Schelling questions the abolition of nuclear weapons

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The professor has set the question paper. And it’s not an easy exam.

The desirability of a world without nuclear weapons, Thomas Schelling argues in a brilliant essay in Daedalus, is being treated as axiomatic, and “hardly any of the analyses or policy statements that I have come across question overtly the ultimate goal of total nuclear disarmament.” After pointing out that nuclear deterrence has prevented major wars on the scale of the Second World War, he warns that “this nuclear quiet should not be traded away for a world in which a brief race to reacquire nuclear weapons could become every former nuclear state’s overriding preoccupation.”

Excerpts:

If a “world without nuclear weapons” means no mobilization bases, there can be no such world. Even starting in 1940 the mobilization base was built. And would minimizing mobilization potential serve the purpose ? To answer this requires working through various scenarios involving the expectation of war, the outbreak of war, and the conduct of war. That is the kind of analysis I haven’t seen.

A crucial question is whether a government could hide weapons-grade fissile material from any possible inspection verification. Considering that enough plutonium to make a bomb could be hidden in the freezing compartment of my refrigerator or to evade radiation detection could be hidden at the bottom of the water in a well, I think only the fear of a whistle-blower could possibly make success at all questionable. I believe that a “responsible” government would make sure that fissile material would be available in an international crisis or war itself. A responsible government must at least assume that other responsible governments will do so.

We are so used to thinking in terms of thousands, or at least hundreds, of nuclear warheads that a few dozen may offer a sense of relief. But if, at the outset of what appears to be a major war, or the imminent possibility of major war, every responsible government must consider that other responsible governments will mobilize their nuclear weapons base as soon as war erupts, or as soon as war appears likely, there will be at least covert frantic efforts, or perhaps purposely conspicuous efforts, to acquire deliverable nuclear weapons as rapidly as possible. And what then?

In summary, a “world without nuclear weapons” would be a world in which the United States, Russia, Israel, China, and half a dozen or a dozen other countries would have hair-trigger mobilization plans to rebuild nuclear weapons and mobilize or commandeer delivery systems, and would have prepared targets to preempt other nations’ nuclear facilities, all in a high-alert status, with practice drills and secure emergency communications. Every crisis would be a nuclear crisis, any war could become a nuclear war. The urge to preempt would dominate; whoever gets the first few weapons will coerce or preempt. It would be a nervous world.[Daedalus/BNet]

It’s a brilliant piece—not only for the intellectual content—but also for its debating strategy. Prof Schelling challenges the proponents of complete nuclear disarmament to prove, analytically, that their desired outcome is actually better than a world where mutual deterrence keeps a lid on the outbreak of major war. In doing so, he exposes how the bandwagon of the Global Zero has gained momentum in the last two years—not because everyone on it believes that it is desirable even if it were possible, but because the perception that the world is negotiating complete disarmament is useful to many. For instance, as Prof Schelling himself points out—the possibility that the Global Zero project might be motivated by a need for the world to perceive that the nuclear weapons states are keeping their end of the NPT bargain. In addition to being consistent with its long held position, India will go with the new disarmament discussions out of pragmatism—there are tangible benefits to be had by being part of a nuclear technological mainstream. (See M Vidyasagar’s article in the January 2010 issue of Pragati)

The Acorn has argued that nuclear weapons are the New Himalayas—preventing the outbreak of direct military conflict between India and China. It is important that the new strategic barrier remain high. Perhaps China’s transformation into a liberal democracy, as K Subrahmanyam mentioned at December’s Takshashila event in New Delhi, might make the need for this barrier less salient. Perhaps, but it is unlikely to entirely eliminate the need for it.

Related Post: A modest proposal to create disincentives for the usage of nuclear weapons

Towards nuclear disarmament – a modest proposal

Three big steps against nuclear weapons—and one big one towards removing the poison in the India-US strategic relationship

Here are two ironies: First, that the political establishment around the US Democratic Party should think (via Atanu Dey’s blog) that the Obama administration ought to deliver ‘a tough message’ to India on nuclear weapons. Ironic, because India is perhaps the only nuclear weapons state where nuclear disarmament is state policy. It is perhaps the only country whose strongest proponents of nuclear weapons are also signed-up members of the Global Zero initiative.

Second, that for a president who came to power with promises on new approaches to everything from climate change to Iran, President Barack Obama’s chose the dogmatic dead-end of non-proliferation & arms control to move towards his idealistic vision of a nuclear weapons-free world. Ironic, because all the energy spent on flogging the dead mule could have been invested in a new path that would in the short-term minimise nuclear risks, boost international security and in the long-term, if future generations so wish, actually rid the world of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear non-proliferation does not have a future. It does help a lot of people—and there are many in Washington DC—who have invested their intellectual, professional and public lives in negotiating through the arcane world of non-proliferation treaties (the alphabet soup) make a living. The Democrats in government (like the Republicans who came before them) believe that they can resume from where they left off the last time they were in power. Strobe Talbott’s ‘tough message’ being a case in point. What they refuse to see is that the world has changed profoundly since then: Iran and North Korea have shown how easy it is to sign-out of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, develop and test nuclear weapons, and live in the knowledge that the United States can now only blow hot air at them…from a safe distance. If the United States could not prevent this—notwithstanding the NPT—at the apex of its power in the two decades after the Cold War ended, what chance does it have now, when China intends to challenge its supremacy?

If President Obama is sincere about his vision and serious about securing US interests in the emerging geopolitical configuration, he would do well to face down the non-proliferation community and let a new disarmament community take its place. If he does so, he’ll find an a partner in India. But what would a real global nuclear disarmament plan (as opposed to non-proliferation/test-ban/fissile material cutoff treaty plans) look like? Continue reading Towards nuclear disarmament – a modest proposal