Pax Atomica

Felix Ellis on the international proliferation of nuclear weapons.

A limited nuclear club each pursuing individual national interests is the very reason it has been 65 years since both great-power conflict and the birth of nuclear weapons states. Yet in these pages Duke Cole (“Schrödinger’s Nuke”) argued against the tough reality of “the long peace” by blindly accepting disarmament dogma that a world without nuclear weapons is a safer one and linking it with a bizarre argument that the dangerous group of nations outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) should be allowed to build their own stockpiles. He describes his apparently conventionally-armed brain explosion as counter-intuitive. I have a better word; catastrophic.

Aside from nonsensical analogies, gratuitous Israel bashing, a penchant for anti-Americanism and a total disregard for logic, Cole has a simple argument. He thinks that nations that develop nuclear weapons outside the official Nuclear Weapons States should be allowed to keep their cache because the current regime of a legitimate five and an illegitimate rest is unfair. He argues that accommodating them in the NPT framework will move them from the “rogue” column to the “official” column which will lead to peace and stability. The logic behind this is that we will then be able to inspect their facilities and find out how many weapons they have. While I feel great sadness in contesting the fancy book-learning of good-hearted, wrong-headed proponents of the UN based disarmament folk, it can’t be stressed enough how idiotic that line of thinking is.

It is immediately apparent that he has no grasp on the workings of the NPT. It began in 1970 as a trade-off between the then nuclear states of the US, the UK, France, China and the USSR and the rest of the world in which the nuclear states agreed to reduce their stockpiles in exchange for the a commitment from the rest not to develop weapons themselves. They may pursue civilian nuclear power but under a regime of total transparency. Importantly that creates four types of nations in the international community; nuclear signatories, compliant signatories, non-compliant signatories, and non-signatories. Obviously we know who the nuclear states are. Then the compliant signatories are countries like Australia and the overwhelming majority of the world who seek nuclear peace and are open in those aspirations. The non-compliant states are countries that have signed but then tried to develop weapons in secret, including North Korea (which has now “unsigned” totally), Iran, Iraq, South Africa and Libya. The non-signatories are those countries who choose to operate totally outside the treaty and have thus developed nuclear capabilities, including India, Israel and Pakistan.

This is important for two reasons. First is that the countries Cole wants to bring into the NPT fold and legitimise their weapons programs are those countries that have most actively resisted the NPT fold because they don’t want transparency, seek hegemony against regional rivals and are least likely to disarm anyway. For these countries they see the benefits nuclear weapons can bring to their people at the expense of everyone else. It is undeniable that nukes have an unparalleled ability to intimidate rivals in the neighbourhood, deter foes with otherwise overwhelming conventional armies and are seen as a shortcut to global prestige. The three countries Cole mentions (Iran, North Korea and Israel), as well as those he doesn’t, seek these benefits voraciously and no amount of good will, appeasement or ‘carrots’ will reduce this.

The second reason is that the pragmatism shown in the development of the NPT demonstrates that nuclear weapons are not a ‘right’, they are a reality. The world powers tolerate the current nuclear states because they exist and are unlikely to go away any time soon. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t actively prevent every new country who tries to develop them from doing so. The cold reality is that the more states there are the more danger one will use a weapon. This is because nuclear weapons development happens in arms races between direct rivals, which means more states in fierce conflict with even fiercer weapons. Even more frighteningly, a state is infinitely more likely to use a nuclear weapon if they have a small stockpile.

The reason for that is that nuclear peace hinges on the intricate balance of second-strike capabilities. In other words, nations do not use weapons when their enemy has nukes that could survive a massive first attack and launch a devastating retaliation. As the Cold War demonstrated year after year, flashpoint after flashpoint, the prospect of Armageddon as consequence for launching a nuclear strike created a ‘balance of fear’ that kept weapons rusting in their silos. But the smaller a country’s stockpile the greater chance that using nuclear weapons against it will destroy their chance of retaliation, making nuclear war far more appealing. On the flipside it also means that short-stacked nations are more likely to launch the first strike in any escalating conflict out of fear that their weapons could be obliterated.

Unfortunately the brutal logic of ‘use it or lose it’ is most resonant in nuclear strategy. As hard as it is to stomach, the safest nuclear states are those with the most weapons, and those are the supposed ‘hypocrites’ that make up the Big 5. It can’t be denied that the only state to use nukes in anger had them for barely a month, had a total stockpile of three and used them against a nation with none. Each time a new state is added to the list we are at greatest risk of another Hiroshima or Nagasaki, and no state has a ‘right’ to develop that kind of power. Nuclear strategy is based on the reality of interests, and the reality is each rogue state’s program should be wiped out if we get the chance. Appeasing the Ayatollahs is not in our interests.

As much as the soft diplomacy and fuzzy warmth of consensual resolutions seem to run Cole’s world, back on earth the truth is that a credible military threat and the promise of its use to destroy a rogue nation’s emerging nuclear program is the only deterrent to ever work. Cole baselessly asserts ‘the proverbial stick has been, and will continue to be, ineffective until such a time as the hypocrisy of the five Nuclear Weapons States cease to exist’. No more clear example against this is the reaction of Libya, and Iran in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Whatever the opinion of the war, it cannot be denied that Saddam’s continuous nuclear posturing created the impression globally that he was a nuclear aspirant at the time. He certainly did seek weapons in the 80s and 90s, and the invasion demonstrated the absolute importance of showing the West’s determination to keep the nuclear reality a stable one. Most importantly was the reaction of other rogue states. Libya completely abandoned their nuclear, as well as biological and chemical programs the following month. Iran halted 28 years of efforts, until 2007 when the American resolve to guarantee a halt to rogue proliferation appeared to waver. It is no coincidence that military fear worked right up until the world began making the sort of gutless concessions of oil and food to North Korea to stop weaponisation. States should not be encouraged to pursue the nuclear option and offering incentives like resources and (most importantly) legitimacy only makes it more likely that they will.

While the opportunity for overwhelming action may be limited as the US struggles with debilitating debt and military overreach there are plenty of other effective options that have worked and will continue to work. The best of these is the aerial bombing of facilities for illegal uranium enrichment and nuclear development. Operation Opera (1981) and Operation Orchard (2007) which destroyed an Iraqi and Syrian nuclear weapons development facility respectively showed the way forward in a world which must allow for limited resources but portray unlimited resolve to stop proliferation among states bent on nuclear hegemony. Luckily enough, these rogue programs were critically wounded in their infancy, and if a precedent is established, it will echo in the minds of every demagogue who seeks the Bomb. Nukes don’t come cheap and pictures of those wasted, arrogant millions going up in missile smoke is enough to destroy the support of any populace.

Most importantly we must turn away from a doctrine that only allows for cajoling, bribes and implicit encouragement. North Korea shows how even the process of acquiring weapons can be used for huge gains at the moment. For years the Six-Party talks have been bogged down in a quagmire of perverse incentives. Kim Jong-Il is given food-aid and oil to come to the negotiating table, he is given food and oil to make concessions, he reneges on his commitments, the world shake’s an accusatory finger, and then offers food and oil to come back to the table. This sort of thinking has only emboldened Iran, Syria and others to destabilise the world order. North Korea hasn’t even had to develop credible weapons capability because each time they posture up they are given carrots and we hope for better luck next time. It goes without saying that Albert ‘E=mc2’ Einstein had a thing or two to say about this sort of MADness.

The world of “Schrödinger’s Nuke” is a terrifying one. It is a world where regimes are rewarded with legitimacy for spitting in the face of the good intentions of the NPT. It is a world where a number of nations with precariously small stockpiles duke it out until one makes the last desperate push of a nuclear trigger. It is a world where annihilating weapons are a right worth pursuing, instead of a reality we must deal with. Hopefully policy-makers will show a great deal more resolve than the sort of spineless appeasement advocated in these pages that has haunted the souls of well-intentioned people the world over. For all the intricate strategising and geopolitical wrangling there is a clear an absolute truth at the core of this nuclear debate; proliferation will never lead to disarmament, and can never lead to peace.


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