NATO Nuclear Policy, National Missile Defence and Alternative Security Arrangements

Tasneem Jamal

Robert D. Green

Commander Robert D. Green, Royal Navy (Retired)
Disarmament and Security Centre, Christchurch, Aotearoa/New Zealand

Each of the panelists at the Consultation on NATO Nuclear Policy, National Missile Defence & Alternative Security Arrangement, held in Ottawa on September 28-31, 2001, was asked to submit a short paper relating to the topic of their presentation. The other Consultation participants were asked to submit brief papers responding to one or more of the following questions:

1. What changes to its nuclear policies should NATO be realistically asked to make, in the context of the current review, to move it towards fuller compliance with global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation obligations and imperatives?

2. Are there realistic and credible alternative means of addressing the security concerns that underlie current U.S. interest in missile defense?

3. What are the most realistic short-term or interim measures that should be taken by nuclear weapon states and nuclear alliances to demonstrate a commitment to significantly reducing the political legitimacy and value of nuclear weapons in order to contribute to the goal of elimination?

This statement attempts to distil arguments from my book The Naked Nuclear Emperor: Debunking Nuclear Deterrence – A Primer for Safer Security Strategies. My critique comes under the following headings:

  1. Practicality
  2. Morality
  3. Legality
  4. Safer Security Strategies

1) Practicality

The following difficulties arise in trying to make nuclear deterrence work in today’s more complicated and unpredictable world:

a. The credibility problem.
b. Does nuclear deterrence prevent war between nuclear-armed states?
c. Nuclear deterrence stimulates hostility.
d. The problem of self-deterrence.
e. The need for “sub-strategic” nuclear deterrence.
f. Problems of extended nuclear deterrence.
g. Nuclear deterrence against chemical and biological weapon (CBW) attacks.
h. Nuclear deterrence undermines security.
i. Would nuclear deterrence work against a paranoid regime or extremists?
j. Nuclear deterrence creates instability.
k. Launch-on-warning.
l. Nuclear deterrence provokes proliferation.
m. Nuclear deterrence threatens democracy.

a. The credibility problem
. For deterrence to work, those to be deterred must be convinced that the deterrent force can and will be used, and will be effective. Furthermore, the deterrer must have reasonable confidence that the force can be used without unacceptable penalties. However, nuclear threats against nuclear adversaries capable of a retaliatory second strike lack credibility, because only an irrational leader would execute them. The credibility problem also features strongly in self-deterrence, “sub-strategic” deterrence, extended deterrence, nuclear deterrence against CBW attacks, and nuclear deterrence against extremists.

b. Does nuclear deterrence prevent war between nuclear-armed states? In the Cuban missile crisis, nuclear war was only avoided by luck, with both sides miscalculating the other’s nuclear deployments and plans. General Lee Butler’s authoritative conclusion is: “Nuclear weapons did not and will not, of themselves, prevent major wars, and their presence unnecessarily prolonged and intensified the Cold War.”

For India and Pakistan, their nuclear weapons have not stopped them pursuing limited conventional war – but now it could go nuclear in a moment of stress, miscalculation or imminent defeat. Their proximity highlights the perils and impracticalities of nuclear deterrence.

c. Nuclear deterrence stimulates hostility. An intrinsic, inescapable characteristic of nuclear deterrence is that it stimulates a state of hostility and mistrust. By inhibiting co-operation in promoting true security, it is also self-perpetuating.

d. The problem of self-deterrence. The NATO nuclear weapon states (NWS) threaten a “sub-strategic” (i.e., less destructive) “demonstration” nuclear strike in defence of their “vital interests” anywhere against a CBW attack, because a strategic strike would not be credible. However, even a sub-strategic strike would so outrage world opinion that it would be self-defeating. Hence a rational NWS leader (provided he or she knows the capabilities of his or her nuclear arsenal) would probably be self-deterred in this first vital escalatory rung of nuclear deterrence doctrine.

e. The need for “sub-strategic” nuclear deterrence. Despite, and because of, the self-deterrence problem, current NATO nuclear deterrence doctrine still relies initially on the threatened use of “sub-strategic” or “tactical” nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, mirroring NATO’s justification in the Cold War, Russia has revived its dependence on its vast arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons to compensate for its conventional military inferiority. Sub-strategic nuclear weapons, therefore, would be the first and most likely ones to be used. This introduces three more dangers:

1) The fantasy that nuclear weapons could be used for counter-proliferation or war-fighting.
2) The temptation to lower the nuclear threshold.
3) Almost inevitable, uncontrollable escalation to full-scale nuclear war.

f. Problems of extended nuclear deterrence. A NWS providing a so-called “nuclear umbrella” risks being pushed through the nuclear threshold when its own security is not directly threatened – hence the credibility problem. In the increasingly probable event that extended deterrence fails, the “nuclear umbrella” becomes a “lightning rod” for catastrophic insecurity, because of the near-certainty of rapid, uncontrollable escalation to full-scale nuclear exchange.

g. Nuclear deterrence against CBW attacks. The extreme dangers of such a threat include:

  • The nuclear explosion would create and disperse massive amounts of fallout.
  • Any chemicals or biological toxins not destroyed in the blast could be dispersed.
  • Any state with CBW is unlikely to store them in one place. Thus any attempt to destroy them would require several nuclear weapons.
  • Threatening to use a nuclear weapon would give that state the political and military justification to use its own weapons of mass destruction.

h. Nuclear deterrence undermines security. Nuclear deterrence undermines the security of both those who depend on it and those it is meant to impress. Nuclear weapons are in fact a security problem, not a solution. They undermine a possessor’s security by provoking the most likely and dangerous threat – proliferation to extremists.

i. Would nuclear deterrence work against a paranoid regime or extremists? A fundamental difficulty is that they might not be deterred. The US ruled out using nuclear weapons in the Gulf War, so it now lacks credibility in making any future threat. As for nuclear-armed terrorists, Kissinger said “nothing can deter an opponent bent on self-destruction.” There would probably be no credible target for a nuclear retaliatory threat. Thus Special Forces using sophisticated conventional weapons are the most effective response if negotiations fail.

j. Nuclear deterrence creates instability. The expression “stable nuclear deterrence” is a contradiction in terms. There are two forms of instability caused by nuclear deterrence: through arms racing, and through creating or exacerbating crises.

k. Launch-on-warning. An inevitable consequence of a Mutual Assured Destruction relationship is that, in the case of the US and Russia, each still keeps over 2,000 nuclear warheads poised for launch after detecting an attack but before the incoming warheads arrive.

l. Nuclear deterrence provokes proliferation. India and Pakistan offer the most dramatic recent evidence of this. NATO’s insistence that nuclear weapons are essential for its security cannot be excluded as a primary motive for India’s and Pakistan’s decision to go nuclear.

m. Nuclear deterrence threatens democracy. Nuclear deterrence is the antithesis of democratic values. Also, democracy in a nation operating a nuclear deterrence policy is inevitably eroded by the need for secrecy and tight control of technology, equipment and personnel. The record shows almost zero accountability for every major nuclear weapon decision in the historically democratic NWS (US, UK and France).

2) Morality

The nature of thermonuclear weapons places the morality of their use in a special category. Nuclear deterrence requires a conditional intention to commit a monstrously evil act. To live by threats and menaces is evil: Richard Falk calls it “terrorist logic on the grandest scale imaginable.” It also entails a fundamental moral deception: using the most immoral means to achieve what the NWS claim are highest moral ends.

In so doing, the NWS place national sovereignty above the safety of the planet, and threaten a greater evil than they purport to prevent, while they selfishly and irresponsibly pursue the chimera of total security for themselves and their allies. Moreover, they pervert the truth in claiming that this is necessary, when nuclear weapons are a pre-eminent and growing cause of national and global insecurity, and there are safer alternatives.

3) Legality

If nuclear deterrence is immoral, then it should also be illegal. Yet the NWS have resisted or blocked – by, for example, abusing their UN Security Council veto – all initiatives to outlaw nuclear weapons. Having accepted the outlawing of chemical and biological weapons, the NWS must no longer be allowed to get away with claiming that their so-called “nuclear deterrent” is “consistent with international law,” when they know that only nuclear weapons could destroy all civilization and most forms of life on Earth.

The 1996 Advisory Opinion by the International Court of Justice was a historic breakthrough by implicitly condemning nuclear deterrence as illegal. In confirming that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally breach international humanitarian law (of which the Nuremberg Principles are part), the Opinion has serious implications for all those involved in planning and deploying nuclear forces. This is because, unlike hired killers or terrorists, military professionals and their political leaders must be seen to act within the law.

4) Safer Security Strategies

To find a way back from the nuclear abyss, on the edge of which nuclear deterrence dogma has kept us hypnotised for fifty years, we need the leaders of the NWS and their allies to make a crucial shift to a mind set which understands that nuclear disarmament is a security-building process. One way to expedite this shift is to focus their attention on the consequences of retaliating with nuclear weapons if extremists try nuclear blackmail. This exposes nuclear deterrence as useless in such a crisis.

Any other security strategy is safer. In the short term, deterrence using conventional weapons should be promoted as the most feasible one, which can also be lawful and less morally unacceptable. This would enable nuclear forces to be verifiably stood down, and negotiations to begin in relative safety on a Nuclear Weapons Convention, which will provide the comprehensive, enforceable plan to go to zero nuclear weapons.

NATO holds the key to this. Sooner or later it will have to “bite the nuclear bullet” if it is to maintain its cohesion and effectiveness. Its members’ acceptance of the 2000 NPT Review final document constitutes both an unavoidable obligation, and unexpected opportunity, to do so.

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