07/11/2013 - 07:11

Flailing, but not failing

In Round Two, my colleague Manpreet Sethi correctly emphasized that terrorist penetration of sensitive military sites is a matter of real concern. But she focused narrowly on Pakistan's vulnerabilities to terrorism, and this oversimplifies the issue. The recent history of terrorist attacks—against the United States in 2001, London in 2005, Mumbai in 2008, Norway in 2011, and Pakistan's Mehran naval air base the same year—demonstrates that terrorists can strike anywhere, even in the most unexpected places, and can do so using unpredictable techniques. States including but not limited to Pakistan simply face limits when it comes to ensuring security. Global security mechanisms face such limits too.

It is also worth keeping mind that homegrown insurgencies are widespread in South Asia—in Pakistan to be sure, but in India as well. Singling out one state decontextualizes the problem and doesn't solve anything. Rather, nations should cooperate with one another to address complex security challenges. At the same time, countries that are especially susceptible to terrorist threats—countries like Pakistan—must keep their guard up at all times.

Revisiting assumptions. Sethi also suggested in her Round Two essay that I am pessimistic about prospects for universal nuclear disarmament. She is correct. In fact, I believe that the arms control and nonproliferation regimes are flailing. But, so far, they have not failed.

To ensure that they don't fail, the salience of nuclear weapons in international politics must be reduced. Though I largely concur with Evgeny Buzhinsky's Round Three critique of Sethi's proposal for banning the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons, I believe that nuclear weapons' salience might be reduced through other means.

One important approach is to challenge and change conventional views on deterrence—because as long as political leaders believe in nuclear weapons' deterrent value, the weapons' salience will not decrease. Or in any event, it will not decrease in nuclear-armed nations with comparatively weak conventional military capabilities and national security environments that they perceive as threatening. Therefore, in all countries that have or aspire to have nuclear arsenals, it is important for academics and ultimately policy makers to revisit some widely held but untested beliefs about nuclear deterrence. These include the idea that nuclear weapons equalize power imbalances; that deterrence has prevented war between nuclear-armed rivals; and that deterrence guarantees security and sovereignty, particularly for weaker states.

Groundbreaking work in this vein has been produced by Ward Wilson of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in his Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons. But the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence deserves further research, study, and discussion. This sort of research, however, depends to an extent on the declassification of archival records, and nuclear matters are often heavily shrouded in secrecy. Research on deterrence and related questions will remain challenging until greater transparency is achieved in all nuclear-armed states.

To close, my colleagues have argued that nuclear weapons cannot solve the problems of the 21st century, and Sethi argues that these weapons serve only entrenched national interests. I would go further, and ask if even national interests are served by nuclear weapons. If they are not, but national leaders continue to believe that they are, it is hard to imagine that nonproliferation efforts, not to mention initiatives toward universal disarmament, can succeed in the long run.