This site examines the role of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War international security environment, which faces emerging and constantly evolving threats from state and non-state actors alike. Specific topics discussed include arms control; deterrence; civilian nuclear power; South Asian nuclear strategy and power balance; nuclear terrorism; and the role of the United States in nonproliferation.

10.20.2009

Reconsidering Security Assurances, or: Nuclear Bargaining 101

The thing about using nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip is that the traditional logic doesn't hold up. If we were playing a card game, say poker, then the less one has to lose, the more one might be willing to take risks -- call bluffs, play large pots, etc. The scales are tipped so far in the opposite direction that there is little risk in taking a big gamble, and the payout potential is huge.

With nuclear weapons, however, small, medium and large-size players can all find themselves on equal footing, and can leverage the nuclear threat equally effectively. For example: Russia and the US, with the largest nuclear arsenals, still have a few hundred nukes on hair trigger alert, which makes them large players.

Countries like France and the UK, each of whom dabble in the nuclear sciences in their own ways, are medium players -- the UK still maintains its arsenal of submarine Trident missiles, and France is attempting to take a lead role in the current Iran uranium export deal. India and Pakistan, I feel, also fall into the medium category.

Finally, countries like North Korea, Bangladesh, Burma and even Iran are small players -- no substantial nuclear weapons programs, perhaps a lack of infrastructure, materials, technical expertise and/or funding to enhance capacity. But the one thing that makes the small players just as formidable as the medium and large players is the drive. If a country can acquire, through whatever channels necessary, the means to build even one nuclear weapon, then that small player is just as much a threat as the big player.

In fact, we might even revert to traditional card-playing logic: the small player believes it has more to gain by making larger threats in a louder voice, no matter how substantiated those threats really are. We can witness this right now with Iran and North Korea -- two countries that believe they have more to gain (international recognition, a sense of sovereignty, "respect") than they stand to lose (sanctions sanctions sanctions, threat of military action, being wiped off the map completely).

But remember this: at the end of the day, it doesn't matter how many nuclear weapons a country has. Just one is enough to significantly tip the scales. So if we can come to accept that even a single nuclear warhead has an enormous impact on security relations between countries, then we can take the next step in understanding how we manage these devastating weapons while they still exist.

Here's a recent quote from Foreign Policy in Focus on the Cold War mental approach to nukes:

During the Cold War, we managed our nuclear arsenals rather than reduced them. We treated our nukes like huge, dangerous animals. We restricted their movements but gave them ample care and feeding. Until recently, getting rid of the animals altogether was not part of the political agenda. After all, our leaders believed that these beasts were useful. They scared away the covetous neighbors.

Unfortunately, the mentality still persists, and at all levels. Influential people in large, medium and small-player countries all believe that deterrence is still the name of the game. Whether through a buildup of nuclear stockpiles, or by constructing missile defense shields in strategic regional locations, leaders still somehow believe that the threat of a nuclear weapon must be countered with ... the threat of a nuclear weapon.

Which leads me to my final topic: nuclear umbrellas and security assurances. A few months ago, President Obama committed his administration to reversing the decision made by his predecessor on the installment of missile defense shields in Poland and the Czech Republic. Foreign Policy magazine has provided an excellent analysis of why switching the land-based Bush plan to a more mobile option isn't really an improvement -- it's just a lateral move. Here's the central message:

Even after the United States has set up and activated a national missile-defense system, it still will not have neutralized the perceived threat from Iran. Not only that, but Washington's strategic calculations toward Tehran will remain unaffected: The United States will still need to be just as worried about Iran's missiles, since the destruction of even one U.S. city or region is simply too high a cost to bear. For that security equation to change, national missile defense would need to intercept 100 percent of incoming nuclear warheads -- an unattainable goal for any piece of machinery.

So what this means is that, at the end of the day, using a missile defense shield to deter a possible nuclear attack from a country like Iran yields the same net effect as simply using nuclear weapons themselves for deterrence. Both are flawed approaches that don't actually generate any measurable improvement in global security.

Yet some people just don't seem to get it. Just yesterday, the United States reaffirmed its commitment to providing a nuclear shelter over the East Asia theater. And how, again, does this actually help? Now the ROK is clamoring for the US to actually install tactical nuclear weapons on South Korean soil. Does anyone really think this will help defuse tensions in the region? If anything, it will make things worse.

There has to be a better solution than countering nukes with nukes or with missile defense shields. The Cold War is over and the bipolarity that dominated that half-century is gone as well. A new line of thinking is needed, and desperately.

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