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The unconventional logic nuclear arrogance breeds

Abul Fadl

Ever since their deadly debut on the scene of world politics during the last stage of the second world war, nuclear weapons have played a profound role in shaping the conduct of military strategy and inter-State relations. For better or worse, their awe-inspiring and intimidating presence unleashed a new wave of theorizing and opened up new vistas in the study of international relations, war and peace, and foreign policy.

However, a cursory look at the conceptual underpinnings of much academic research and decision-making in the areas of nuclear policy, proliferation and non-proliferation gives us hints of a strikingly unconventional logic percolating behind a veneer of scholarly rigour.

During the cold war era, nuclear weapons were billed by many a political scientist and politician as supremely beneficial in promoting international peace and stability. The fear of escalation to a general thermonuclear conflagration, they argued, was sufficient to diminish the prospects of the third world war. The ominous presence of nuclear weapons, so the argument goes, helped make planet earth a more peaceful abode for the human race. Never mind the tens of millions of lives lost, mainly in ‘third world’ countries - victims of proxy wars, covert action, counter-insurgency operations, and low intensity conflicts.

An overwhelming sense of fear and terror was central to the much-trumpeted ‘peace’ wrought about by the presence of nuclear weapons during the cold war era. Winston Churchill, a former British prime minister, described such a purported ‘peace’ as ‘the sturdy child of [thermonuclear] terror.’

A strategy of deterrence nurtured the ‘peace’ of the cold war years. The logic of nuclear deterrence was as simple as it was horrific: the possession of nuclear weapons by a State would dissuade its adversaries from attacking it. As both superpowers possessed a ‘second-strike capability,’ that is the ability to survive a ‘first-strike’ and launch a devastating retaliatory nuclear attack, a military stalemate eventually set in. Subsequent efforts by both superpowers to amass more nuclear weapons were not intended to gain superiority but rather to preserve a rough parity in their nuclear arsenal.

Policy analysts and academics coined the term ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’ to describe this stalemate that grew out of the mutual vulnerability of the superpowers. The essence of this notion of ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’ that dominated much of strategic thinking during the cold war was aptly captured by it acronym ‘MAD.’

A closely related strategic notion of the cold war era was that of ‘Nuclear Utilization Theory’ - an off-spring of ‘limited war’ theories. Proponents of ‘Nuclear Utilization Theory,’ mostly international relations scholars, policy analysts and military practitioners in the US, were not satisfied with the merely ‘deterrent’ role accorded to nuclear weapons by MAD advocates.

Dismissing the common sense possibility that any use of nuclear weapons would necessarily escalate to a general nuclear Armageddon, they advocated the ‘controlled’ use of nuclear weapons to fight and win a war. Intoxicated by the sense of overweening power that possession of nuclear weapons fosters, some of them had even envisioned the possibility of fighting a protracted nuclear war. No wonder then that ‘Nuclear Utilization Theorists’ were usually referred to by their acronym, NUTS.

It is understandable, in light of the foregoing, that a prevailing sense of relief would hover over the world with the end of the cold war. Hopes for the abolition of, or reduction in, the spread and proliferation of nuclear weapons were heightened. Some optimist predictions had even ventured to pronounce a pro futuro death sentence on nuclear weapons. However, subsequent developments proved this sense of relief to have been predicated on a sort of perverted optimism.

In the post-cold war era, it is becoming increasingly clear that, like a curmudgeon with a fortune to dispense with, the superpowers continue to be loathe to the idea of parting company with their stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Curiously, a number of seemingly ‘rational’ arguments are currently being advanced by academics and policy analysts to argue against phasing nuclear weapons out.

One argument conceives of cuts in the size of the nuclear arsenals of leading powers as being inversely proportional to the ‘payoff’ for cheating on the part of smaller powers or nuclear aspirants. In other words, reductions in nuclear arsenals would increase the possibility of proliferation on the part of smaller nuclear powers and/or nuclear ‘have nots.’ The current nuclear balance-of-power between the US and Russia - where each possesses more than 10,000 deliverable nuclear devices - would not be altered if another power would somehow manage to secretly hold 1,000 warheads. However, it is argued, such a cache would profoundly alter the balance of power if the leading nuclear powers were to reduce their arsenals to 1,000 apiece or lower.

MAD advocates, on the other hand, propose another argument whose purport is that the stability of the international system can only be maintained if the leading nuclear powers retained a ‘second-strike capability.’ A reduction in the size of these powers’ arsenals would undermine their ability to survive a ‘first-strike’ and launch a deadly retaliatory one. As such, nuclear powers ensnared in a crisis situation will have an incentive to hasten to launch their nuclear arsenals against their adversary to avoid the possibility of a disabling ‘first-strike.’ The risk of an inadvertent nuclear war, therefore, will be heightened.

Perverted as they may be, it is such spurious logical constructs that are currently being peddled in western academic and decision-making circles to argue for nuclear powers refraining from seeking the option of abolishing nuclear weapons in the post-cold war era. Instead of seeking the abolition option, these powers have steered their energies in the direction of seeking the non-proliferation option. Accordingly, the nuclear powers continue to galvanize pressure on nuclear ‘have nots’ to pledge not to ever aquire nuclear weapons and their technologies.

The fact that nuclear weapons States have always been so keen on seeking nuclear non-proliferation and on arresting the spread of nuclear weapons is nothing short of ironic. Conceivably, the argument that the spread of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear countries would help solidify the prospects of world peace is only a logical upshot of the argument that the superpowers’ membership in the nuclear club had diminished the likelihood of war and fostered peace during the cold war.

Muslimedia - June 1-15, 1997

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 7

Muharram 25, 14181997-06-01

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