The Utility of Nuclear Weapons
During the forty years of Cold War, nuclear weapons played a very important role, if not the most significant, in determining the major events and in preserving a certain status quo of affairs between the two superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union. The great risks and penalties accompanying the use of nuclear weapons led the two superpowers to avoid their usage by steering away of involvement in major crises that would lead to a direct confrontation. Therefore, the dire consequences of using the nuclear weapons have helped to stabilize relations among the major powers, or in other words, it was the nuclear weapons that kept the Cold War “cold”.
No political conflict could be resolved by nuclear means because the conflict would be erased out of existence with no solution. If the classical political objective of war between nations is the betterment of the situation of one country at the expense of another, this objective is irrelevant in the nuclear age because it is not clear whether after the use of nuclear weapons there would be any survivors, political or otherwise. The threat is too big; usage of nuclear weapons threaten the existence of the human race along with its civilization and culture.
This brings us to the long-standing paradox concerning the deterrence of nuclear weapons. If nuclear weapons are by their very nature unusable then how could they be credible deterrents.
This great technological development has created a new military weapon that caused a new military establishment whose purpose is to avoid wars that might involve nuclear weapons. This is done by the principal of nuclear deterrence. Avner Cohen has come up with an idea that regards nuclear deterrence as an attempt to reconcile two principles:
1- The Principle of Classical Deterrence: Threatening retaliation with nuclear weapons is the only regulatory mechanism available in international politics to prevent great-power war.
2- The Principle of Singularity of Nuclear Weapons: Nuclear weapons are sui generis in the sense that using them as weapons makes the notions of war and victory inapplicable; their use in war cannot politically be justified, because such use would defeat any political purpose.
The Principle of Nuclear Deterrence is a conjunction of these two principles:
3- The Principle of Nuclear Deterrence: Threatening to do what would serve no political purpose is the only way to avoid nuclear war; nuclear deterrence is both indispensable and sui generis.
Cohen says "according to this principle, the only proper role for nuclear weapons is deterrence, that is, to ensure that they will never be used in actuality... Nuclear weapons have the peculiarity that the whole purpose in planning for their use is the prevention of their use".
As we have seen during the Cold War, this principle of nuclear deterrence has succeeded in preventing the occurrence of war between the superpowers, but this fact does not mean the future success of this principle in preventing major wars. Although this principle has shown itself to be effective, there are doubts regarding its long-term applicability due to the following problem:
1- The Usability Problem: The more deterrent like we make nuclear deterrence, that is the more "usable" we make the weapons for the sake of the threat's credibility, the more likely it is that the weapons will be used.
2- The Credibility Problem: The more we consider nuclear weapons as sui generis, that is, as unusable, the more incredible the threat to use them becomes, and the more likely the threat will fail.
The two problems show that the Principle of Nuclear Deterrence resulting from the conjunction of the Deterrence and Singularity principles is paradoxical, presenting a dilemma which scholars and political analysts have been trying to resolve over the last fifty years unsuccessfully. The unresolved dilemma lies in the point that this principle is combining our traditional political as well as military concepts with our post-nuclear reality. If we accept the uniqueness of the nuclear reality of our world today we should no longer accept the traditional concepts of war and deterrence.
Now, seven years after the end of the Cold War, how important are nuclear weapons and what role do they play in the international political system? Are they as significant as during the days of the Cold War? Do they have a determining effect on current world affairs? The most important question is whether there still is a need for nuclear weapons or should nonproliferation be the keyword of the late 1990s?
Answering the above questions, especially the last one, is no simple matter since these questions themselves create dilemmas being tackled by scholars from all around the globe with no positive results so far.
To answer the question of whether nuclear weapons are still needed in this day and age we should study their military and political values. According to Charles Glaser, "The end of the Cold War has reduced the military value of nuclear weapons, at least for the United States".
Glaser's argument is that since the threat of Russia's expansion towards the West has been removed there is no more need for nuclear weapons to deter Soviet attacks on NATO allies, whether nuclear or conventional. Moreover, since the US enjoys conventional superiority in the world it can rely on conventional deterrence rather than on a nuclear one.
The political value of nuclear weapons is another matter. There is an argument stating that nuclear weapon states have a greater degree of security and feel less threatened. Glaser gives the example of Russia which due to its conventional military weakness might be interested in expansion to provide security for itself, but the nuclear weapons it has eliminate this sense of insecurity and indirectly preserve the peace in the region. In the post-Cold War period Russia feels more insecure because of its decreased conventional military power, while NATO is expanding eastward. If this sense of insecurity is increased by feeling threatened from the US, or if the latter insisted on reducing nuclear stockpiles, this may lead to nuclear leakage from the Russians to anti-American groups. Another example is the Far East where the situation would be much tenser between China and Japan if not for the sense of security provided by nuclear weapons in the absence of which both countries would have felt threatened by the conventional military growths accompanying their economic strengths.
Apart from the above mentioned political value of nuclear weapons which proliferation advocates use to defend their cause there is the "Breakout Problem" as labeled by Andrew Mack. Attackers of denuclearization argue that nuclear technology and know-how will continue to exist even after the elimination of all nuclear weapons. This poses a threat to all nations in the form of nuclear terrorism. A state might "cheat" and produce nuclear weapons to threaten and rule the world with.
But this argument is countered by another one saying that such a state can never use its nuclear weapons without having to pay its own high costs in the process because ex-nuclear nation can rebuild its nuclear power very short time and retaliate thus rendering the whole argument as unfeasible.
Opponents of disarmament can also use the argument that nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament is not possible until international relations have improved so much that the idea of war among them is "unthinkable" as pointed out by Glaser. When nations reach such a level of harmony on the international level, there is no threat of nuclear mass destruction any more because there will be no need for their use in the absence of war.
Glaser goes on to state that keeping the nuclear weapons would be a sort of prudence to prevent future deterioration in political relations. But as stated above, nuclear technology will always be presented and this fact is well known to all, therefore the existence of this nuclear know-how in the hands of major states will be enough to provide the prudence needed to prevent deterioration among nations.
An argument presented by Nikolai Sokov goes along the following lines. Sokov argues that "disarmament itself should concentrate on restructuring rather than straightforward reductions". He does not agree that denuclearization is only possible when international relations are harmonious.
Sokov suggests that nuclear weapons should remain and the "command and control" of such weapons should improve in nuclear states. He says that the high level of institutionalization in economic regimes should be imitated in the international security regimes, "security regimes should reach beyond the national level and instead concentrate on early stages of decision-making processes".
Along with this change in security regimes, there should be studies reductions of nuclear weapons. If these two processes of institutionalization and reduction follow parallel paths the day may come when there will be no more political or military need for nuclear weapons.
I have so far discussed the three arguments presented by advocates of nonproliferation and their opponents regarding the issue of utility of nuclear weapons in the near future. All three-military, political (deterrence) and security (breakout problem) based - arguments are logically carried out by both groups, thus increasing the dilemma.
The one point agreed upon by all is that nuclear weapons are necessary to maintain national security. Therefore an alternative solution should be found for maintaining national security. The following are several suggestions as to what this replacement should be.
Dietrich Fischer argues that nuclear deterrence should be replaced with a policy of dissuasion. According to Fischer defense is not feasible as protection against a nuclear attack, therefore three alternative methods have been devised:
-Deterrence: the threat to retaliate in kind against a nation launching a nuclear attack.
-Preemption: destruction of an opponent's nuclear weapons before he can use them against us.
-Dissuasion: convincing a potential opponent, without evoking fear, that peaceful relations are more attractive to both sides than war.
Fischer says that deterrence has worked up to now but is too risky an approach in the long run. If it were to break down, the consequences would be disastrous on the whole planet. "Extended deterrence has lost credibility, since the first use of nuclear weapons would most likely be suicidal. A policy of no-first-use ought to be combined with a stronger conventional defense to protect against conventional aggression".
As for preemption, Fischer argues that a strategy of damage limitation through preemption invites a preemptive nuclear attack from the other side, therefore, it should be abandoned out of self-interest. He adds that greater national security depends not on higher or lower military spending, but on a different security strategy, which is dissuasion.
Dissuasion emphasizes three kinds of disincentives:
-reducing the gain from war.
-increasing the gain from peace.
-reducing the cost of peace.
To dissuade aggression, it is necessary to make it clear that aggression cannot succeed. The nuclear weapon brought its own rules to the international arena, therefore traditional methods (war) for resolving international conflicts should be changed. New and better mechanisms should be adopted that would be beneficial to both conflicting parties, because in our nuclear age threatening others and even winning is suicidal.
Nuclear weapons are outmoded to the extent that it is difficult to design conditions under which resorting to them would be reasonable. Moreover, some writers believe that if threats are frequently made but the occasion for their use never arises they (threats) will have less impact. Those who support this argument also assert that the presence of nuclear weapons leads to tensions that may result in wars (Jervis, 1976, p.80)·. Negativity is also shown in the sense that nuclear weapons are not completely useful in providing stability for deterrence and for the international order favored by the West because of the political, moral, and self-regarding inhibitions against its use. The fear is that some state disbelieving the fatality of nuclear weapons might resort to it in times if crisis or the inability of Western policymakers to undergo measured nuclear use when they should. This may be the price to pay for 5 decades of success in avoiding nuclear war (Gray, 1993, p.149-150).
Despite superpower recognition of the nonuse of nuclear weapons, no attempts have been made to reduce them. There is also a decrease in public support for nuclear options in defense strategy. However, dislike of nuclear risks has not been backed with alternative means for deterrence (Gray, 1993, p.151). In addition, there can never be a conventional response to nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons can only be deterred by nuclear weapons.
From the above we can deduce that both the existence and the nonuse of nuclear weapons may result in tensions and wars. On the other hand, the existence or possession of nuclear weapons does not necessarily presuppose wars. To Gray, the false assertion that weapons and technology “move history” implies that if weapons cause war and their absence makes peace, then all weapons are created equal and have similar consequences according to their technical qualities regardless of their political ownership. The importance of political leadership in emphasized in the way arms control and peace activist literature reduces that politics of international security to arguments about the better administration of machines. Thus “enhanced political determination” can substitute “enhanced military capabilities in deterrence” (Gray, 1993, p. 155-156).
In relation to political ownership, nuclear weapons can be of utility for “reckless dictators” who are apathetic to the killing of their people or destruction of their cities. Thus a reckless government possessing a small number of nuclear weapons would be victorious over a democratic government possessing high-quality nuclear weapons (Singer, 1993, p.72-73).
One stands perplexed among the calls for “denuclearization” and, at the same time, the refusal of nuclear abolition. Mentioning the benefits and usefulness of nuclear weapons only adds more to the complexity of the issue. Nuclear weapons may be held responsible for reducing tension in international relations of Northeast Asia. With the US’s nuclear umbrella, both China and Japan are less concerned with the conventional military power that is likely to accompany the growth of the Chinese economy. Another positive aspect is that without nuclear weapons, current Russian military weakness would probably have caused it to seek expansion. Of course, there are negative aspects in nuclear possession that will be discussed in the context of security. Such positive points on the existing political and military utility of nuclear weapons do not call against prohibiting nuclear weapons and their destructive potential (Glaser, 1997, p. 4).
A third debatable utility is that nuclear weapons promote security. Even though the Cold War has decreased the political utility if nuclear weapon, nevertheless political utility is manifested in decreasing the security dilemma. Glaser and Harknett advocate “mutual possession” of these weapons by allowing states to achieve high levels of security without endangering the security of other nuclear powers. Consequently, peace would prevail in a world of secure states. The point Glaser and Harknett stress is “mutual deterrence” otherwise there would be instability. This is exemplified in Middle East conditions. Just as nuclear weapons can be held responsible for reducing tension in Northeast Asia, they can also have a destabilizing impact on the Middle East. The instability in an already “tense Arab-Israeli environment” is due to Israel being the only state in the Middle East that possesses nuclear weapons. However, Harknett adds that the mutual possession of nuclear weapons does not directly lie in the deterrence effect. More importantly it lies in the “crisis management dynamics” it creates which, in turn, skews toward de-escalation. It is because of the “incontestable costs” of war that mutual possession provides the “utility of creating incentives for states in militarized disputes to seek non-war solutions”. In comparison to a conventional environment where the costs of war depends on the contest of between military forces, nuclear weapons and; subsequently a nuclear militarized dispute renders cooperation in war avoidance an absolute gain. Whereas from a crisis management perspective, it makes de-escalation much easier to accomplish than in conventional militarized disputes. It is necessary to clarify that security, as dealt with by some, will not be attained unless mutual possession or complete denuclearization is accomplished.
In addition to maintaining a margin of existential deterrence and providing security, it is claimed that nuclear weapons also establish prestige by granting unique status in the international system as being one of the greatest. Some states believe that possessing nuclear weapons will allow them to be perceived as being militarily powerful and capable of using their capabilities. The goal behind this is to prevent any state from challenging their prestige and status. For example, the aim of India’s nuclear explosion in 1974 was to match the status and prestige of China, in Asia and Third World countries (Russet and Starr, 1992, p.162). Concerning high status, it is true that that the nuclear weapons of England, China, and France allowed them to be promoted to join the Soviet Union and the US in the veto power. But high status requires more than just nuclear weapon possession. India, Ukraine, Belarus, may level up to England and France in terms of nuclear weapons but do not match in terms of history and civilization (Singer, 1993, p.7).
Along the course of this paper we were confronted with the fact that both the use and nonuse of nuclear weapons carry the probability of war. The remaining part of this paper deals with the issue of “denuclearization”.
The issue of the Cold War has always been the problem of “extended deterrence”. With the end of the Cold War and Russia’s adoption of less threatening geopolitical goals, conventional threat to America’s allies has been reduced. In this context, the US and its NATO allies should begin to rely less on nuclear weapons for deterring Russian conventional attacks. In response, NATO has adjusted its doctrine but has not adopted No-First-Use (NFU) One reason for the non-adoption of such a policy is that preserving NATO is more important than changing a doctrine (if NFU actually strains that alliance is debatable). Another reason is NATO’s belief that adopting of NFU would decrease deterrence (Glaser, 1997, p.3-4). The validity of such claims is vague because the Cold War and nuclear have left many questions on deterrence unresolved.
NATO’s non-adoption of NFU indicates that denuclearization is not on the agenda of any country. A “no-first-use” posture would decrease the risk of nuclear war, the fight for nuclear superiority, and advance disarmament. It would have arms control implications by requiring the abolition of tactical weapons because they possess first-use characteristics. In sum, NFU would be used as a preliminary attempt at the elimination of all nuclear armaments (GoldBlat, 1997, p.265-266).
Despite the fact that nuclear weapons may still have political and possibly military value does not imply that the prohibition of nuclear weapons is a bad idea. There still lies the possibility like anything in international relations that nuclear weapons could be used in times of anger. Therefore, no matter whatever utility nuclear weapons may have, nothing is worth an all-out nuclear war. The procedure to handle denuclearization is to deal with the feasibility of it in the present post-Cold War world instead of advisability (Sokov, 1997, p. 5-7).
Denuclearization cannot be made possible unless good political relations are established among states. By shaping the system in such a way that renders nuclear weapons irrelevant for relationships among states, states will accommodate to the situation and develop better instruments for conflict resolution. Hence, to Sokov disarmament should follow the process of “restructuring” instead of reductions. For complete nuclear elimination to be possible two conditions are required. They are the “institutionalization of the disarmament process to overcome its national character” in international regimes· coupled with “reductions and coordinated restructuring of nuclear arsenal aimed at a situation when they would be void of political or military utility” (Sokov, 1997, p. 7).
When dealing with zero-arms (nuclear disarmament), security should not be the concern. Rather, emphasis should be placed on the reduction of nuclear proliferation as a positive result of nuclear disarmament (Glaser, 1997, p. 4). The dangers of nuclear proliferation involve the fact that new nuclear powers might acquire the material and the know-how needed to make the bombs but will lack the experiences and resources of existing nuclear powers. To counter/tackle the “threat of proliferation”, the incentives must be recognized. For some countries acquiring nuclear weapons is paramount for security against existing nuclear powers, like Taiwan against China or Pakistan. Security more often is the concern of non-nuclear powers like Israel against the Arabs and South Korea against North Korea. Other countries find it as a “leeway for prestige” and for others, like India, all three incentives for proliferation mentioned above may be involved (Russett and Starr, 1992, p.358-359).
Despite many calls for denuclearization and attempts to construct treaties, complete denuclearization cannot be practiced nor implemented as a policy option. The reason behind this fear of “nuclear abolition” stems from the fear of a nuclear “breakout” by a cheating state. It seems that the problem of nuclear weapons will remain for quite a while because cheating cannot be prevented neither can nuclear weapons be “disinvented” (Mack, 1997, p. 4-5). Another reason is that Russian nuclear weapons are stronger then that of its Western European neighbors. However, because deterrence is high, these weapons have no defensive power, plus they remain significantly inferior to those of the US (Singer, 1993, p. 61-62).
Nuclear weapons derive their significance form the ability to influence the nature of international political conflict in Third World countries. The end of the bipolar order has given way to an increasingly multipolar order. Because nuclear multipolarity is difficult to handle, there may be nuclear wars in the next few decades. However, these wars will not be among the superpowers but among the smaller nuclear powers-North Korea, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, Ukraine, Kazakhistan, Belarus, and probably oil countries buying Soviet built weapons or making their own; all of these countries will acquire nuclear weapons. From the above we recognize that the danger of nuclear weapons lies in the ability of Third World countries to buy medium-range ballistic missiles. In this case, the purpose of the Nuclear-Proliferation-Treaty (NPT) is to reduce the risk of nuclear war between non-nuclear states and “catalytic” wars. NPT aids in maintaining the nuclear superiority of the two superpowers. It also guarantees that the superpowers do not disarm to a level that makes them vulnerable to small nuclear-armed states. What is worrisome is despite that the NPT is signed by 180 states, many of the non-signatories are potential nuclear powers such as Algeria, Israel, India, Pakistan, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile (Russett and Starr, 1992, p. 356-357)·.
As a conclusion, good Soviet-US relationships, in the aftermath of the Cold War, replaced the danger of technology. Even though problems of nuclear crises have diminished with the fewer conflicts over spheres of influence, further nuclear crises are probable. However, the real danger is inherent in nuclear proliferation because it raises the risk of future nuclear crises of a multilateral dimension. Multilateral crises are harder to handle than the bipolar one of the past (Rosecrance, 1973, p.285).
In sum, whatever is to be said about nuclear weapons, three things are certain. Nuclear weapons have already been invented, nuclear weapons can only be deterred by nuclear weapons, and nothing can be done to disinvent them. As we mentioned, peace and security can only be realized if either mutual possession of nuclear armaments or complete dunuclearization is achieved. Until now, mutual possession is far-fetched and unconceivable. Similarly, denuclearization is not practicable as a policy option because of the fear of a “rogue” state or until the establishment of a nuclear force capable of protecting against concealed weapons or their future building.
Gray claims that since the future is unpredictable, time and effort should not be wasted “on the impossible”. Therefore, to Gray, instead of wasting time in futile issues of arms control or elimination, one can devise a “defense posture” to lessen the impact of both undesirable events and unexpected events that can be “broadly anticipated.” By “broadly”, Gray is referring to weapons acquisition (Gray, 1993, p. 172-173). Louis Halle states that because much effort has been put to achieve arms control with little outcome, there must be something “fundamentally wrong at the conceptual level” to be responsible for “so consistent a failure on so large a scale over so long a period” (Gray, 1993, p.172-173). Furthermore, there exists no proof that arms control is important for providing peace. To date, arms control has not served in inhibiting the motives for war nor the ability to wage wars. It is from the awareness of the permanent presence of nuclear weapons that we should begin our discussion.
The current political conditions do not allow for complete disarmament. The best that can be accomplished is for policymakers to decide on steps towards arms control and disarmament including efforts to share information that could assure no first strike is contemplated (Russett and Starr, 1992, p.351). The many efforts on arms control since World War II to have been to slow down the destabilizing effects of technological change and to limit wasteful affects of arms spending. Consequently, SALT I and II and START aim at contributing to strategic stability by limiting the types and numbers of nuclear weapons that could be deployed. Such objectives, that only limit and control arms, are more realistic than significant levels of disarmament, destruction, or dismantling of existing arms.
Nuclear weapons were successful throughout the Cold War in keeping it “cold” (Cohen, 1997, p. 2). This means that nuclear weapons were also successful in preventing major wars and in deterring the adversary nuclear superpower from using nuclear weapons against one another or other states. The superpowers and their allies in Europe were prevented from the direct use of force, both conventional and nuclear in Europe. Harknett presents another interesting utility. To him nuclear possession serves as an insurance policy against being neglected in times of weakness. This utility is measured by comparing the concern for the stability of North Korea’s regime to the 1989 collapse of the isolated Romanian communist regime. Here, the utserved as a safeguard against neglect.
Fortunately, the Cold War ended without the USSR dominating the world nor human civilization being eliminated by a global nuclear war. Simply the world has not blown up. A nuclear war of unlimited scale can never be won. History lies as evidence to the success of nuclear weapons in providing deterrence, partial security, and some prestige (depending on your view of prestige) during the Cold War. However, the bipolar system of the past has given way to an increasingly multipolar system of the future and the extent to which the success of nuclear weapons during the Cold War is applicable (and similar) in the post-Cold War era is ambiguous. Hence, the case presented here is that there is a possibility that “yesterday’s solution can be today’s problem.” The utility of nuclear weapons is best put in Robert Jervis’s words: “The influence of nuclear weapons on world politics is far-reaching. Although military victory is impossible, victory is not. Nuclear weapons can help reach important political goals.” These goals are international peace and security achieved through the horror of the idea of a “canonical nuclear war.” But, as Gray indicates there is no logical reason- no law of physics, history, or strategy “why the controlled use and counteruse of nuclear weapons for political or limited purpose must lead to mindless process of runaway escalation” (Gray, 1993, p. 157-159).
The problem of nuclear weapons will remain with us for decades to come. But it is important to note that weapons do not win or lose wars. The meaning of nuclear weapons or any weapon derived from the policy that directs them. Weapons, irrespective of the mechanical sense, are not the cause of war and their control or elimination does not ensure peace. “War and peace are a political subject”(Gray, 1993, p.177). Nuclear weapons succeeded during the Cold War in as much as they were able to prevent the breakout of nuclear wars. Depending on which angle your viewing, nuclear weapons can be either a source of stability and security or the opposite. However, that fact is that they exist and cannot be disinvented. Thus, the utility of nuclear weapons lies only in nonuse and it is a utility we should try to make the most of. This can be done by defensively planning for the unknown, otherwise possession would be truly futile.
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5- Robinson, C.P. and Bailey, K.C. (1997). “To Zero or Not to Zero: A Us perspective on Nuclear Disarmament.” Security Dialogue, Vol.28, No.2, p.149-158.
6- Russet, B. and Starr, H. (1992). World Politics: The Menu for Choice. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.
7- Singer, M. and Wildavsky, A. (1993). The Real World Order: Zones of Peace, Zones of Turmoil. Chantham, New Jersey: Chantham House Publishers.
8- Smoke, R. (1993). National Security and the Nuclear Dilemma: An Introduction to the American Experience in the Cold War. USA: McGraw-Hill Book Company.
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USA: The University of Michigan Press.
Electronic Conference on the Utility of Nuclear Weapons: June 23-27, 1997.
10- Avner Cohen: The United States Institute of Peace.
11- Charles Glaser: Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago.
12- Andrew Mack: Department of International Relations, Australian National University.
13- Nikolai Sokov: Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monetary Institute.
14- Cathleen Fisher: Moderator Comments.
15- Richard Harknett: University of Cincinnati.
· Jervis claims that the presence of nuclear weapons creates tensions that might result in war. This view is attacked by Collin Gray who claims that weapons do create wars rather it is a matter of politics; political leadership and policy. See p.16 for more emphasis on the political dimension.
· Increasing institutionalization of disarmament to overcome its national character is especially applicable to international security regimes that fall behind economic regimes in the degree of institutionalization.
· A catalytic war is one that initially involves a lesser power and later drags in a superpower.