Nu­clear weapons de­ter con­ven­tional wars

There is a risk in aim­ing for to­tal nu­clear dis­ar­ma­ment, be­cause the loss of the bar­rier to con­ven­tional es­ca­la­tion will be ru­inous

Gulf News - - The Views -

his month, the Treaty on the Pro­hi­bi­tion of Nu­clear Weapons will open for sig­na­ture at the United Na­tions. Sig­na­to­ries will prom­ise never to “de­velop, test, pro­duce, man­u­fac­ture ... pos­sess or stock­pile nu­clear weapons”; never to trans­fer weapons to other par­ties nor to re­ceive them; and never to “use or threaten to use nu­clear weapons”. The treaty’s aims, if they could be uni­ver­sally ef­fected, are no­ble. After all, the prospect of na­tions — in­clud­ing an in­ter­na­tional pariah like North Korea — fac­ing off with their re­spec­tive nu­clear ar­se­nals is hor­rific. Their re­newed use in war would be cat­a­strophic. But there is a risk in aim­ing for to­tal nu­clear dis­ar­ma­ment, be­cause de­ter­ring nu­clear war isn’t their only le­git­i­mate use. Nu­clear weapons also de­ter con­ven­tional war.

In re­cent decades, great pow­ers have fought proxy wars, but since 1945, they have not come into di­rect armed con­flict. Through the Cold War, nu­clear weapons kept the peace in West­ern Europe. Only once, dur­ing the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis, did de­ter­rence come close to break­ing, but the then United States pres­i­dent, John F. Kennedy, and Soviet Pre­mier Nikita Khrushchev and the rest of the world learned well.

In­dia and Pak­istan have skir­mished in re­cent decades, but the re­al­i­sa­tion that a con­flict could es­ca­late to nu­clear catas­tro­phe has con­trib­uted to the ri­val na­tions even­tu­ally stand­ing down. The prob­a­bil­ity that Is­rael has nu­clear weapons is the ul­ti­mate guar­an­tor of its ex­is­tence.

Since the Soviet Union’s first atomic test in 1949, the ex­is­tence of nu­clear weapons in many hands has not only de­terred the use of nu­clear weapons, but also made nu­clear pos­ses­sors and their ad­ver­saries think care­fully about the de­sir­abil­ity of go­ing to war at all. When con­flict has bro­ken out, the nu­clear de­ter­rent has lim­ited war aims to those short of to­tal de­struc­tion of ad­ver­sary na­tions or regime change. That’s why North Korea has sought nu­clear ca­pa­bil­ity so fer­vently.

This is the “por­cu­pine the­ory”, ad­vanced by, among oth­ers, the late strate­gist Ken­neth Waltz: After Hiroshima and Na­gasaki, many states wanted nu­clear weapons, not for of­fen­sive pur­poses, but as a hedge against at­tack by other na­tions. It’s a good thing, then, that the United Na­tions nu­clear treaty is prob­a­bly go­ing nowhere.

Lack­ing ca­pa­bil­ity

For starters, the nu­clear pow­ers aren’t on board: When ne­go­ti­a­tions con­cluded on July 7, 122 na­tions voted for the treaty. But the Nether­lands, the only Nato coun­try to par­tic­i­pate in ne­go­ti­a­tions, voted against it. As CBS News notes, none of the coun­tries “known or be­lieved to pos­sess nu­clear weapons” — the US, Rus­sia, Bri­tain, China, France, In­dia, Pak­istan, North Korea and Is­rael — sup­ports the treaty. Swe­den was the only coun­try with long-stand­ing, close ties to Nato that voted for it. Most states vot­ing for the treaty lack the ca­pa­bil­ity, or sig­nif­i­cant in­ter­est, in ac­quir­ing nu­clear weapons. If the prover­bial mice de­cide to bell the cat, suc­cess will de­pend upon the cat’s con­sent to wear a bell.

Even if the doc­u­ment had been per­fectly drafted, and had the lead­ers of the ef­fort gained a mea­sure of buy-in from nu­clear states about their in­ter­ests, to­tal nu­clear abo­li­tion re­mains a bad idea. As for­mer Bri­tish prime min­is­ter Mar­garet Thatcher had said, 30 years ago, in a speech de­liv­ered in Rus­sia:

“Con­ven­tional weapons have never been enough to de­ter war. Two world wars showed us that. They also showed us how ter­ri­ble a war fought even with con­ven­tional weapons can be. Yet, nu­clear weapons have de­terred not only nu­clear war but con­ven­tional war in Europe as well. A world with­out nu­clear weapons may be a dream, but you can­not base a sure de­fence on dreams. With­out far greater trust and con­fi­dence be­tween East and West than exists at present, a world with­out nu­clear weapons would be less sta­ble and more dan­ger­ous for all of us.”

The planet would be safer with far fewer nu­clear weapons, but more dan­ger­ous with none; and would be a way to prove all such weapons have been elim­i­nated.

Some hy­dro­gen bombs are small enough to hide in a coat closet — ver­i­fi­ca­tion of their de­struc­tion, in the ab­sence of a yet-to-be-de­ter­mined mech­a­nism, and in the ab­sence of a strong in­ter­na­tional con­sen­sus, is im­pos­si­ble. And the loss of the bar­rier to con­ven­tional es­ca­la­tion would be ru­inous. Nu­clear weapons can­not be un-in­vented. If the treaty’s pro­po­nents had their way, the world would even­tu­ally re­gret it.

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