The Threat of Nuclear Weapons: No Time to Be “Realistic”

Tasneem Jamal

Michael Wallace

Michael Wallace is Professor of Political Science, University of British Columbia

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?

Whenever I am bidden to propose “realistic” solutions to problems, I am reminded of a slogan I observed on the walls of the Sorbonne during the student revolt of 1968: “Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible”. The anonymous writer uses the paradoxical form to highlight the conundrum faced by those advocating major changes to the status quo face when this adjective is attached as a qualification. Decoded, the admonition to be “realistic” usually means: “the solutions you propose must not offend the conventional wisdom as defined by current policy elites and existing or potential counter-elites, nor may they threaten the interests of any significant interest group inside or outside the policy community.”

Defined thus, it is not difficult to show that the multiple threats posed by nuclear weapons in the contemporary world cannot be addressed by “realistic” solutions. Although the hundreds of military nuclear installations throughout the world pose a smorgasbord of environmental and public health problems, confining the discussion to “security” issues traditionally defined still leaves two critical dangers: 1) The implosion of the Russian military infrastructure, most particularly its nuclear elements and their associated C4I, and, 2) the ongoing and perhaps increasing incentives for states with current or potential nuclear weapons capabilities to channel additional significant resources to nuclear weapons development.

These two dangers are simply ignored and may well be exacerbated by the current NATO Strategic Concept and some new proposals to update its Military Implementation of Alliance Strategy. They could be made worse still by the ongoing development of the U.S. National Missile Defense and Theater Missile Defense programs.

  1. For several years experts have warned that the degradation of Russian military infrastructure is reaching the point of collapse. Recent events suggest that we are now seeing the beginning of that collapse. On the Russian side, a rigid and entrenched military bureaucracy seems determined to defend the status quo, while many in U.S. policy circles almost seem to welcome a Russian collapse as an alternative to negotiated bilateral reductions. Two types of evidence warn that this scenario could end catastrophically. First, studies of the risk of accidental war show that the concomitants of collapse — a sudden, drastic decline in the performance of EWS, a dramatic degradation in C2 capabilities over large numbers of LV’s maintained on hair-trigger, leading to hypervigilence or even outright panic among duty personnel — represents the classic mise-en-scène for an inadvertent nuclear launch. (U.S. technical assistance has of course helped reduce this risk, but it is predicated upon an intact and cooperative Russian command structure). Second, empirical evidence strongly suggests that the rapid military decline of powerful states may increase rather than reduce the probability of their aggressive behaviour, what one historian refers to as “the bellicose frivolity of senile empires”. Many would argue that Russian actions in Chechnya and elsewhere are harbingers of this historical pattern. The perils for NATO generated by such Russian collapse cry out for radical rather than incremental or “realistic” changes to current doctrine and practices.
  2. While the current situation in Russia is desperate, a substantially equivalent (although at the moment less tangible) risk is posed over the longer term by the persistent erosion of the nuclear arms control process and the attendant risk of restarting a all-out nuclear arms race. Although the Agenda agreed upon at the May NPT Review Conference pronounced unanimous nuclear arms control objectives for the first time, it must be considered little more than empty rhetoric when set against, inter alia: the refusal of the U.S. Senate to ratify the CTBT, the persistent rigidity of NATO’s nuclear doctrine, the willingness of the U.S. Administration to proceed with NMD and TMD at the expense of arms control, the apparent weakening of U.S. Negative Security Assurances, the ongoing American development of small tactical warheads threatening the traditional firewall between conventional and nuclear ordinance, the nuclear modernization program in the PRC, the large percentage of British and French defence budgets dedicated to their nuclear programs, the refusal of Israel to enter the NPT regime, and the steady pace of nuclear weaponization in South Asia. It is evident that now more than ever, the slow pace of nuclear proliferation results from the traditional calculus of national self-interest of individual states rather than a global regime or set of norms. And here as well the empirical evidence is clear: as states develop enduring military rivalries (and not even American hyperpower can prevent or curtail all of these), they will strive to develop weapons qualitatively superior to those of their rivals, a practice which frequently precipitates an full-blown arms race. Further, when faced with a state that is not only a potential rival but possesses overwhelming power (such as the U.S.), they will strive for qualitative improvements that might give them an asymmetric advantage. In an environment where the most powerful nations rely on nuclear weapons for qualitative advantage, these empirically established tendencies of state behaviour make nuclear proliferation inevitable in the long run, awaiting only time and circumstance. If “realistic” policy initiatives do not change this underlying military and political reliance on nuclear weapons, ultimately they will be futile.

What, then, are some “impossibly realistic” ways out of the nuclear menace? There is no lack of effective proposals already put forward by the NGO community and like-minded policy analysts. In the order of the questions posed in the introductory conference document:

1. Changes to NATO Nuclear Policies

The statement in the current Strategic Concept that nuclear weapons are “the supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies” should be changed if only because it is clearly empirically false. Overwhelming conventional power now provides more than sufficient protection against both conventional and (highly improbable) CBW threats certainly via deterrence and in most cases by preemption. It is not any specific weapons system or military capability, but the political determination of each and every ally to honour their pledge of collective security that provides “the supreme guarantee of security” for the Alliance. The role of nuclear weapons in the Alliance should be solely as a deterrent against the threat of nuclear attack, and even in this role only until this threat can be eliminated by multilateral agreement. So, a revised Strategic Concept should contain both a “no first use” pledge regarding nuclear weapons, and, rather than insisting on their retention “for the foreseeable future”, a pledge for their elimination “as soon as possible in accord with the undertaking made at the 2000 NPT Treaty Review Conference”.

2. Alternatives to “Missile Defense”

Since there is no persuasive evidence that the U.S. can deploy a missile defence system in the next decade, the issue is more usefully posed in the obverse: what measures would persuade states engaged in the development of advanced medium- and long-range missiles to pursue their perceived security needs by other means? In other words, the task becomes to devise a package comprising at least some measure of political settlement, military CSBMs, and economic incentives that would be more attractive for these states than acquiring missile capabilities. The contents of such a package would vary but could include, inter alia, political mediation, the removal of political and economic sanctions, cancellation of debt, and bilateral or multilateral agreements for advance notice or even limitation of potentially threatening force deployments. From the American perspective, they would pay to address their security concerns with few minor political concessions and deployment limitations, a far cheaper and more reliable alternative to an unworkable and provocative missile defence.

2. Interim Measures

As argued throughout, time is of the essence. The nuclear disarmament agenda badly needs a “jump start” with deeds and not merely words. A relatively simple way to do this (already proposed by a number of analysts in different variations) would be for the U.S. and Russia to agree to take a certain proportion of their existing deployed warheads off hair – trigger status immediately, and then, to avoid the threat of reactivation, put them “beyond use” (to use the IRA term) by some agreed technical means on a time-scale measured in months, not years. Once both sides had agreed that this had been done securely, both would then take another significant proportion off hair-trigger, put these beyond use, and so forth until an agreed threshold had been reached (say, between 1,000 and 1,500 warheads). At this point the other NWS and proliferating states would be invited to join the process, an invitation which would now be much harder to resist. By initiating such a process, the U.S. would be banking a large increment of safety against a Russian collapse, the Russians would be helped out of their nuclear dilemma, and the process of nuclear abolition would be given enormous momentum.

Of course, these measures are not “realistic” in the sense that they are not at the moment acceptable to U.S. and other Western military and political establishments wedded as firmly as they have ever been to the status quo. But what cannot be emphasized often enough is that the status quo is no longer an option. Thus, to return to where I began, to be realistic we must demand the implementation of the impossible.

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