November 21, 2016

Nuclear Deterrence and a Trans-generational Framework

Introduction

When U.S. President Barack Obama announced on 9 April 2009 in Prague his vision for a nuclear weapons-free world, but indicated that this might not be achieved in his lifetime, he advanced a trans-generational framework uncommon in political leaders – most of whom can barely see past the next election, let alone beyond their lifetimes.

President Obama’s comments were both inspiring and sobering for those of us who are part of Generation Y (born from the 1980s-2000s), having lived most, if not all of our lives after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the nuclear stand-off between East and West.

His comments were inspiring in that he acknowledged responsibility for the past – including the U.S. use of nuclear weapons against Japan sixtyeight years ago – as well as espousing a commitment to the future, for the achievement of a nuclear weapons-free world. The commentary proved concurrently sobering however, in that it reminded a young generation, largely unaware of the extent of nuclear danger, that the fall of the Berlin Wall did not lead to the fall of the wall of nuclear weapons, still poised and ready to obliterate the world.

Rather, the complicated security requirements to phase-out the continued reliance of many States on nuclear weapons, and to ensure confidence in and compliance with a zero-nuclear-weapons-regime, will require considerable collaborative work beyond the scope of the U.S. alone, and probably take decades to accomplish.

The trans-generational nature of this task is not just related to the time it will likely take to achieve a nuclear weapons-free regime, and the responsibility of future generations to ensure that such a regime is sustainable. It is also in the requirement for inter-generational discourse in order to understand the reasons for current nuclear doctrines and to forge viable solutions within emerging political realities.

The key challenge remains however, that members of Generation Y are mostly unaware of the continued reliance on nuclear weapons by the nuclear weapon-States and their allies, and the associated risks of these policies, even when nuclear weapons are deployed in their own countries.

Nuclear deterrence – a hangover from the past?

Sixty-eight years since the nuclear age was dramatically heralded by the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, human beings continue to live under what U.S. President John F. Kennedy famously called a “nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness.”1Kennedy, John F. “Address before the General Assembly of the United Nations.” New York City, September 25, 1961 Despite the end of the Cold War, and with it the disappearance of much of the antagonistic raison d’être for nuclear weapons (that on several occasions brought mankind to the brink of nuclear annihilation), around 19,000 nuclear weapons remain in the stockpiles of the nuclear weapon-States. By virtue of automated “launch on warning” systems, thousands of these weapons are constantly ready-to-fire within minutes.

The world now is a very different place than it was at the end of the Cold War. The borders and blocs defended by nuclear weapons during the Cold War barely exist. We now have a wide range of technological devices and programmes at our disposal, enabling us to connect with people all over the world. We can withdraw money from our bank out of a cash machine in virtually any country. It has become much easier to study and work overseas. Our governments trade with, invest in, and collaborate with governments that used to be on the other side of the Cold War blocs – as do our corporations, many of whom have erected sophisticated global governance structures across the multiple countries in which they are now based (granted, not without significant challenges and flaws). Yet in the face of all these transformations to our modern political, economic, social and technological landscape, nuclear policy-makers remain rooted in the 20th Century – ‘dinosaurs’ unable to adapt, or worse, the makers of a modern day ‘Maginot line’.2The “Maginot Line”, named after French Minister of War André Magniot, was a French defence fortification arrangement based on World War I realities, which subsequently failed miserably in World War II

The absence of world war or of a major war between nuclear-armed countries since 1945 has been repeatedly attributed to the proper functioning of nuclear deterrence. The value of nuclear deterrence thus continues to permeate strategic thought. However, a closer examination of nuclear deterrence in current and emerging security environments should prompt a fundamental review of such beliefs.

A flawed policy

Proponents claim that nuclear weapons protect current and future generations by deterring war, in particular nuclear war. However, the fact that there has not been a nuclear war or a major war between nuclear-armed countries does not prove that nuclear deterrence works. There could be other reasons for this, including the fact that such wars would, in an increasingly inter-connected world, be contrary to the interests of potential adversaries.

The contrary argument – that nuclear weapons have a moderate-to-high probability to trigger wars, and possibly nuclear wars, is also difficult to prove. However, there is evidence for the latter found within historical occasions where nuclear deterrence did not prevent war,3Ward Wilson discusses a number of military conflicts where the possession of nuclear weapons by one side did not prevent an attack from an adversary. See Wilson, Ward. Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. as well as occasions where nuclear war was only narrowly averted.4See Kaku, Michio, and Axelrod, David. To Win a Nuclear War: The Pentagon’s Secret War Plans. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1987. Outlines 15 occasions where nuclear war was narrowly averted. What’s more there exists a theoretical underpinning to this argument within Game Theory (the theoretical model normally utilized to underscore pro-deterrence realist accounts). Game Theory models detail an increased risk of nuclear war when additional ‘players’ (nuclear-armed States) enter the equation. In fact, some Game Theory models predict that in the absence of a global regime for eliminating nuclear weapons, it is inevitable that nuclear weapons will proliferate to additional actors (States and/or non-State actors).5See, for example, Rivera, Pablo. “Game Theory and Nuclear Weapons.” Scribd Online Library. August 17, 2010. http://www.scribd.com/doc/36017335/Game-theory-andnuclear-weapons. This will in turn considerably heighten the risk to future generations of a nuclear catastrophe.

Applying common models of risk analysis to nuclear deterrence, as used in virtually any other human undertaking, industry, system or design, the calculus would be that although the probability of the failure of deterrence might be low (although the long list of near-misses in the nuclear age reveals it is much higher than we may suspect), the potential consequences of such a failure would be so horrific and devastating (threatening life on earth as we know it) that the doctrine can only be deemed unreservedly intolerable. The simple truth is that we will never be able to achieve a failure rate of zero (or at least a rate vanishingly small) for nuclear deterrence. Yet when it comes to the nuclear enterprise, the defence and security elites in the possessor States shirk away from carrying out such risk-benefit assessments.

Risky, costly and a liability to future generations

Nuclear deterrence is a high-risk enterprise, which puts stakes on the table of an unacceptable magnitude. Human beings have a tendency to engage in risky behaviour, even if they are aware of the potentially life-threatening consequences of their actions or inaction. We tempt fate until disaster strikes, which may shock us into action. With nuclear weapons the risk is compounded by the fact that the rationale for the weapons – their capacity to deter – relies on a willingness to use them. Without such willingness, deterrence loses ‘credibility’. As such, so long as any such weapons and nuclear deterrence policies remain, it is certain that they will one day be used, whether by accident, miscalculation or intent.

The use of just one nuclear weapon (most likely on or near an urban area) would create devastation magnitudes greater than the September 11, 2001 terrorist act, or any other terrorist attack to date. The use of tens or hundreds of nuclear weapons would create unimaginable humanitarian and environmental consequences that would span generations. Considering that the destructive power of nuclear weapons cannot be contained in space or time, the doctrine is ill-suited to responsibly exert influence over any one State or bloc of States. Deterrence holds the entire world hostage and poses an existential threat to civilization now and into the future. As such, the threat or use of nuclear weapons is not just a policy with unacceptable risks – it is a crime against current and future generations.

In addition, there is the large financial cost of maintaining a nuclear deterrent. Recent studies indicate that approximately $100 billion USD per year is being spent globally on nuclear weapons.6See Blair, Bruce, and Brown, Matthew. “Nuclear Weapons Cost Study.” Global Zero Technical Report. June 2011. http://www.globalzero.org/files/scott/Global%20Zero%20 Cost%20Study%2C%20June%202011.pdf. Allocating such massive budgets to weapons systems, developed in the hope they will never be used, drains the social capital required to stimulate economies, and diverts resources from enterprises geared to meeting current social needs, such as building the educational excellence, work-force training and public infrastructures for the future.

For protection or prestige?

It may very well be that many in the political, security and defence elites in the nuclear-weaponpossessing States realise that these weapons do not convey any real security benefits. In fact, it is no secret that many in these States’ military establishments (privately) question their supposed military purposes. Interestingly, it is often the civilian defence experts, who seem most enchanted with the weapons and adamant about using them to manage their State’s security, achieve strategic objectives, conduct foreign policy, or achieve prestige.

This enchantment is well expressed by a scene in an episode of the satirical British sitcom, Yes, Prime Minister (sequel to Yes, Minister), a television show from the 1980s. The show draws its laughs from portraying the Machiavellian interaction between the Prime Minister (Cabinet Minister in Yes, Minister), who believes he is in charge, and the members of the British Civil Service, who are depicted as really running the country.

In the episode entitled The Grand Design,7“The Grand Design”, Yes, Prime Minister, Episode 1, Series 1. Written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn. First aired on the BBC on January 9, 1986. aired on 9 January 1986, Prime Minister Jim Hacker considers cancelling the intended purchase of the new Trident nuclear weapons programme, due to replace the earlier submarine-based Polaris system, and instead use the money to invest in Britain’s army and re-introduce conscription, thus solving Britain’s defence, unemployment and education problems in one stroke. He calls it “Hacker’s Grand Design”. Cabinet Secretary Sir Humphrey is utterly aghast at the suggestion:

  • Sir Humphrey: But it is not fair! With Trident we could obliterate the whole of Eastern Europe.
  • Jim Hacker: I don’t want to obliterate the whole of Eastern Europe.
  • Sir Humphrey: It’s a deterrent.
  • Jim Hacker: It’s a bluff. I probably wouldn’t use it.
  • Sir Humphrey: Yes, but they don’t know that you probably wouldn’t.
  • Jim Hacker: They probably do.
  • Sir Humphrey: Yes, they probably know that you probably wouldn’t. But they can’t certainly know.
  • Jim Hacker: They probably certainly know that I probably wouldn’t.
  • Sir Humphrey: Yes, but even though they probably certainly know that you probably wouldn’t, they don’t certainly know that, although you probably wouldn’t, there is no probability that you certainly would. [Silence]
  • Jim Hacker: What!?
  • Sir Humphrey: It all boils down to one simple issue – you are the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister of Great Britain. Don’t you believe that Great Britain should have the best?
  • Jim Hacker: Yes, of course.
  • Sir Humphrey: Very well, if you walked into a nuclear missile showroom you would buy Trident – it’s lovely, it’s elegant, it’s beautiful. It is quite simply the best. And Britain should have the best. In the world of the nuclear missile it is the Saville Row suit, the Rolls Royce Corniche, the Château Lafitte 1945. It is the nuclear missile Harrods would sell you. What more can I say?
  • Jim Hacker: Only that it costs £15 billion and we don’t need it.
  • Sir Humphrey: Well, you can say that about anything at Harrods.

When this episode was first aired, the Cold War still provided the context for security thinking. Today that context is gone, yet the thinking remains remarkably similar. (And interestingly, the United Kingdom is once again on the verge of making a decision on renewing Trident – scheduled for 2016.) It is essential we abandon the antagonistic defence and security assumptions that underpin deterrence, and in all earnest invest in the cooperative mechanisms that are needed to meet the range of human, national and global security needs of the 21st Century.

A 21st Century approach to security

The twenty-first-century global security environment differs fundamentally from that of the Cold War, and will change even more profoundly in the decades ahead. Humankind stands at a historic juncture, facing a range of interconnected threats, which can only be tackled through unprecedented cooperation. The international community must discard the myths and adversarial political frameworks of nuclear deterrence if it is to successfully address these threats. Instead, the cooperative security framework, based on international legal, economic and political mechanisms, must be better utilized and further developed to make war (and thus any residual attachment to nuclear deterrence) counter-productive, unfeasible, and unthinkable.

As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted in a recent Op-Ed: “Many defence establishments now recognize that security means far more than protecting borders. Grave security concerns can arise as a result of demographic trends, chronic poverty, economic inequality, environmental degradation, pandemic diseases, organized crime, repressive governance and other developments no state can control alone. Arms can’t address such concerns.”8Ki-moon, Ban. UN Secretary-General. “The world is overarmed and peace is under-funded.” UN Office on Disarmament Affairs Update. August 30, 2012. http://www.un.org/disarmament/update/20120830/ 

In our current situation, sitting in our goldfish bowl that is still polluted with the waters of 20th Century international conflicts, arms races and failed attempts at peace, one can understand the pessimism of some leaders and analysts regarding the possibility for security without nuclear weapons. Consider the European Union however. Countries such as Germany and France were constantly at war with each other in the 19th and 20th Centuries. These countries are now so interdependent, that the thought of war between them, or between any of the members of the European Union for that matter, is unthinkable.

The development of global interdependence can have a similar effect in diminishing States’ interests in making war. The development of international legal and political mechanisms will provide ways to deter and address any deviations from this developing norm. Moreover, we do not need to start from scratch. There are already a variety of systems and regimes in place to learn from and build on, including the UN machinery and institutions, regional (non-nuclear) cooperative security mechanisms, regional frameworks for political and economic integration, and best practices on dispute settlement from the global private sector. Furthermore, and somewhat ironically, an implicit level of trust lies within the current security consensus between the nuclear powers and non-nuclear States. This trust and tacit consensus can be built upon and converted into a better-institutionalised nonnuclear cooperative framework.

Ultimately, nuclear deterrence is a psychological phenomenon. Although several States have given up their nuclear arsenals, it seems that for the current nuclear weapon-possessing States giving these weapons up feels like a major security sacrifice. This, however, has more to do with what is known in behavioural psychology circles as the “endowment effect” than with the actual value of these weapons in providing security. The endowment effect is our tendency to value an object more highly when we own it than when someone else owns it – even when the object in question has little to no practical value. This is why it is vital in any disarmament process to replace the weapons and doctrine with other, more constructive strategic instruments. In fact, it offers an opportunity to replace the adversarial deterrence doctrine with a strategy based on cooperative security. In this context it is important to examine what we may learn from the roughly 150 States that handle their security without nuclear weapons, including those that previously relied on nuclear weapons but have relinquished such policies. It could also be important to learn from the regional non-nuclear cooperative security frameworks that many of these countries have erected, especially those that have established regional nuclear weapon-free zones.

Conclusion

In 1954 the British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote, “The only thing that will redeem mankind is co-operation.”9See Russell, Bertrand. Human Society in Ethics and Politics. London: G. Allen & Unwin. 1954. He also said, “To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.”10See Russell, Bertrand. Unpopular Essays. London: Simon and Schuster. 1950. Both statements converge in our paradoxical and troubled relationship with nuclear deterrence. Both the doctrine and our reliance on it are fuelled by fear. Such fear stands in the way of coming up with the innovative cooperative action needed to address the multitude of challenges we face.

Some governments continue to cling to fear and outmoded concepts of nation-State security – a division between the ‘us’ who need to be defended, and the infamous ‘them’. Meanwhile, members of the younger generation (and some fast-to-learn older people) are communicating with and reaching out to one another through a wide range of communication means, bypassing the geographical, cultural, political and religious barriers perpetuated by nation-States. A powerful example of this emerged in 2012, when bellicose threats between the governments of Iran and Israel were tempered by Israeli and Iranian families and students, reaching out to each other directly through social media with messages of love, peace and respect.

Even if global cooperative security mechanisms are not yet strong enough to provide a water-tight alternative to nuclear deterrence, the revolution in social media communications and global consciousness is reducing the concept of nuclear weapons threat and use to the dustbin of the past. Governments need to catch up to this social revolution and prioritise cooperation rather than conflict – an imperative if we are to secure our common future, and bequeath to future generations a safe and habitable planet.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

ROB VAN RIET is Coordinator of the Disarmament Programme at the World Future Council. In addition, he has been U.K. Coordinator of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament (PNND) since 2011 and has served as the Director of the Nuclear Abolition Forum since its founding in 2011. He was a co-author of the InterParliamentary Union/PNND Parliamentary Handbook Supporting Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, released during the 127th Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly in Quebec City, Canada, in October 2012. The author would like to thank Mr. Alyn Ware and Ms. Teresa Bergman for their feedback, comments and suggestions for this article.

References   [ + ]

1. Kennedy, John F. “Address before the General Assembly of the United Nations.” New York City, September 25, 1961
2. The “Maginot Line”, named after French Minister of War André Magniot, was a French defence fortification arrangement based on World War I realities, which subsequently failed miserably in World War II
3. Ward Wilson discusses a number of military conflicts where the possession of nuclear weapons by one side did not prevent an attack from an adversary. See Wilson, Ward. Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
4. See Kaku, Michio, and Axelrod, David. To Win a Nuclear War: The Pentagon’s Secret War Plans. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1987. Outlines 15 occasions where nuclear war was narrowly averted.
5. See, for example, Rivera, Pablo. “Game Theory and Nuclear Weapons.” Scribd Online Library. August 17, 2010. http://www.scribd.com/doc/36017335/Game-theory-andnuclear-weapons.
6. See Blair, Bruce, and Brown, Matthew. “Nuclear Weapons Cost Study.” Global Zero Technical Report. June 2011. http://www.globalzero.org/files/scott/Global%20Zero%20 Cost%20Study%2C%20June%202011.pdf.
7. “The Grand Design”, Yes, Prime Minister, Episode 1, Series 1. Written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn. First aired on the BBC on January 9, 1986.
8. Ki-moon, Ban. UN Secretary-General. “The world is overarmed and peace is under-funded.” UN Office on Disarmament Affairs Update. August 30, 2012. http://www.un.org/disarmament/update/20120830/
9. See Russell, Bertrand. Human Society in Ethics and Politics. London: G. Allen & Unwin. 1954.
10. See Russell, Bertrand. Unpopular Essays. London: Simon and Schuster. 1950.
Rob van Riet

About Rob van Riet

Rob van Riet is Coordinator of the Disarmament Programme at the World Future Council. In addition, he has been U.K. Coordinator of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament (PNND) since 2011 and has served as the Director of the Nuclear Abolition Forum since its founding in 2011. He was a co-author of the InterParliamentary Union/PNND Parliamentary Handbook Supporting Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, released during the 127th Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly in Quebec City, Canada, in October 2012.

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