Monday, December 1, 2008

Reconsidering Nuclear Policy

Writing in the Salt Lake Tribune today, two arms consultants ask some pointed questions:

For decades, nuclear weapons were thought to make us safer by deterring the first strike by another nation. Today we need to re-evaluate the roles and dangers of nuclear weapons in the world. Let's ask ourselves: Does it help the United States to have nuclear weapons? Would the whole world be safer if no one and no nation had even one of these weapons?
Well, isn't the follow up question: safer from what? Safer from nuclear holocaust, perhaps. Safer from conventional war with all its bloodiness? Hard to know, since the decline in inter-state war coincided not only with the nuclear era but also with the establishment of the UN Charter regime.

At any rate, strategies to escape from MAD are back on the foreign policy agenda. Writing in Foreign Affairs this issue, Ivo Daadler and Jan Lodal make a case for disarmament. Or so they say:
"The next President will have the opportunity to make the elimination of all nuclear weapons the organizing principle of US nuclear policy."
But actually the authors' proposals do not take the US very far in that direction. One - a better nuclear-control regime - makes sense but really is an extension of the non-proliferation treaty, not a pledge to disarm. Another - a pledge to use nuclear weapons only to deter attacks against allies - would only formalize US adherence to existing nuclear norms, while presumably keeping weapons on a hair-trigger alert and maintaining a policy based on a threat to commit a grossly unethical act - the incineration of foreign civilians as revenge for a similar attack against an ally. A reduction of US arsenals to a "mere" 1,000 weapons would be lovely, but how is that even close to approaching a world of "zero"? And if the US can't be expected to take this goal seriously, then how is Daadler and Lodal's proposal that that the US convince its allies of the "logic of zero" anything other than a recipe for hypocrisy?

The truth is, of course, that any steps toward disarmament will have to be baby steps. Even disarmament advocates like those writing for the Salt Lake Tribune can't seem to do any better than this modest proposal: increasing the amount of time required to make a nuclear launch decision.
More time would then be available to double check for possible computer malfunctions. We can also take physical steps to increase the time it takes for a weapon to be launched. For example, today's modern Minuteman missiles can be "safed" in their silos, much as the older Minuteman missiles were safed in late 1991 at the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
What would it take for the US to simply disavow the use of nuclear weapons as inherently unethical and take the lead in nuclear disarmament?


Cleitus the Black said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cleitus the Black said...

Having just done a little research in this area, it's worth noting the divergence in U.S. and Russian stated policies; while the Obama-Biden plan seeks a "nuclear free world", the Russians wish to move toward a world where nuclear powers reduced their arsenals "to a minimum level sufficient to maintain strategic stability."

But nuclear weapons are not the most dangerous drivers of a renewed arms race. It is the unilateral withdrawal of the U.S. from the ABM treaty, and it's planned deployment of missiles and radar in Eastern Europe, a move which has provided the provocation that may cause Russia to unilaterally withdraw from the agreement not to deploy heavy conventional forces East of the Urals. This, coupled with the development of anti-satellite weapons, raises the specter of a new arms race.

To avoid this, one would hope to see the following action early in the Obama administration:

1. Expand the Intermediate Range ICBM ban to include ALL nuclear powers, not only Russia and the U.S.

2. Spearhead a global ban on the development and deployment of:
- Space-based weapons
- Anti-satellite missiles
- New types of nuclear weapons
- Anti-Ballistic Missiles

Just a few thoughts from a occasional student of the field...

J. said...

"What would it take for the US to simply disavow the use of nuclear weapons as inherently unethical and take the lead in nuclear disarmament?"

I don't know, the complete replacement of nearly every congress person and a White House administration with idealistic dreamers? Nuclear weapons don't kill people, politicians armed with nukes kill people. It's the behavior, not the technology, that places people at risk.

When we have eliminated all nuclear weapons, then space aliens armed with wooden boards with nails in them will take us over (classic Simpsons episode).

Diodotus said...

The problem with nukes is not that they kill people but that they exert disproportionate and indiscriminate effects, making them inherently unjust. Many governments have made a choice to disavow the use, production and stockpiling of other weapons with similarly uncontrollable effects - chemical weapons and landmines, for example - so it is not simply idealism to think that this could be possible. I don't think we'll ever stop waging war as a civilization, but we can and always have made choices about acceptable means of doing so.

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