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Destabilization and Disarmament

Fewer nukes mean more risk.

4:00 PM, Sep 24, 2009 • By STUART KOEHL
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John Noonan recently wrote here on the Obama administration's plans to reduce the size and scope of the U.S. strategic arsenal independent of arms reduction negotiations with nuclear rivals Russia and China. John touched on one downside of the president's initiative, specifically the unilateral reduction in the U.S. arsenal without any equivalent cuts or other quid pro quo from our adversaries. As Noonan put it, "That means that both nations are free to continue the aggressive upgrades to their strategic nuclear forces (particularly so in Putin's Russia), without having to worry about what the U.S. or international community thinks."

This is true, but John's brief note did not address some of the deeper, and potentially more serious implications of America's headlong embrace of nuclear disarmament.

Let us begin by stating the obvious: like most on the left, Barack Obama and his closest foreign policy advisers believe that nuclear weapons per se are a threat to international peace and stability, and that a world without any nuclear weapons would be a safer, saner place. This is, to say the least, simplistic and naïve. It is not so much nuclear weapons as the nature of the countries possessing them that are the cause of tensions in the international community. Nobody much cares that France or the United Kingdom have nuclear weapons; even Israel's nuclear arsenal does not unduly worry the international community--with the exception of those countries that harbor hostile intent towards Israel. On the other hand, nuclear weapons in the hands of countries like Russia, China, North Korea, Iran (and to a lesser extent, Pakistan) do raise concerns not just among their near neighbors, but around the world, because their foreign policies are inherently aggressive, and marked by a willingness to use military force offensively to further their strategic interests.

But, in other situations, nuclear weapons have been inherently stabilizing. Nuclear deterrence kept the peace between the U.S. and the Soviet Union from 1949 through the end of the Cold War. Israel's nuclear arsenal has undoubtedly deterred Arab aggression on more than one occasion, and is largely responsible for the "Cold Peace" that endures between Israel and the neighboring Arab states. One also has to admit that relations between India and Pakistan have become more regular and more stable since the latter demonstrated its nuclear capability in 1998, and that nuclear parity probably averted a very bloody conventional war. Concern over Pakistan's nuclear weapons revolves around secondary issues, such as the security of its nuclear stockpiles in the event the country collapses into anarchy, and the possibility that Pakistan (or a successor state) might transfer nuclear weapons to hostile states (Iran, Syria) or to terrorist organizations. But there is very little concern that Pakistan will launch a nuclear war against India--or vice versa. The presence of nuclear weapons on both sides of the Indo-Pakistani border has caused each country to become more careful in its rhetoric and actions, and to initiate measures to ratchet down tensions. Nuclear weapons make countries careful and polite.

Imagine, then, a world without any nuclear weapons whatsoever. Back in the days when Dr. Helen Caldicott was calling not just for a nuclear freeze, but for total nuclear disarmament, my friends and I sported buttons and T-shirts saying, "BAN NUCLEAR WEAPONS", in big, bold print; underneath, in smaller letters, they added, "Make The World Safe for Conventional War". It was sophomoric, sure (we were, after all, sophomores), but it raised a valid point. Without the inhibitions imposed by nuclear weapons, there was really nothing to constrain the propensity of some countries to settle disputes by warfare, and nothing to restrain the level at which wars were waged. That is, while the U.S. and USSR engaged in a deadly global conflict for forty years, during that time each was careful to avoid a direct confrontation with the other, fighting mainly through surrogates, and limiting both the geographic scope and levels of violence in these proxy wars.