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.”


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

3 thoughts on “Schelling questions the abolition of nuclear weapons”

  1. Brilliant article. An armed society, they say, is a polite society. The same goes for countries with nuclear weapons. (Pakistan is an aberration) India should never say yes to complete nuclear disarmament. Particularly, given the friendly neighbors we are blessed with.

  2. Nice article. Thanks. It is not desirable to have a completely nuclear weapons free world because that makes the entire world susceptible to any entity with nuclear weapons down the line. Once such an event occurs, the temporary “peace and quiet” will be removed and the current state of the world restored.

    The bigger practical issue that will stop any move to eliminate nuclear weapons is the lack of a verifiable method to check that the current P-5 are not developing nuclear weapons on the sly after signing on to various “global disarmament” treaties with backdoors in them.

    The USA/USSR/France have all done 100s of nuclear tests, and collected enough data where they do not have to conduct any more testing, and can develop new methods by simulation and also by using Laser Ignition Facility in California that is being touted as an educational tool, but is also a tool for developing a new series of fusion nuclear weapons. link

    Such “dual use” (education/military) facilities in the P-5 make it clear that the current “rush for disarmament” is another scam along the lines of NPT for the P-5 to retain their edge on the nuclear front. No reason to take any talk of disarmament from the P-5 seriously until they shut down all such laser facilities.

  3. Technology has never been unlearnt, it has only been surpassed in effectiveness and hence rendered obsolete. Anyway, nuclear bombs have performed commendably in keeping this world free from worldwar like catastrophes even if it was not it’s original stated purpose, why fiddle with a good system?

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