When the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan in 1945, the world changed forever. It was not that warfare was transformed unrecognisably, or that relations between states altered fundamentally; it was simply that the bomb had been built and this knowledge could never be undone. The world would have to contend with nuclear decisions from then on.
The many proponents of nuclear strategy contend that the “long peace” through the period of the Cold War was due primarily to the possession of nuclear weapons by the then two world superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, and the strategy of nuclear deterrence that evolved to manage the awesome destructive potential of these weapons.
However, nuclear deterrence is not a logical option for the modern state to pursue. The realities are anything but simple. The aspirations and motives that drive modern states do not necessarily fit the framework in which nuclear deterrence was established during the Cold War.
The assuredness of rational action is no longer guaranteed as states do not have the same depth of experience in nuclear management. Moreover, the impact of non-state groups (such as al-Qaeda) is an unpredictable global wildcard.
The concept of nuclear deterrence evolved from attempts to define how to incorporate the use of nuclear weapons into existing strategies. During the immediate postwar years, the use of nuclear weapons was incorporated into existing US doctrine on strategic airpower, in the belief that nuclear weapons would be used as the decisive factor in warfare.
However, it quickly became clear to policy-makers that the atomic bomb was not simply another technological breakthrough. Instead, as Bernard Brodie first ventured in 1946, the possession of nuclear weapons had changed the very nature of war from a focus on winning wars to one of preventing their outbreak.
Nuclear deterrence underwent many adaptations during the Cold War as successive administrations in both superpowers grappled to keep nuclear deterrence “rational”. The US initially adopted a doctrine of massive nuclear retaliation to any conventional Soviet attack in Western Europe.
However, as the USSR achieved strategic parity in nuclear weaponry, the great paradox of unconstrained retaliation became obvious: if deterrence should fail and a nuclear response was initiated, then the outcome would inevitably be devastation to both sides, a result that was in itself irrational. Later US strategies explored more measured responses that specifically targeted Soviet forces and eventually turned full circle to exploring war-fighting options, employing “tactical” nuclear weapons.
In contrast, Soviet strategists rejected the possibility of a constrained nuclear exchange. They did not believe that nuclear war could be limited once commenced.
While they conformed to the norms of deterrence established between the two powers, the USSR was prepared to accept the consequences of a nuclear exchange if ever their national integrity was threatened.
The demise of the Soviet Union has not altered the drive for nuclear ownership among several leading nations, or the central belief that nuclear deterrence is a viable mechanism to manage the destructive power of nuclear weapons. However, the rational logic that drives the modern nuclear club is not as clearly discernible.
Today, countries are driven not only by the necessity to ensure their own survival against their nuclear rivals, but also by the aspirations of gaining world power status that nuclear weapon ownership supposedly conveys. In addition, domestic politics may propel a state towards a nuclear arm, as can the prospect of being able to influence regional affairs, politically and economically.
More alarming is the potential acquisition of nuclear weapons by terrorist groups which view the weapon of mass destruction as a powerful means to apply disproportionate leverage for their international causes.
A key problem with nuclear deterrence is that a nation assumes its opponent has similar strategic norms and values, and clearly interprets the escalatory steps that are under way in the same manner. Keith Krause contends that nuclear deterrence is based primarily on American culture and values and does not necessarily translate to other cultures.
He highlights the confusion and uncertainty surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis, when both nations responded to threats in a crude example of playing “chicken”, with neither side prepared to be the one to give in.
The implication for other nuclear states is significant, particularly where the channels of communication between countries are limited and the margin for miscalculation is wide.
If the number of states pursuing the nuclear option increases, there is a greater potential for global instability, as the fine balance which nuclear deterrence requires is disturbed. The recent effect of US decisions to pursue a National Missile Defence (NMD) system is a point in case.
This system is primarily designed to meet a rogue nuclear launch against America. Regardless of whether the system is successful, the destabilising impact has already been felt.
Both Russia and China have expressed concern and could respond in kind by feeling pressured to increase their capabilities to counter-match the US defence.
While the United States and the Soviet Union were ideologically opposed, both sides recognised the unwinnable nature of nuclear war, and by the 1970s, were able rationally to develop a series of agreements aimed at maintaining both nuclear arsenals in approximate balance.
But what happens when your opponent is not concerned by the threat of a nuclear response, and is determined to pursue a provocative strategic course regardless of the consequences?
Yossef Bodansky – author of Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America – has examined Osama bin Laden’s efforts to obtain a “dirty” nuclear capability. This highlights how deterrence has no impact against an asymmetric threat such as a terrorist organisation, which does not conform to conventional “rational” norms.
While the list of nuclear countries is well catalogued, it is significant that a still larger number of countries, which could easily produce nuclear weapons, choose not to. It is the first time in history when a conglomerate of governments has forsaken the option to develop a weapon that was within their capability, both intellectually and economically.
“Threshold” nuclear weapon capable states such as Brazil, Argentina, South Korea and Sweden have ceased their technology development and are now Non-Nuclear Weapon States. South Africa, which had clandestinely produced six nuclear devices up until 1989, dismantled its weapons prior to signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1993.
The reluctance of so many countries to pursue nuclear deterrence is clear when the failure of nuclear weapons to provide any perceivable advantage is examined. The supposed prestige of belonging to the nuclear club has done little to help either Britain or France regain their former pre-eminence. For India, China and Pakistan the development of a nuclear program is a significant economic strain.
Similarly, the possession of nuclear weapons has not provided the overwhelming guarantee of victory that early nuclear strategists assumed. France and America in Indo-China and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan are all examples where a nuclear power has chosen strategic defeat over the option of employing their ultimate force.
The India-Pakistan nuclear entanglement is a useful study to encapsulate the ramifications of a flawed nuclear deterrence strategy. Firstly, it illustrates the destabilising domino effect of nuclear deterrence; India entered the nuclear arms business to deter Chinese nuclear progress. Pakistan correspondingly reacted to the Indian response through necessity for its own regime survival.
While India did conduct a “peaceful detonation” in 1974, it was the May 1998 nuclear tests and the predictable deterrent response by Pakistan that demonstrate the full ramifications of a flawed nuclear deterrence construct. In response, both countries had to contend with international outrage, particularly India, as the general consensus was that the country faced no credible threats that warranted the initial detonation.
While India claimed the tests were in response to a deteriorating regional security environment, Prime Minister Vajpayee later hinted at the real motives when he described the tests as delivering India its due status as a nuclear weapons state.
The unstated political motive was the need for a dramatic, patriotic event to help sustain Vajpayee’s ever-weakening coalition government. Pakistan responded, citing the need to demonstrate the credibility of its own deterrent capability, and ultimately accepting its slice of the inevitable sanctions and political condemnation.
The long-term ramifications of this deterrent exchange have been heightened instability in the region and increased uncertainty, as opposed to confidence between the two nations.
Both sides remain vague on their nuclear doctrine and command and control mechanisms, and what constitutes a minimum level of deterrence. The possibility of an irrational response in a future crisis cannot be confidently ruled out, and suggests that the entire basis of nuclear deterrence in South Asia is fundamentally flawed.
While the world has moved successfully in many areas towards a more stable nuclear balance, some states, like North Korea, may be developing a nuclear capacity.
Whilst it would seem illogical that any state would accept the possibility of mass destruction and annihilation, it is equally unlikely that the incumbent nuclear states are about to totally overturn their nuclear stocks.
There will always be uncertainties, policy dilemmas and, indeed, there cannot be any simple solution. The efforts towards reducing the overall number of nuclear weapons, which eventually may lead to their final eradication, should be the task of the international community.
- Sharif Shuja