that the bomb makes for the perfect deterrent.
This, in and by itself, is not necessarily a world-security problem, and it certainly does not automatically lead to Armageddon. Kenneth Waltz was cited earlier on the pages of Popular Social Science; his general view of nuclear proliferation is that it, contrary to common belief, actually increases world and regional security by instilling caution into the regimes in question, not least by significantly raising the expected costs of conventional armed conflict.
Professor Waltz is an incredibly knowledgeable man and a sublime analyst of world affairs. But most of all he is a great theoretician. Theoretically, he is in the right on the nuclear issue; if you raise the expected costs of conflict, which you automatically do when nuclear weapons enter into the equation, you also lower the likelihood of conflict erupting, especially serious armed conflict. When we consider the real world, however, Professor Waltz is somewhat off the mark. And nuclear weapons and their attendant policies and doctrines and plans for use, alas, primarily belong to the real world. The main problem with the real world – a problem that Professor Waltz in his nuclear and non-nuclear works alike consistently sacrifices on the altar of admittedly academically necessary abstraction and theory-building – is that it is inhabited by human beings. Unfortunately.
The above constitutes a long introduction to three quite specific causal chains that spell significant danger for world security. Firstly, nuclear-weapons proliferation to relatively weak, fragile states – like Pakistan and North Korea, both of which are now members of the nuclear club – is worrying in the sense that state fragmentation also implies fragmentation of authority relationships, and of (nuclear) command-and-control systems. In an interstate crisis, uncertainties multiply, and the likelihood of an accidental or conscious launch of a nuclear-tipped missile increases. Note again that in both these cited cases, the ‘guarantor’ of a modicum of peace, stability, and predictability is the U.S. – by virtue of its containment policies (vis-à-vis North Korea) and its financial, military, and technical support (Pakistan). If the U.S. removes itself from those self-appointed roles, most bets are off regarding nuclear security. And at the very least, we wouldn’t want to see additional nuclear-armed Pakistans or North Koreas stumbling around in the international system, no matter the theoretical soundness of Waltz’s argument.
Secondly, we have the related ‘madman’ argument. Politically exploited to the extreme by American leaders at least since the Clinton era, this argument (which also counters Waltz’s reasoning) holds that the authoritarians of so-called ‘rogue states’ cannot be trusted to handle nuclear weapons in a responsible manner. If not mad, your Saddams, Kims, or Ayatollahs are certainly not the poster children of the liberal ideas of 1800-century Enlightenment, which still presumably saturate Western thinking and values; they’re rather erratic, eccentric, fanatical, non-empathetic, and oblivious to the suffering of their own, not to mention other states’, people. Wouldn’t, then, facing a nuclear Saddam, Kim, or Ayatollah, in a crisis – and crises are bound to occur from time to time in global and regional systems – spell disaster? If provoked, a bomb might or will be dropped. Perhaps. Maybe. A tad unlikely, in my own opinion, but at the same time I do not really want to get the madman theory neither verified nor discarded; risk-taking is not a hobby of mine, and neither should we expect the international community to consider such an activity a desirable pastime.
Thirdly, and now I will finally leave the international rogues and dissidents, another version of the ‘end-of-the-NPT-grand-bargain’ focuses on more advanced, ‘Westernized,’ richer, sophisticated, and familiar regimes. Quite a few states today possess the ability and capacity to develop nuclear arms. The list is long, but let me sharpen the analysis by pointing exclusively to East Asia. Leaving out Indonesia, Malaysia, and a couple of other candidates on the southern edges of that region, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are my cases.
These three states have three pronounced traits in common. First, they are all unquestionably capable of developing the bomb. In fact, if a political decision was made to go nuclear, the process would be quick and not necessarily too bumpy; a handful of bombs could be manufactured within the space of a few years. Second, all three face severe security issues in their vicinity – primarily stemming from their relationships with North Korea (South Korea and Japan) and, above all, China (all three). Thirdly, their national security is guaranteed explicitly (Japan and South Korea) or implicitly (Taiwan) by the ever-present, semi-omnipotent United States. Changes in the first of these traits or variables, moreover, hinge on the stability of the third factor – while the second is virtually unchangeable. Simply stated, if Washington’s security guarantee disappears, or if its credibility evaporates, going nuclear is the obvious option at least for Japan and South Korea (Taiwan might dither a bit, though, given the quite significant risk of a punitive Chinese preventive nuclear strike, which would incidentally prove this article’s main argument or expectation correct).
What relation, then, would a new nuclear-armed Asian trio have to the likelihood of a broken nuclear taboo? Mathematics. Sheer math: Three new nuclear-armed states yield at least six new relevant nuclear dyads (China–Taiwan, China–Japan, China–South Korea, North Korea–South Korea, North Korea–Japan, Japan–South Korea), in addition to the added significance of the already-existing dyads (e.g. USA–China, India–China and by extension India–Pakistan, U.S.–Russia, and so on).
The larger the number of relevant nuclear dyads (especially in an area rife with bitter conflicts and animosity, like East Asia), the more precarious the nuclear taboo: For much of the Cold War, the only nuclear conflict dyad of note was the U.S.–USSR one. If the hostility between these superpower antagonists was often palpable, so was the relative simplicity of the relationship and the attendant nuclear-risk calculations: each had really nothing but itself and its main rival to worry about (here I once again borrow the reasoning of Professor Waltz, with whom I now fully agree; it is quite surprising, however, that Waltz does not extend his logic on the presumed stability of bipolarity – and the concomitant inherent instability of the more complex power configuration of multipolarity – into the realm of nuclear-weapon dyads, where he effectively denies that numbers add to complexity and risk). Not so with nuclear proliferation, especially in East Asia. Thus, the risk of a nuclear exchange rises significantly if the U.S. withdraws from or downscales its presence in that region. Ominously, this is exactly what the U.S. will do in a few years’ time considering its inevitable slide down the ladder of relative power. Its bilateral alliances here will not hold forever (i.e. throughout my lifetime), and neither will the nuclear taboo, I surmise.
Strike Two. Complacency is man’s worst enemy. We have gotten used to the nuclear taboo, extoling its alleged objective existence and presumed perdurability to the point where we cannot really imagine any state or military leader ordering a nuclear strike for real. In fact, all the rage is now the ‘zero’ movement: a steady propagation of the belief that we will soon enter a period in which nuclear weapons no longer exist and where we, as a consequence, can all live happily and peacefully together without the sword of Damocles constantly dangling over our perishable heads. Complete disarmament! Even intelligent people claim to be proponents of nuclear zero.
Granted, this ideology is first and foremost a Western fad: Partly its proponents are European (whose wealth, secularism, post-modernism, and anti-militarism regularly lead to the production of idealist slogans and pipe dreams rather than sound security analysis). And Europeans generally refuse to acknowledge that there are villains out there, villains who might actually contemplate manufacturing and even using a nuclear weapon if national-security objectives so dictate – even if, or perhaps because the U.S., France, and Great Britain disarm. Partly the zero movement is American, however. And in this latter case, the reasoning, on second glance, makes much more sense also from a strategic point of view.
It is no coincidence that the most famous representative of the zero movement is U.S. President Barack Obama. Mr. Obama is a smart man, a fine (though hardly brilliant) analyst of world affairs, and certainly a better commander-in-chief for the U.S. military than was his predecessor. Perhaps one can even claim that Barack Obama is a good man – with sincere idealist aspirations on behalf of all of us, aspirations that the world can become a better and safer place. In April 2009 Barack Obama delivered a speech in Prague, for which he effectively and quite absurdly (even by his own admission) was soon after awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. That speech centered on nuclear-weapons disarmament. He bluntly stated that the U.S. was committed “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” adding that it is important to “ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, ‘Yes, we can.’”
Barack Obama knows perfectly well that this idealist aspiration is unattainable (he also stated as much in his speech), at least in his own lifetime. But whether he is conscious of it or not, a world devoid of nuclear weapons would clearly and unequivocally suit America’s strategic interests. And here we are close to the crux of the matter when we discuss nuclear disarmament, nuclear non-proliferation, zero movements, madmen, and the like: The U.S. – the world’s hegemon – will become the main loser if the bomb returns.
The reason is simple but seldom reflected on: The United States derives its hegemonic status primarily (albeit not exclusively) from its military prowess. Its conventional (i.e. non-nuclear) military prowess, that is. No state – indeed not even a single theoretical combination of a number of states, any number of states – comes close to matching the U.S. in military terms. Its airforce, its navy (particularly its navy!), its command of space, its technology, the training of its soldiers, its command-and-control system, its intelligence services, its global network of bases, its alliances, its precision-guided weapons, its drones, its everything, really! Everything that falls within the accepted rules of the game of war! And the accepted rules of the game of war is by and large, in the era of U.S. hegemony, an invention of the U.S. and its staunch allies. This is no coincidence – power shapes perceptions of legitimacy. In fact, the causal arrow points both ways. If an act is considered legitimate, it positively affect the power of the actor. The U.S. wins as long as the rules of the game are acknowledged as such. Or, more tautologically, the U.S. wins as long as the U.S. reigns.
Cue the nuclear bomb as: (1) the great power equalizer; and (2) the weapon of choice for those who do not accept the prevailing rules of the game. That is the nightmare scenario for Washington, though it is virtually never framed in quite as candid terms by U.S. officials, which is certainly quite understandable.
This reasoning parallels that of asymmetric warfare more generally: If you do not stand a chance of beating your opponent in regular army-to-army battle, you have to do things differently. You have to bend the rules of the game. You have to refuse to follow them. You have to employ guerrilla tactics (like the insurgents in Cuba, Vietnam, or Afghanistan, for that matter); you have to be elusive and agile; you might have to contemplate typical terrorist attacks, a series of small ones or a few big hits; you may want to focus on winning hearts and minds; or, as the Iranians have planned for for quite a while with regard to a possible sea battle against the Americans, you have to behave like a wild wasp stinging your larger opponent hundreds of times with small vessels and small weapons, but with huge tenacity and clearness of purpose. Whatever you do, if you fight the U.S., you need to do what the Americans don’t want you to do. And the Americans don’t want you to do: (a) what the Americans cannot do, or cannot contemplate doing, themselves; (b) what Americans don’t do any or much better than others. This includes, most notably, attacking (or threatening to attack) with nuclear weapons (or biological or chemical weapons, though these are much less powerful) – the ultimate power equalizer.
Nightmare scenario. And the single most important reason why the U.S. is so relentless in its non-proliferation efforts. It is one thing invading Iraq (like the U.S. did in 2003) when that country has no nuclear weapons; it is quite another to carry out an invasion knowing that one risks being hit with the bomb. A non-nuclear-armed Iraq is and was a walkover for the U.S. military. A nuclear-armed Iraq, on the other hand, would likely have deterred the American invasion a priori. Hence the eagerness with which Iran (and North Korea) pursue a nuclear capability (which at relatively short notice can be converted into a nuclear-weapons capability); it really is the ultimate deterrent.
So, in an American-shaped world nuclear weapons are out of fashion because they are incompatible with U.S. strategic interests. That does not explain, however, why complacency with the nuclear taboo – and the growth of the zero movement – can act as a cause of nuclear war. I will now account for why this is so.
For all the talk about zero and disarmament and the grisliness of the bomb, the U.S. has unwittingly but quite understandably entangled itself into what can be referred to as nuclear-posture ambiguity. This means, on the one hand, that Washington downplays the role of nuclear weapons in its national-security strategy. ‘The weapons are there, alright, but seriously and rest assured: We’ll never use ‘em!’ On the other hand, Washington continues to let nuclear weapons hold a key position in its national-security strategy. ‘We might use them after all, you know! We won’t tell you when or where, we’ll keep you guessing, and don’t you dare provoke us!’ Contradictions. Ambiguity (‘calculated ambiguity’ is the official expression used). Confusion. Even self-confusion.
The specific risk, in terms of the likelihood of a breach of the nuclear taboo, is the following. The ambiguity referred to above, if and when the proponents of the zero argument in the U.S. debate grow stronger and more vociferous, as they certainly seem to be doing, probably means that America’s opponents will become more inclined to take risks in their conduct of foreign policy. Note that this will particularly be the case if America’s foe has equaled, or believes it has equaled, U.S. military might in other relevant areas (such as naval battles in so-called contested zones, like the Persian Gulf or the Taiwan Straits). Credibility, or the lack thereof, is the key word here.
U.S. credibility on issues of nuclear-weapons use is steadily declining. In other words, fewer and fewer people – experts, analysts, policymakers, strategists – really believe that Washington is prepared to use the ultimate weapon in a crisis that does not directly place the U.S. homeland at risk. In a crisis in East Asia, for example. Or the Middle East. But still, official American nuclear doctrine and plans indicate that all options should be on the table in a plethora of different scenarios. The U.S. refuses, for example, to give assurances that it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into a conflict if its core interests (a surprisingly broad concept actually) are under threat.
Well, Japan is such a core interest. And Japan is protected by America’s so-called ‘nuclear umbrella,’ the existence of which is the key reason why Japan has not yet developed its own bomb. If China attacks Japan (over the islands of Senkaku/Diaoyu, for example) and creates a fait accompli (e.g. effective occupation of the islands), the nuclear option is automatically placed on the proverbial table. But no-one would believe it. Not even the Americans themselves! U.S. nuclear credibility is too low. And the Chinese know that (and China, of course, is capable of attacking the U.S. with its own nuclear arsenal). And the Chinese would know that before the war over the islands. They take that risk because it is worth taking. And it is worth taking because the U.S. has gradually eroded its own credibility.
But there’s a hitch to my story. A logical conundrum. It centers on the vitality of credibility, in particular for a world power, of which we have only one, namely America. It is not only about China and Japan and some small islands or islets. If the U.S., in such a scenario, refuses to contemplate the use of nuclear weapons, its entire empire soon uravels. Not only is its credibility vis-à-vis Japan at stake, but surely so too is its credibility vis-à-vis South Korea, vis-à-vis Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Norway, Germany, Turkey, and so on.
A common mistake when people try to grasp the causes, meanings, and consequences of world affairs is that they fail to comprehend the value, and indeed essentiality, of reputation and credibility. The whole China–Japan conflict erupts courtesy of a lack of U.S. (nuclear) credibility, and Washington’s most obvious remedy in the fight to preserve its reputation is to play the nuclear card, whether it wants it or not. Paradoxially, the fact that nuclear weapons have gone out of fashion is perhaps just as dangerous as if they had stayed in fashion.
A very perceptive scholar with the name of Scott Sagan, a nuclear-policy expert at Stanford University, has labeled such a logical dilemma the ‘commitment trap.’ Focusing in particular on Washington’s refusal to rule out a nuclear reply to a biological- or chemical-weapon attack from rogue states, Sagan argues that America may be forced, by its own prior (albeit ambiguous) commitments to effectuate a nuclear attack that its foe did not see coming before the showdown due to a lack of U.S. nuclear credibility (the effects of the taboo and the zero’ish rhetoric in Washington). Commitments (of which the U.S. have a lot globally) plus a lack of credibility plus the value of the reputation of a superpower make for an explosive mix. Commitments are as cheap as words – but only up to a certain point.
In the last part of this article – Part III – which will be published in Popular Social Science friday, I will dwell on two additional worrying and largely inevitable trends – namely changes in the balance of power and developments in military technology – that should also work to increase the likelihood of nuclear war considerably.
*Cover photo by National Nuclear Security Administration, second photo by the U.S. National Archives, third photo by Russel Trow, fourth photo by Expert Infantry, fifth photo by U.S. Embassy of New Zealand