07/18/2013 - 06:12

Vested interests, phantom threats

Evgeny Buzhinsky's Round Three essay encapsulates a mindset that prevents nations from seriously contemplating forms of interstate security that are not anchored by nuclear weapons.

Setting out stringent conditions for further reductions in Russia's nuclear arsenal, Buzhinsky writes that Russia must first "catch up with the United States in conventional and high-precision weapons." Unfortunately, this suggests that if the United States were to threaten Russia with conventional and high-precision weapons, Moscow could sanely respond with a nuclear attack. Meanwhile, Buzhinsky expresses concern about military modernizations in nations along or near Russia's borders and writes that "Moscow must feel safe regarding its territorial integrity" before it can further reduce its nuclear arsenal. But if Moscow catches up with Washington in conventional and high-precision weapons, other nations will want to catch up in turn. So is the world condemned to live in a state of self-perpetuating fear?

Perhaps more to the point, do threat perceptions remain high in Russia because elevated threats are in the interest of an influential defense industry allied with a powerful political coterie? A similar question might be asked about Pakistan: Does the Pakistani army maintain its belief that India poses a threat because relinquishing that belief would undermine the army's importance in Pakistan's power structure?

If nations remain prisoners of threat perceptions advanced by those who have incentives to perpetuate them, "nuclear weapons will be with us for a while"—as the title of Buzhinsky's third essay would have it. A long while. And the risk of nuclear war and nuclear terrorism will be with us a long while, too.

Pushing boundaries. In Round Two, I proposed a universal, legally binding convention banning the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons. In Round Three, Buzhinsky described his objections to that proposal.

First, he "do[es] not understand the sense in possessing nuclear weapons if you cannot use them." But that is precisely the point. Nations are averse to disarming because they believe nuclear weapons can be put to use—either militarily or politically. But if a universal convention outlawed the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons, nuclear arsenals would become useless. Nations, over time, would become willing to disarm.

Second, Buzhinsky wonders how the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) would correlate with my proposed convention; he asks if membership in the convention would allow non-signatories to the NPT "suddenly [to] gain recognition as nuclear weapon states." What Buzhinsky ignores is that when such countries gained recognition as nuclear weapon states, they would also renounce the right to use their nuclear weapons. It wouldn't matter what status the convention conferred on states outside the NPT.

Third, Buzhinsky objects that the convention would abolish the concept of nuclear deterrence and thus force nuclear-armed countries to rewrite their military doctrines. So? Don't countries already revise their military doctrines periodically to keep pace with changing threats and technologies?

My proposal may well be, as Buzhinsky says, "not appropriate for today's conditions." But it is the prerogative of intellectuals—nay, their duty—to push boundaries.

The real threat. My colleagues in this Roundtable believe that the nuclear status quo is dangerous. But disappointingly, neither seems ready to imagine an international security architecture in which nuclear weapons are not an obsession. Sadia Tasleem, to her credit, identifies several "widely held but untested ideas about nuclear deterrence," such as that nuclear weapons equalize power imbalances and that deterrence has prevented war between nuclear-armed rivals. And she calls for a thoroughgoing reconsideration of such views. But she would contribute most to security if she could convince her fellow Pakistanis that many conventional ideas about deterrence are not based in fact. Meanwhile, Tasleem laments that "the arms control and nonproliferation regimes are flailing," and she fears that they will fail; but her prescriptions for fixing the problem are not sufficiently broad or convincing. The regimes will fail sooner than later if nuclear weapons remain an obsession.

Nearly seven decades have passed since human beings developed nuclear weapons. These weapons have proved to be more a liability than an asset for the security of nations—even nuclear-armed nations whose conventional military capabilities are relatively weak. When countries try to compensate for conventional military inferiority with nuclear weapons, they usually address only phantom threats. But the real threat, the one staring everyone in the face, is nuclear weapons themselves.