Courage against convention, then and now
We need to change our nuclear policy and our posture, which is still focused on deterring the Soviet Union – a country that doesn’t exist. Meanwhile, India and Pakistan and North Korea have joined the club of nuclear-armed nations, and Iran is knocking on the door. More nuclear weapons and more nuclear-armed nations mean more danger to us all.
Here’s what I’ll say as President: America seeks a world in which there are no nuclear weapons.
We will not pursue unilateral disarmament. As long as nuclear weapons exist, we’ll retain a strong nuclear deterrent. But we’ll keep our commitment under the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty on the long road towards eliminating nuclear weapons. We’ll work with Russia to take U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles off hair-trigger alert, and to dramatically reduce the stockpiles of our nuclear weapons and material. We’ll start by seeking a global ban on the production of fissile material for weapons. And we’ll set a goal to expand the U.S.-Russian ban on intermediate-range missiles so that the agreement is global.
As we do this, we’ll be in a better position to lead the world in enforcing the rules of the road if we firmly abide by those rules. It’s time to stop giving countries like Iran and North Korea an excuse. It’s time for America to lead. When I’m President, we’ll strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty so that nations that don’t comply will automatically face strong international sanctions. [complete article]
See also, A world free of nuclear weapons (George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, Sam Nunn, Wall Street Journal, January 8, 2007).
Editor’s Comment — To say, “America seeks a world in which there are no nuclear weapons,” is a fine thing. Reagan said the same thing, but what he left behind was missile defense — the fanciest boondoggle the military-industrial complex ever dreamed up.
If Obama is actually serious — in other words, if he isn’t merely trying to conjure up a narrative of light contrasting with the era of Bush-Cheney darkness — then he needs to add some substance to his declaration.
A plan is a dream with a deadline.* Kennedy didn’t just say that America would send a man to the moon as soon as it would be feasible. He said that it would happen before the end of the decade. Likewise the dream of a nuclear weapon-free world is no use if it’s off on a horizon that we never reach. Obama’s “long road” sounds like one that goes on forever.
And if Obama really wants to give his declaration some punch, he must do better than this: “It’s time to stop giving countries like Iran and North Korea an excuse. It’s time for America to lead.”
Instead, how about acknowledging that in a world of nuclear-haves and nuclear-have-nots, there is not a single nation that can claim a right to nuclear arms and that it is this inequity more than anything else that is the driving force behind nuclear proliferation.
Nuclear power confers political power and everyone wants it.
This isn’t about good boys protecting the world from bad boys. A path towards nuclear disarmament requires that the members of the nuclear club be willing to disavow a form of power that they have hitherto regarded as their entitlement.
(*Since I never knowingly plagiarize, I must give credit where it’s due. That line comes from a fortune cookie.)
There is what may be one piece of substance in Obama’s position already — the remarks about working with Russia to take the ballistic missiles on both sides off hair trigger. As Bruce Blair pointed out in his paper ‘Primed and Ready’ in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists earlier this year, the retention of Cold War high alert policies adds massively to the dangers of terrorists getting hold of nuclear weapons. An inevitable corollary is that nuclear weapons are being ‘constantly shuttled back and forth between their combat field locations and bomb remanufacturing facilities thousands of miles away.’ As he notes, if heavily armed Chechen terrorists can travel to Moscow and seize a theatre, why cannot they also seize some of these highly vulnerable nukes?
It is a measure of the dreamworld in which so much American and British security policy flounders that it was judged a top priority to prevent Saddam Hussein giving nukes he had not got to jihadists whom he saw as mortal enemies, rather than thinking seriously about the real points of vulnerability — Russia and Pakistan.
And there are more ironies here. Originally, the Western reliance on strategies of nuclear first-use was justified on the grounds that it was impossible to match the overwhelming superiority of Soviet conventional forces on its own terms. However, by the end of the Cold War, it was clear that transformations in weaponry deriving from information technology were decisively shifting the balance of conventional power towards the United States. We interviewed the leading British military Sovietologist, Chris Donnelly, on this point when I was producing programmes on the Soviet ‘new thinking’ for the BBC back in late 1988. He was anticipating that the Russians might have ‘the biggest collection of military antiques by the turn of the century the world has ever seen.’
To my doubtless naïve self, it seemed to make little sense — even from the most narrow realpolitik perspective — for the Western powers to go on insisting on the indispensability of nuclear first-use, when the changing balance of conventional power meant that the natural target of such strategies was the United States. But not only governments, but intellectuals of a wide range of persuasions, continue to do this: in an earlier post, I mentioned in addition to Martin van Creveld, John Lewis Gaddis, Sir Lawrence Freedman, and even the in many ways very admirable figure of Tony Judt.
At the risk of returning like the proverbial dog to his vomit, I would like a further point about van Creveld’s argument. For rather different reasons, people of very different views tend to focus excessively on the issue of the deliberate decision to release nuclear weapons. There is a long history here, going back to the nightmare visions of the Soviet leaders deliberately launching an all out thermonuclear attack as a result of their determination to destroy the subversive challenge posed by the idea of freedom in the key NSC 68 paper of April 1950. Of course this argument is easily countered, in the same way as both van Creveld and Bob Gates counter similar arguments about Iran: Stalin was not suicidal, and neither are the Iranian clerics.
If you look more closely at NSC 68, however, it is evident that the paper was deliberately generating alarm, because the actual central concern — the effect of nuclear weapons on the ability of both sides to take risks — was judged not sufficiently striking to mobilise the political support required for the steps NSC 68’s authors thought necessary.
I think it may well be that something similar is happening now. In his article The Next Act at the end of last year, Seymour Hersh quoted what I thought might be revealing remarks from the Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Efraim Sneh. What Sneh said was:
“The danger isn’t as much Ahmadinejad’s deciding to launch an attack but Israel’s living under a dark cloud of fear from a leader committed to its destruction. . . . Most Israelis would prefer not to live here; most Jews would prefer not to come here with families, and Israelis who can live abroad will . . . I am afraid Ahmadinejad will be able to kill the Zionist dream without pushing a button. That’s why we must prevent this regime from obtaining nuclear capability at all costs.”
These remarks have to be seen in conjunction with the continuing effects of the revolutions in weaponry caused by information technology — which Spyguy was describing in his comment on van Creveld. The increasing availability of accurate low cost missiles to Hezbollah means that large areas of Northern Israel are likely to come within range of Hezbollah positions north of the Litani in the none too distant future. And this I think one reason for the abortive Israeli campaign against Hezbollah last year.
Accordingly, an in some ways justified sense of ‘existential threat’ is pushing both elements in Israel and their American collaborators towards a renewed attempt to provide a definitive solution to Israel’s security problems, which involves decisive action against both Syria and Iran – the latter both as a direct threat, and as a backer of Hezbollah. Hence the strategy of attempting to mobilise a Sunni alliance against the Shia described in Hersh’s ‘The Redirection’ paper back in March — which includes collaboration with Sunni jihadists against Hezbollah. But obviously, the rationales for the strategy cannot be presented candidly, because doing so would invite the question as to whether any pressing American (as distinct from Israeli) security interests were involved.
My own fear is that this strategy makes Iranian nuclear weapons, in the medium term, more likely rather than less. I also do not think that increased nuclearisation in the Middle East will bring the kind of security that misleading ‘deterrence’ theories suggest. The same logics which pushed the US and Soviets to put their forces on hair trigger are going to apply. And eventually, as a result, the weapons will either be used or get into the hands of terrorists.
A number of articles summarising Blair’s research are available at the Center for Defense Information website, at http://www.cdi.org/program/issue/index.cfm?ProgramID=32&issueid=110,