Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

01 September 2015

How Russia and the US Could Prevent Small-Power Nuclear Arms Races


Nuclear arms are not offensive weapons. They have never been used as such. With luck and wisdom, they never will be.

Nuclear arms have been used in warfare once only. We Yanks used them to end the Pacific part of human history’s most horrible war, and to avoid a years-long, gruesome ground invasion of Honshu. We used them against a nation (Japan) that had started the Pacific War, with its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and its unprovoked invasions of China, Korea, and most of Southeast Asia.

Since that time, no one has used a nuclear weapon in anger. Not even Pakistan or India has done so, although the two nations have been waging a seemingly perennial and largely irrational grudge match. (They came close in 1999, but wiser big powers dissuaded them.)

Why is this so? The short answer is Von Clausewitz’ principle: that war is politics by other means. When we humans go to war, we are not out to exterminate each other as we do cockroaches in our kitchens. What we are out to do is influence or perhaps dictate each other’s behavior, i.e., to change each other’s politics.

If India would only give up Kashmir, it could probably placate even Pakistan. Suddenly, the world’s worst enmity outside the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula might resolve itself. (I’m not suggesting that India should do this, only illustrating Von Clausewitz’ principle.)

The absurd notion of “total war” that was in vogue between the First and Second World wars nearly extinguished our species in October 1962. But it didn’t. We wised up. So now at least advanced nations try to wage war, if we have to, with minimal civilian casualties and “collateral damage,” using such things as ninjas and drones, i.e., far more accurate weapons. That’s a sign that we humans are beginning to understand and accept Von Clausewitz’ principle as fact, good policy, and fundamental human morality.

Nuclear weapons are “accurate” only if never used. For then they accomplish political objectives without actually harming any person or property. But if ever used again, they will be the most destructive and inaccurate weapons in human history. They will kill, maim and sicken vastly more innocent than guilty people. And those surviving—even the users—will regret their use afterwards, for as long as our species survives.

So what are nuclear weapons good for? Only one thing: deterrence . If you think another nation wants to invade or strike yours, whether with or without nuclear weapons, having a nuke is a possible guarantee of safety. You don’t have to use it; all you have to do is have it. That alone confers a degree of immunity.

That’s why everyone thinks Iran wants a nuclear weapon, although its leaders all chant, practically in chorus, “Oh, no, not we!” Iran lives in a dangerous neighborhood, within easy striking range of five nuclear powers: Israel, Pakistan, Russia, India and China. And being a young and proud nation, Iran’s Islamic Republic hardly keeps a low profile. It wages proxy wars, harasses its neighbors, talks trash about Israel, and generally acts like a regional bully.

So Iran not only makes existing nuclear powers nervous. It makes non-nuclear powers like Saudi Arabia and Turkey fear the mere thought of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon. At the same time, Iran’s acts and its attitude make its neighbors think of, if not actively plan, how to promote “regime change” in Iran. And that, of course, makes Iran’s leaders want nuclear weapons all the more, if only for deterrence.

The result is a vicious circle, a frenzy of nuclear paranoia throughout the Middle East. If left unchecked, and if Iran does get a nuke, it could spark a regional nuclear arms race and ultimately the first-ever real nuclear war. No one wants that; or at least no one should want that.

After two years of negotiations, the “Five Plus One” have proposed a deal to solve one small part of this puzzle: the mutual paranoia among the US, Iran, and other regional powers, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel and the US Congress are trying mightily to torpedo the deal, but they will probably fail. So one part of the paranoia might lessen soon.

But a much more general and comprehensive solution is possible. Here’s how it would work.

Alone among the nations of the Earth, Russia and the US have offensive weapons capable of annihilating a small nation like North Korea or Iran in fifteen minutes. Although Russia and the US may have defenses that might work against these weapons, no one else does. Not even China. Probably no one but China, Russia and the US will have such defenses for another twenty years, giving our species time to grow up a bit.

The weapons in question are nuclear submarines armed with multiple nuclear-tipped missiles, some of which have multiple independently-targetable nuclear warheads. Being both nuclear powered and nuclear armed, the submarines don’t need air to run or to provide life support for their crews. They can hide under water as long as their crews can stand to be confined. No nation but (perhaps) Russia and the US has any plausible way to detect or defend against these fearsome weapons. These submarines are major deterrents to a nuclear first strike and therefore pillars of our existing Pax Atomica.

It would probably be too much to ask these two rival and often disputatious powers to cooperate in becoming the world’s new policemen. But there’s a much easier and more comfortable solution than that. Suppose each major nuclear power offered its own allies a guarantee of proportionate nuclear retaliation for any nuclear first strike.

The US, for example, might offer such a guarantee to Israel, Saudia Arabia, Turkey and South Korea. Russia might offer one to Iran and North Korea. Such guarantees may exist even now, in secret; but in order to produce the best deterrent effect, they should be announced publicly as durable foreign policy.

The word “proportionate” is important here. A single Russian or US nuclear attack submarine could literally annihilate any of these small nations, or any of its likely small-power nuclear adversaries. But in keeping with our species’ wise abandonment of total war, not to mention distaste for genocide, that wouldn’t be the guarantee.

The guarantee would be a “proportionate” nuclear response. You take out my ally’s chief commercial city, I take out yours. You take out his capital, I take out yours. You nuke a big battlefield; I nuke an equivalent part of your nation and its army. Even the medieval minds that rule some of these minor powers could understand that equation. It’s basically the Code of Hammurabi, by which many such states still live, especially in the Middle East.

Would the guarantor-avenger keep its word? Would it add another legion of casualties to those that already had died or suffered?

That’s hard to tell. There might be some uncertainty. But no rational leader would take the risk. There’s always uncertainty in such matters, but you don’t gamble your capital, especially if you’re personally in it. Even if you survived in a bunker, it wouldn’t be much fun to emerge to radioactive rubble as far as the eye could see in any direction. You would miss your sycophants and your palace, not to mention your military protectors. And your surviving people would be angry, rebellious, and disinclined to kowtow anew. Even Little Kim would quake at the thought.

More to the point, who would bother to waste the money and time—and incur the risk of international opprobrium, economic sanctions and possible conventional (or even nuclear) pre-emptive strikes—to develop nukes under these circumstances? The big-power guarantee would provide plenty of deterrence for a nuclear first strike against a protected nation. And the threat of retaliation for any nuclear first strike by a protected nation—even in response to a conventional invasion—would discourage the first use, if not the development, of nukes to deter any conventional attack.

In a crisis situation, the guaranteeing power could heighten the deterrent effect of the guarantee by publicly declaring a state of military emergency and deploying all or most of its nuclear submarines. Then it could announce publicly (whether or not true) that each submarine captain had the authority to launch proportionate nuclear retaliation on his own initiative, promptly after hearing, through military or even news channels, of a nuclear first strike against the protected nation.

Wouldn’t that sort of real-time, public deterrence work? What leader would gamble his capital, chief commercial city, or a large part of this army on the mere hope that an unknown ship captain from an inimical major power would act like Vassily Aleksandrovich Arkhipov, the man who saved the world?

There is good precedent for this deterrent policy. On October 22, 1962, JFK declared the following to the world in a televised address from the White House:
“It shall be the policy of this Nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”
That announcement came at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when our species got as close to self-extinction as it has ever come. A mere six days later, on October 28, 1962, Soviet General Secretary Nikita S. Khrushchev agreed to remove Soviet offensive nuclear missiles from Cuba. Secretly, but at the same time, we agreed to remove our offensive nuclear missiles from Turkey and never to invade Cuba.

The deterrent effect of a “protect your ally” policy would be even more credible than the policy JFK announced that night. Many could have doubted whether the United States would have started nuclear war with the Soviet Union to protect, say, Guatemala, when such a war would have devastated the United States. It’s far easier to believe that the United States would “discipline” a rogue, small first-user of nuclear weapons when doing so would cause no direct or immediate harm to the United States and perhaps few diplomatic or political difficulties. The same reasoning holds for Russia.

This arrangement would not duplicate the situation of poor Ukraine. When the Soviet Union dissolved, Ukraine gave up its nukes on the understanding that it would be protected against invasion. The Russians have not yet invaded Ukraine, at least not overtly. While massing troops on the border and sending in spooks, agitators and special forces, they have at least tried to maintain a patina of plausible deniability. Nevertheless, few doubt that Ukraine would be in a more enviable position today if it had not given up its nuclear weapons.

The situation posited in this essay would be entirely different. Ukraine’s antagonist is Russia, one of only two nuclear superpowers with a world-destroying, modernized arsenal of nuclear weapons, not to mention those selfsame submarines. No one anywhere, least of all in the West, wants to risk a nuclear confrontation with Russia. Been there, done that, in 1962, when we almost extinguished our species.

Both the military and geopolitical risks would be far different in any case involving a minor or nascent nuclear power. If deemed necessary, either Russia or the US could obliterate a nation like North Korea or Iran in fifteen minutes. Pakistan might take and hour or two, and perhaps more than one submarine.

Because of this real military capability, there would be no risk of military retaliation for a proportionate nuclear response to a nuclear first strike on a protected ally, especially if there were tacit agreement or acquiescence by the other nuclear superpower. If the deterring nuclear superpower had announced its policy firmly in advance, and if it had reiterated it consistently, there would be few or no geopolitical consequences. The only consequences would be moral: later recriminations by others, and perhaps even regret among more enlightened elements of the guarantor-avenger itself.

Would a small power’s leaders take the risk of proportionate nuclear retaliation solely because of the possibility of moral consequences? Very unlikely. Tyrants just don’t think that way. And even democratic leaders, pressed to extreme action by circumstances or their own miscalculations, probably wouldn’t. Think of Netanyahu under these circumstances. So a credible threat of a proportionate nuclear response would be as effective in deterring nuclear first strikes, and likely the clandestine development of nuclear weapons, as a similar threat has been in preserving our Pax Atomica for seventy years and counting, and as a much more dangerous and risky threat was in resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis.

This arrangement wouldn’t deter conventional arms races. In fact, without the nuclear deterrent, it might make them worse. But wouldn’t it be better for nations with rather primitive regimes, which might actually be tempted to use nukes, to be limited to arms races involving less destructive weapons? Surely Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey would breathe easier if Iran had a really fearsome deterrent to developing or using nuclear weapons, in addition to contractual language and vigilant inspections.

Diplomatic cooperation between Russia and the US was absolutely critical to bringing the nuclear deal with Iran this far. Why not take that cooperation one step further and solve not just the problem of Iran, but the problem of any small power’s lust for nukes? And why not do it at the same time as each nuclear superpower protects its own allies from possible nuclear attack?

The Cold War between Soviet Russia and the US spawned the most fearsome weapons ever devised: fully loaded strategic nuclear submarines. These weapons are not just city killers; they are nation killers. A single submarine has the power to destroy a small nation, leaving nothing but rubble too radioactive for rebuilding, and perhaps radioactive rural survivors languishing for lack of industry and infrastructure.

So far the Cold War hasn’t done our species much good. True, it brought us the Pax Atomica, but only at the cost of a very close brush with species self-extinction. We escaped that fate by the skin of our teeth, due only to the coolness and good judgment of two Russians and one American.

Economically and politically, both sides were losers. They crippled their economies with massive overinvestment in world-destroying military arsenals, and they crippled their politics with the type of reflexive and intransigent belief in cartoon ideologies that can only come from war hysteria. The Cold War’s only real winners were other nations, including the Soviet Union’s spinoffs. They can now plot their own courses, free from military, economic and diplomatic domination and coercion to follow one or another cartoon ideology.

The chief beneficiary in this regard is China. Its meteoric economic rise is no accident; nor is its timing. The rise began with Deng Xiaoping, at time when it was clear that the Cold War was likely to end without Armageddon.

So the Cold War caused a lot of angst, paranoia and stupidity and nearly extinguished us. Wouldn’t it be nice if something positive came out of it and the residual enmity that still persists? Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a “deal” that didn’t just make developing nukes a breach of contract subject to contractual sanctions, as the proposed Iran deal does? Wouldn’t it be better if a joint or parallel superpower policy provided a powerful, real deterrent—besides the inherent high cost, risk of accidents and radioactivity and environmental degradation—to any small power developing nukes or using them first?

Acting together, the two nations that almost destroyed the world half a century ago could build something lasting: a better, less dangerous global polity free of new nuclear powers. Even better, they could discourage existing minor nuclear powers, such as North Korea and maybe even Pakistan, from continuing to waste money on developing nuclear arsenals and delivery vehicles.

Israel will probably never give up its nuclear weapons, at least not until (if ever) it has a durable peace with its now hostile neighbors. But the approach suggested here would deter Israel from ever using them first, thereby motivating it to devote more effort to conventional defense, new alliances, and maybe even compromise and diplomacy.

In modern era, let alone the Nuclear Age, excessive reliance on military hardware, instead of diplomacy, empathy and humanity, would be a tragic strategic mistake. The last century is proof positive of that point. By the simple expedient of guaranteeing a proportionate nuclear response to any nuclear first strike by a minor power, the two erstwhile Cold War enemies could drive that point home globally in a very practical way.

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