31 December 2007

A World without Nuclear Weapons

In "The Old and New Shapes of Nuclear Danger," Jonathan Schell decries the failure of Reagan and Gorbachev to abolish nuclear weapons at their Reykjavik summit. He reasons that if the US and Russia abolished their nuclear arsenals, then China and the rest of the "nuclear club," would follow suit. We could have had, and can still have a world without nuclear weapons. Indeed, we must, before some terrorist group buys or steals nuclear arms or materials from some nation that has them.

But this thesis ignores the brutal calculus that in a world without nuclear weapons, the value of having just a few becomes effectively infinite. If nobody has a sizeable nuclear arsenal, then nearly everyone will cheat, because you can hide just a few. (Remember that North Korea is hiding its arsenal, and that Saddam Hussein hid his entire nuclear weapons infrastructure prior to Gulf War I.) And those few nukes can make a tremendous difference in the overall balance of power between you and your neighbors.

That is to say, the exact opposite of Schell's thesis is true. The large arsenals of the US and Russia reduce the incentives of proliferators to proliferate, because no country can hope to build an arsenal to rival them without being discovered in time for the superpowers and allies to take actions that become increasingly intolerable. Moreover, the "nuclear umbrellas" of these arsenals make it unnecessary for strategically challenged countries, such as Japan, to "go nuclear."

Thus the asymmetry between the nuclear superpowers and the rest of the world has resulted in nuclear weapons being less widespread, which means that there are fewer places for terrorists to get nuclear weapons. But there is also an asymmetry between the arsenals of the US and the former USSR. Had the USSR been unopposed, it would have exported its peculiar brand of totalitarianism to the entire world. The US, on the other hand, has been using the leverage of its arsenal to hold back this and similar threats, until they subside.

For the present, nuclear abolition is a childish dream that, if implemented, would quickly lead to regional nuclear nightmares. Because nuclear weapons do not cause war. Nuclear weapons were (and in some places, are) developed in response to war. If you want to eliminate nuclear weapons, you must first make peace.

And there is peace, in some places. For example, if the President of the United States were to say, "Hey, let's attack Canada," impeachment would be immediate. That this did not happen with regard to Iraq says that the relationship between Iraq and the US had not been peaceful.

So peace exists in some places, or rather in some relationships. It takes a long time, and a lot of hard work to make peace. Because nuclear abolition is so much easier, many intellectuals uncritically assume that nuclear abolition is peacemaking. It never occurs to them that the course they advocate would set the world up for wider war.

Making peace will lead to the abolition of nuclear weapons, not the other way round. Let us work harder to bless each other with peace in the new year.

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