The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: An Enduring Debate

spread-of-nuclear-weaponsThis book written by Scott D. Sagan and Kenneth N. Waltz is interesting because the two authors, as is indicated by the title, take radically different positions on the threat from the spread of nuclear weapons. I’ll let the authors explain further from the Preface. “What are the likely consequences of the spread of nuclear weapons? The answer is by no means certain or simple. Indeed, the readers will discover we disagree about the central issue. Kenneth Walsh argues that the fear of the spread of nuclear weapons is exaggerated: ‘More may be better’ since new nuclear states will use their weapons to deter other countries from attacking them. Scott Sagan argues that the spread of nuclear weapons will make the world less stable. ‘More will be worse’ since some new nuclear states will engage in preventive wars, fail to build survivable forces, or have serious nuclear weapons accidents.” That’s a good summary of what they say in the book, although I didn’t find out what the “fail to build survivable forces” has to do with the debate.

Kenneth Walsh takes the lead with his proposal that “More May be Better.” He points out that the world had “…enjoyed more years of peace since 1945 than had been known in modern history, if peace is defined as the absence of general war among the major states of the world.” He argues that, “War becomes less likely as the costs of war rise in relation to possible gains.” The incentive for the major nuclear powers to begin an exchange makes it clear to even the most insane leader that there will be little to gain since each side has sufficient nuclear stockpiles to destroy the other. That easy to understand fact has prevented World War III for seventy years while there have been nuclear weapon stockpiles in the many tens of thousands of weapons. “Deterrence is achieved not through the ability to defend but through the ability to punish.” Walsh writes, “Early in the Cold War, the United States deterred the Soviet Union, and in due course, the Soviet Union deterred the United States.” He observes that he believes “The presence of nuclear weapons makes war less likely…Nuclear weapons have not been fired in anger in a world in which more than one country has them.”

Iran enters the discussion with the observation that …in the past half century, no country has been able to prevent another from going nuclear if they were determined to so (with the exception of Israel destroying Iraq’s reactor and therefore ending its ability to make a bomb).” “Sometimes we helped them, as with Britain and France, sometimes we looked the other way when the Executive Branch was informed by the CIA that Israel was developing or had built nuclear weapons. There was no action taken when India detonated a nuclear device in 1980. “The gradual spread of nuclear weapons has not opened the nuclear floodgates.” “Where nuclear weapons threaten to make the cost of wars immense, who will dare start them?”

Scott Sagan presents his arguments for why, “More Would be Worse.” He concedes that “…the two superpowers maintained a long peace throughout the Cold War, despite political hostilities, numerous crises, and a prolonged arms race.” Oddly, there is a mention of the Ukraine giving up its nuclear stockpile after disintegration of the Soviet Union despite a recommendation that it keep them as a deterrent “…against future Russian military intervention…” Remember that the book was published in 1995 when Putin had not begun to implement Stalin’s policy that “territory equates to security.”  The advice to not surrender nuclear capability must ring loud in the ears of the Ukrainians today as Russian “volunteer rebels” take away chunks of their territory.

Sagan’s arguments are based mostly on the problems with maintaining control of nuclear weapons in numerous countries. He worries that the military organizations might have “…inflexible routines and interests (that could)…lead to deterrence failures and deliberate or accidental war.” He then mentions that the Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, “…inherited nuclear weapons from the Soviet Union without inheriting its stable civil-military relations, historical learning experience, or extensive command and control mechanism.”

Sagan argues that Waltz is wrong in supposing that preventive strikes are unlikely. He mentions that Truman was advised to anticipate and prevent attack by being aggressive. “Truman appears to have rejected the whole concept of preventive war rather quickly…he announced in a public broadcast in 1950, “Such a war is the weapon of dictators, not of free democratic countries like the United States.”Truman and then Eisenhower actively opposed a preventive nuclear attack against the Soviet Union.

There is a discussion that Russia considered a nuclear strike against Ukraine after the breakup of the Soviet Union to prevent Ukraine use of nuclear weapons that had remained there. There were also discussions in 1969 whether the Soviet Union should launch a preventive strike against Chinese nuclear forces. The Politburo did not authorize an attack in part because the United States knew what was being considered and “…made it clear that it would strongly oppose such action.” Sagan’s point is that deterrence only works when there are leaders who make correct decisions and when there is a disciplined military that carries out those decisions. Failure of either of those could lead to a nuclear war.

There are discussions of how many warheads are really needed to achieve deterrence, and there have been very broadly varying answers to that question. The U.S. military had identified thousands of Soviet targets for nuclear attack while some policy analysts have thought a hundred or less warheads would be enough. One reason there were thousands made because, “Nuclear weapons are relatively cheap, and they work against the outbreak of major wars…Deterrence is not a theory.”

Sagan responds that the risk is in accidental use of nuclear weapons. He presents the 1985 Challenger accident as an argument that there can be “…nuclear weapons accidents and even accidental war.” He then mentions Three Mile Island, Bhopal, and Chernobyl.  The “…design of the Iraqi nuclear bomb (prevented by the Israeli destruction of the reactor that would have produced the fissile material to build it) was so flawed that it “…could go off if a rifle bullet hit it.”

I recommend the book to those who want to form their own opinions after reading both sides of the argument.

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