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

21 April 2010

The Case for Nuclear Proliferation

[For comment on Senator Graham’s threat to quit the bipartisan energy coalition, click here.]

The Case against Nuclear Weapons
The Three Conventional Approaches to Nuclear Weapons
Defects in the Three Approaches and a Possible Fourth
Arguments for Proliferation
A World of Proliferation
The Terrorist Threat
Rogue Regimes
Reasons to Avoid a Total Ban

Sometimes conventional wisdom turns out to be spectacularly wrong. An African-American could never become president of the United States, until he did. A nation united by language, history and ethnicity could never remain divided by ideology for over half a century, until Korea did. Two fearsome superpowers, engaged in a worldwide ideological struggle, each possessing thousands of nuclear weapons, would either destroy each other (and the world) or grind each other down in a perpetual and costly arms race, until the US and the Soviet Union didn’t.

Serious analysts must keep on constant guard against the insidious lure of conventional wisdom. It is in that spirit that I offer this essay.

The Case against Nuclear Weapons

The case for proliferation of nuclear weapons begins with the case against the weapons themselves. That case is as easy to perceive as a kick in the solar plexus.

Every serious analyst of nuclear weapons should visit the Peace Museum in Hiroshima. No one can leave it without a sense of despair and dread. It has pictures galore of cataclysmic devastation and radiation sickness’ revolting sores. It has lots of statistics.

But as Stalin said, a single death is a tragedy; a million is just a statistic. My own most searing memory from the Peace Museum is of stone steps from a bank near Ground Zero, which the Museum painstakingly transported and reassembled inside. On the steps is what looks like a shadow of a woman. You can vaguely perceive the outline of her kimono and seated posture. She may have been resting in the sun after withdrawing money to feed her family.

Yet the outline is no shadow. It is a thin film of carbon atoms from the woman’s vaporized body and clothing. Nothing else of her remains, not a fragment of clothing, bone or tooth.

To imagine yourself as that woman changes your view of humanity. All your life, fears, love, hopes and dreams have vanished in a microsecond. Not a recognizable trace remains. Next imagine the same fate for whole cities, nations, continents.

“Man [is] matter,” wrote Joseph Heller in Catch-22. “That was Snowden’s secret.” Nuclear weapons and the Peace Museum shout that secret as nothing has before. Is Man anything more?

Nuclear weapons can extinguish human lives in an instant, without a trace. They can erase human civilization, leaving victims suffering and dying in radioactive Hell, without homes, food or infrastructure. The aftermath of nuclear war—even a small one—would make Hieronymus Bosch’s darkest vision look pleasant by comparison. But nuclear weapons are not the product of a fertile medieval imagination. They are reality.

By making our human secret of vulnerability and fragility so painfully clear, nuclear weapons make us question our own value. They deprive life of humanity and meaning. And they make us wonder whether their awesome power, in the wrong hands, someday might make tyranny complete and irreversible.

The Three Conventional Approaches to Nuclear Weapons

Nuclear weapons’ uniquely terrible character has engendered three approaches to their possession. One faction, largely intellectuals and idealists, would like to eliminate them entirely. That appears to be the President’s ultimate goal, although as a realist and wise leader he knows how far away that goal must be. Let’s call this the “total ban” approach.

A second faction supports the conventional wisdom among policy makers in the West. They would like to limit nuclear weapons to the “good guys,” or at least to the good guys plus those who already have them. Let’s call this the “us-versus-them” approach.

The final conventional approach to nuclear proliferation is a variant of the “us versus them” approach. If “bad guys” are determined to develop nuclear weapons, there’s not much the rest of the world can do about it but start a war to avert one. No one yet has had the stomach to go that far. Hence North Korea and maybe soon Iran.

Recognizing the difficulty of keeping the genie in the bottle, adherents of a “realpolitik” approach just seek to keep the number of nations possessing nuclear weapons as small as possible. Although it sometimes degenerates into the “us-versus-them” approach, this approach most closely resembles the present Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime. Let’s call it the “nuclear club” approach.

Defects in the Three Approaches and a Possible Fourth

All three current approaches to nuclear proliferation have the same obvious defect. There is no practical―let alone foolproof―way to enforce them.

Nations that don’t have nuclear weapons may want them. Human beings seek security, power and dominance; that’s human nature. For nations that feel threatened, as every one (even ours!) often does, nuclear weapons and their awesome power seem to provide an answer.

The nuclear genie is out of the bottle, and no one can put it back. Although technical details are still secret, general guidelines for making weapons are all over the Internet. So is the general approach to making them. All you have to do is enrich uranium using centrifuges. Then you can assemble implosion weapons, using carefully shaped chunks of highly fissionable material bashed together by specially configured conventional explosives.

A nation that wants a nuclear weapon and is willing to invest the time, money and effort can make one, given enough time. North Korea proved that, and Iran may be about to.

All three current approaches―total ban, us-versus-them, and nuclear club―require some way to keep nations that don’t have nuclear weapons from building them, either openly or in secret, above or under ground. There doesn’t seem to be any reliable way to do that.

For about sixty years, the United Nations has tried to “keep the peace” in much more limited respects, suppressing conventional conflicts. Its success in doing so can best be described as modest. None of the current approaches can realistically be feasible unless and until the international community is prepared to raise and support ground armies for “regime change” in places like North Korea and Iran. The possibility of that happening is remote.

But there is a fourth possible approach. Why not let every nation that wants nuclear weapons have them and rely on mutual, multilateral deterrence to keep the peace? Let Iran, for example, have a few nukes, but remind its clerical leaders that Israel, Pakistan, Russia and the US have them, too. Having a few nukes might make Iran’s leaders, let alone its people, less fearful of a foreign invasion and more reasonable. It would certainly give the lie to Iranian leaders’ demagogic argument that Iran must devote its scare resources to arming against foreign invasion. Popular pressure might do the rest.

Arguments for Proliferation

The strongest argument for nuclear proliferation is not speculation, but history. Since the first and only use of nuclear weapons (against Japan in 1945), no one has invaded a country that had them, with the possible exception of Israel. Besides brief border skirmishes, all significant armed conflicts since 1945 but one have involved nuclear haves fighting in nuclear have-nots, or have-nots fighting among themselves. Here’s the list:
    1947: India (have-not) and Pakistan (have-not) over partition and Kashmir (have not)
    1950-53: North Korea (have-not) in South Korea (have-not)
    1950-53: US (have) and allies in South Korea (have-not) against North Korea (have-not) and China (have)
    1950-53: China (have) in North Korea (have-not) and South Korea (have-not) against US (have)
    1954-63: France (have) in Indochina (have-not)
    1965: India (have-not) in Pakistan (have-not) over Kashmir (have-not)
    1967: Soviet Union (have) in Hungary (have-not)
    1968: Soviet Union (have) in Czechoslovakia (have-not)
    1971: India (have-not) in Pakistan (have-not), creating Bangladesh (have-not)
    1964-75: US (have) in Vietnam (have-not)
    1979-89: Soviet Union (have) in Afghanistan (have-not)
    1982: UK (have) in Falklands (have-not) against Argentina (have-not)
    1983: US (have) in Grenada (have-not)
    1989: US (have) in Panama (have-not)
    1991: US (have) in Iraq (have-not) (Operation Desert Storm)
    1995: US (have) and NATO (have) in bombing campaign in Bosnia and Kosovo (have-nots)
    2001-present: US (have) in Iraq (have-not) (Operation Iraqi Freedom)
    2001-present: US (have) in Afghanistan (have-not)
    2008: Russia (have) in Georgia (have-not)

[Other colonial actions, which involved haves against colonized have-nots, are not listed. Nor are civil wars and conflicts in Africa, all of whose nations are nuclear have-nots.]

The only exception known to me is Pakistan’s brief invasion of India (in 1999, over Kashmir, as usual). That invasion occurred when both nations had nuclear weapons. But India’s strong conventional response and enormous international pressure stopped it. Other possible but unproven exceptions involved foreign invasions of Israel in 1967 and 1973, when Israel may have had nuclear weapons but, if it did, didn’t reveal or use them.

The conclusion that follows from this list in inescapable. Since the development of nuclear weapons, major powers possessing them (except for India and Pakistan) were too prudent or too civilized to make war among themselves. The unbroken record of military carnage that had preoccupied and devastated Eurasia and most of the “civilized” world for the previous two centuries stopped in its tracks. But the record of carnage continued in smaller countries lacking nuclear weapons, either because they fought among themselves, or (more often) because they were invaded or fought over by nuclear powers.

Looking at these data, an unbiased observer has to conclude that nuclear weapons, with their unthinkable potential consequences, don’t cause wars. They prevent them.

The destructive power of nuclear weapons is war’s reductio ad absurdum. It demonstrates graphically how pointless, senseless and useless war is. That is a lesson that Europe and the rest of the world should have learned (but didn’t) from World War I, a serious attempt at mutual genocide that accomplished absolutely nothing. Better late than never.

A World of Proliferation

What would a world of proliferated nuclear weapons look like? It’s hard to predict precisely, but several effects are foreseeable.

First, there would be far less war. Nuclear weapons would deter conventional invasion or military meddling in smaller and poorer countries. Countries like Israel, Lebanon, the “Stans,” and the small states of Central America could breathe easy and go their own way, without having to devote substantial fractions of their meager resources on training armies and buying expensive conventional weapons from countries like the United States and Russia.

A world with nuclear weapons proliferated might well be a world without war.

Might there be mistakes and miscalculations? Sure. But the bigger, more populated and more prosperous a nation is, the more it would have to lose. Even Pakistan’s military rulers eventually understood that point. In 1999, shortly after testing their first nuclear weapons, they invaded India, hoping that their nuclear umbrella would immunize their quick (and initially successful) conventional incursion. Undeterred, India, which had nuclear weapons also, mounted a stiff conventional response.

The international community convinced Pakistan’s generals that a nuclear exchange would be mutual suicide. The result was a return to pre-incursion borders and a resumption of the stalemate. Wiser but maybe sadder, Pakistan’s leaders today appear to understand that nuclear weapons are a deterrent and guarantee of territorial integrity, not a carte blanche for aggression, at least not when the target has them, too.

If blunders occurred in a world of proliferation, they would be the folly of small, poor countries, like North Korea, with small nuclear arsenals. Those countries would be incapable of doing devastating damage to a major power, let alone destroying the Earth’s biosphere as a full-scale nuclear war between major powers might. Their small size would allow proportionate retaliation to literally wipe them out, thereby making any first strike on their part irrational. (North Korea, for example, has only a single city of note, the capital Pyongyang. An “eye for an eye” would erase that small country and the Kim dynasty forever.) Large, prosperous nations have far too much to lose to ignite any conflagration.

The second likely effect of nuclear proliferation would be a gradual but substantial global reduction in economic waste on war planning and production. Although building (or buying) and maintaining nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles is expensive, they are nowhere near as expensive as maintaining standing armies, navies and air forces. As nations became accustomed to the “nuclear peace” of proliferation, they would wind down their conventional forces and their military-industrial complexes. Civilian research, development and production would grow correspondingly. A worldwide swords-to-plowshares conversion would not be too much to expect, with the ultimate sword (nukes) remaining sharp to keep the peace and deter misadventures.

North Korea might provide a credible test of this point. All but its most recent nuclear test appear to have been duds. But once the paranoid Kim accumulates enough workable weapons to convince himself that he has a credible deterrent, he might put some of his four-million-person starving army to useful work, such as growing rice. Maybe there’s method in his madness and that’s his plan. Stay tuned.

The third salubrious and predictable result of nuclear proliferation is already starting now. Those countries maintaining vast nuclear arsenals would “prune” them enormously, as the US and Russia are agreeing to do now. Long-time nuclear-club members would need only enough weapons and delivery vehicles to deter conventional invasion and nuclear first strikes. (As far as we know, China has taken precisely this approach, stockpiling enough nukes for a deterrent but refusing to invest in massive arsenals like ours and the Russians’.)

To deter small countries’ bullying, wealthy nations could rely in part on the small arsenals of other small countries with opposing interests. And the mass of weapons held by all nations collectively would deter any single nation from seeking to disturb the deterrent balance of terror by accumulating more weapons than needed for credible deterrence. So would the expense of accumulating a larger arsenal.

The number of weapons any nation would need for credible deterrence would be in the low hundreds, at most, rather than the thousands we and the Russians have now. As numbers shrank worldwide under gradually negotiated accords, the number (and expense!) deemed necessary for adequate deterrence would shrink, too.

The Terrorist Threat

What about terrorists and crazies? They are the strongest conventional argument for nonproliferation. What would happen, nonproliferation advocates ask rhetorically, if nukes fell into terrorists’ hands? Surely we can’t let that happen.

There are four answers to this concern. First, it hasn’t happened yet. Paradoxically, the actual possession of nuclear weapons, as distinguished from an unfulfilled yearning for them, seems to sober people up. The Pakistanis provide an example.

Second, the problem of “crazy” terrorists is not without solution. Bin Laden and his lieutenants know that a nuclear strike on an American city arguably traceable to them will result in thermonuclear immolation of the entire region where they are hiding, including their families and their “movement.”

Third, while some crazies may be ready for suicide, conventional leaders with the ability to supply nukes are usually not. The secret to keeping nukes out of crazies’ hands is credibly extending deterrence to anyone who might supply them. Iran’s leaders, for example, know that a nuclear attack on Tel Aviv or Jerusalem would make Tehran toast in about fifteen minutes, unless the Russians credibly confessed in the short interim that one of their nukes had gone missing and had fallen into terrorists’ hands.

Finally, neither the risk of nuclear terrorism nor the risk of miscalculation in small countries is globe-threatening. If the US and the Soviet Union had hurled even a significant fraction of their massive nuclear arsenals at each other during the Cold War, the resulting “nuclear winter” would have extinguished all life on Earth, except perhaps for microbes and creatures of the deep sea. If terrorists destroy a city or two and their territory or sponsors succumb to nuclear retaliation, or if leaders of small countries with nukes are dumb enough to exchange a few, the rest of the world will survive, just at it did after the dozens of atmospheric tests by the US and Soviet Union in the late 50s and early 60s.

The awful devastation that resulted from any such use of nuclear weapons would be an additional object lesson for the rest of the world. It would teach those whose intelligence and imagination are insufficient to learn from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The international community might promote that learning, before allowing or assisting nuclear proliferation, by requiring recipients of technological aid to visit Hiroshima’s Peace Museum.

Would that lesson be worth paying such an awful price? That question is not easy to answer. But the real question may be different. Would avoiding the mere risk of that awful lesson justify the much higher probability of a long, dark future for humankind: one of perpetual war in small countries, famine, poverty, disease, “conventional” genocide, pollution and climatic devastation, as humanity collectively continued to spend far more than it can afford on conventional war and its tools?

Rogue Regimes

After terrorists and crazies, rogue regimes are the next strongest argument against nuclear proliferation. What would happen, conventional wisdom screams, if a terrible tyrant got nuclear weapons?

Conventional wisdom acts as if this question highlights a mere hypothetical future peril. But it doesn’t. Terrible tyrants have had and have nuclear weapons, and nothing extraordinary has happened.

With the possible exception of Hitler, Stalin was the worst tyrant in human history. He was certainly the most paranoid. Yet he had nuclear weapons for four years before he died. He didn’t use them. Nor did his Soviet successors.

North Korea’s Kim Jong Il is every bit as paranoid as Stalin and far more prone to making idle external threats. Yet he has done nothing rash and is unlikely to do so. Why? Because he knows that a single 50-megaton thermonuclear bomb could erase Pyongyang and his regime forever, even if he and a few select leaders managed to survive in some deep bunker. He also knows that his four-million-strong starving army is no proof against the atom’s awesome power.

So Kim waits and occasionally blusters. Waits for what? If he or his minions have any semblance of wisdom, they will exploit the reduction in paranoia that their small nuclear arsenal permits and begin improving their civilian economy. If and as that happens, the long-suffering North Korean people will begin a gradual and painful climb toward a better life. It may take decades. It may take a century. But eventually cooler and wiser heads will prevail amidst the stalemate of multilateral nuclear deterrence.

Conventional wisdom acts as if there were some easy external “solution” to localized tyrannies, if only they didn’t have nuclear weapons. But history reveals that view as nonsense.

The Castro brothers, Kim, and Mugabe have been around for decades. They are all likely to die peacefully, of old age. No external force seriously challenged them during their (and Kim’s father’s) long reigns. No external force seriously challenges them now although only Kim has an arguable nuclear deterrent.

What would change if each of them had a small nuclear arsenal? Their countries are small enough to be easy subjects for others’ nuclear deterrence. A few missiles could literally annihilate their entire nations. The only real difference a small nuclear arsenal might make would be giving the lie to the paranoid fear of foreign invasion that they use to keep their own people’s aspirations in check.

The proof of the pudding is Iraq. Part of our justification for invading was removing the tyrant Saddam. That wasn’t the main reason; Israel and oil were. But never mind. It was a reason with which every supporter of the war—left or right—(including me, before the blunders started) could agree.

Soon we will have spent well over a trillion dollars in direct and indirect costs. We will have suffered over 4,000 dead and 30,000 wounded to remove a tyrant who we thought had weapons of mass destruction but didn’t. That expense and the enormous economic drain of two wars are among the principal reasons for our national decline.

With our sad example in mind, the rest of the world is unlikely to challenge local tyrants by conventional invasion for a century, if ever. Certainly the world’s most rapidly rising power (China) will not. And we have found it like pulling teeth to get our NATO allies to contribute to the supposedly agreeable mission of fighting the tyrannical Taliban in Afghanistan.

So the notion that rogue regimes would be more susceptible to external “regime change” without than with nuclear weapons is sheer fantasy. The notion that local tyrants would commit personal and national suicide by starting a nuclear war is equally absurd. The Castro brothers, Kim Jong Il, and Robert Mugabe will die peaceably of old age, and their successors will change their policies. Or their smarter underlings or people will remove them.

It is impossible to foresee, let alone predict, that their possession of nuclear weapons would make any difference at all. The only difference it might make is assuaging their paranoia enough to let them spend less on tools of war and more on their people, if only to improve the chances of their regimes’ survival against mutiny or popular revolt.

Reasons to Avoid a Total Ban

As much as it may seem desirable form a moral perspective, a total ban on nuclear weapons is impractical and may be inadvisable. There are three reasons for this conclusion.

First, human-induced climate change is far more likely to ruin the world as we know it than any foreseeable actual use of nuclear weapons, even by terrorists. No terrorist or rogue country has or is likely to have (let alone use) enough weapons to seriously damage the Earth’s biosphere, as an all-out nuclear war between the US and Soviet Union would have. But in the long run unchecked global warming at its current rate might.

Unfortunately, continuing to obsess about possible diversion of nuclear power technology to weapons, as we appear to be doing in Iran, will slow down the global advance of nuclear power―one of the chief and presently most promising means of curtailing climate change. (The others are solar and wind power.) The fact that small, poor countries rely almost entirely on coal for power exacerbates this problem.

The details of nuclear technology make the problem even worse. Uranium-based nuclear power plants are far less susceptible to diversion of fuel for weapons than plutonium-based ones. But the world has a limited supply of useful uranium, and enriching uranium requires massive amounts of electric power, usually generated with fossil fuels. In contrast, plutonium plants generate their own fuel by nuclear transmutation. (Uranium plants can, too; but the result is plutonium, which increases the diversion risk. Present non-diversion regimes contemplate making plutonium by-products of uranium power useless for both weapons and power.) Therefore fearful attempts to prevent fuel diversion to weapons insist on restricting power plants to uranium technology, which is more expensive, more inflexible, more susceptible to fuel shortages than plutonium technology, and more harmful to climate.

The only apparent way to resolve this dilemma is not to worry so much about nuclear weapons development but to seek to expose it and limit it through regulation and deterrence. Most small countries that develop nuclear weapons want to publicize that fact as a deterrent, just as North Korea has done and Iran seeks to do even today with its bluffs.

Second, there is no practical way to enforce a total ban, any more than there is a reliable way to enforce the nonproliferation regime today. Relying on an unenforced “total ban” would allow rogue regimes to “get a jump” on honest compliers and cause no end of trouble. Better to rely on disclosure, multilateral deterrence and self-interest, rather than a regime of illusory control that inevitably raises questions of poor enforcement, incompetence, mistakes and corruption.

Finally, humanity may need nuclear weapons. The most probable necessary use is fending off asteroids or comets that threaten too close an approach to Earth. Movies on the subject have been seriously misleading. All we would have to do is ignite a nuclear device close enough to the threatening object (and far enough out from Earth) to blow the object off course and so avoid an impending collision with Earth. (But that wouldn’t give Bruce Willis the chance to die heroically after planting the device deep in the object, thereby turning it into a celestial shotgun blast that, in real life, would be far more dangerous.) Humanity needs nuclear weapons and missile technology against this remote but far-from-impossible and potentially catastrophic contingency.

A far more remote contingency is invasion by another intelligent species. While that event is extremely unlikely, it might have horrendous consequences. Every similar invasion of foreigners in human history resulted in the extermination, enslavement, ghettoization, or marginalization of native peoples with inferior weapons. As impressive as they may seem to us, our conventional weapons would undoubtedly be laughable to beings with the immense power needed to traverse interstellar distances. The contingency of their arriving and proving unfriendly, remote as it may be, makes it imprudent for humankind to forsake and forget nuclear weapons entirely.


At various times in human history, men wore deadly weapons on their persons. With these weapons they protected their lives, families, property, comrades and servants. They discouraged ambushes and highway robbery. In some cultures personal weapons maintained an atmosphere of morality, politesse, personal dignity and “honor.”

Customs of this sort prevailed among the Italian city-states that Shakespeare depicted in his plays. (Remember Mercutio?) They also prevailed in most of medieval Europe, in Japan’s “shogun” era, and in America’s brief but colorful “wild west.” The custom of dueling in our own early history served similar functions, allowing Aaron Burr to kill Alexander Hamilton in a duel without legal recourse.

Human society felt these expedients necessary because there were no neutral police forces. Organized police in cities (or anywhere else), paid for by government, are a relatively recent innovation.

In the absence of reliable protection provided by police or other robust societal institutions, personal weapons made sense. But they required men to spend countless hours learning to fence or use, maintain and “draw” pistols quickly. As police forces and reliable systems of justice developed, the custom of carrying weapons for personal protection fell into desuetude. (Texas seems not to have noticed.)

A similar societal evolution among nations is now occurring. Among nations the only reliable “personal” weapon is the nuke. Just as wealthy gentlemen who could afford good swords and training to use them were once relatively immune from robbery and personal assault, so the “nuclear club” of advanced nations (possibly excluding Israel) has been free from attack and invasion since 1945. Is it any wonder that poorer nations want the same swift swords that the rich ones have?

The alternative, of course, is an effective international police force for nations, able to impose order under generally accepted international norms. Many thought that the United Nations would serve that purpose. But the UN has been toothless and ineffectual, far too dependent on the resources of a single nation (the US), and perceived by many as biased against nations that are poor, non-Christian, or have unusual cultures and histories. Many also perceive it as serving the interests of wealthy nations―a perception that the United States’ rejection of the international criminal court only reinforced.

In the absence of a neutral, widely accepted, effective international police force, it is natural for nations to seek nukes as effective deterrents to attack, just as individuals sought portable weapons in the days before routine policing in cities.

Developing nuclear technology was devilishly hard when the U.S. did it for the first time, alone, in the midst of history’s greatest war. But now it is relatively easy. The world knows it can be done. Every schoolchild knows the general approach, and some details appear on the Web. Working out the remaining engineering details should take any nation with a substantial industrial base, decent science and engineering schools, and a firm national commitment no more than three years. (We did it from a standing start in four, in the midst of war.)

That’s why, while I admire the President’s idealism, I regard his quest for a nuclear-free world as hopelessly quixotic, perhaps even dangerous. Humanity needs nuclear power to maintain and improve its standard of living and retard global warming. Nuclear power technology is too close to nuclear weapons technology to curtail the latter effectively without hampering the former. And in any event, humanity may need nuclear weapons technology both for the reasons explained above and to bring smaller nations peace from conventional invasion.

The balance of terror among members of the “nuclear club” has kept the peace among them for over half a century. Proliferation is far more likely to extend that “pax atomica” than it is to foster a nuclear exchange. And even if a small and tragic nuclear exchange results, would it be worse than humanity, faced with climate change and global ignorance, hunger, disease and poverty, continuing to spend far more on conventional weapons and armed forces than it can afford?

Just as it took competent city police forces to phase out most personal weapons in cities, it will take a powerful, fair, and widely accepted international police force to quell the desire for nuclear weapons. We are a long way from having (or even conceiving) such a police force, and the United States has lost the credibility to lead the effort.

In the meantime, trying to keep nations that feel defenseless or threatened from doing what comes naturally is likely to produce a lot of unnecessary conflict, and perhaps unnecessary wars. Some of those wars may be nuclear, as adversaries underestimate what weapons emergent nuclear powers have or try to prevent them from adding to small stockpiles. Risking war (which may itself be nuclear) to punish or deter the development or possession of nuclear weapons seems a bad idea.

A better idea is providing swift, sure and devastating retaliation for any offensive use of nukes. That is a function that any nuclear power, including the US, Russia and Israel, can perform unilaterally.

Mr. Reid, Back Down!

I hate to upstage an essay on which I spent so much time and effort as the one posted above. But I can’t refrain from commenting on Senator Graham’s threat to quit the small bipartisan coalition that promises the first carbon tax in US history.

Graham’s beef is Harry Reid’s announced intention to schedule Senate debate on immigration before the energy bill. Reid’s motive is obvious. He wants to exploit the kerfluffle over Arizona’s draconian new anti-illegal-immigrant law to split Hispanics from the Republicans and divide the Republicans among themselves.

It’s a good political ploy, but it puts politics over policy. Republicans have done that for about a decade, and nearly all of them are still doing it. So Reid’s plan reflects a certain amount of payback, even poetic justice.

But there are two things wrong with it. First, it continues business as usual in Washington. Reid is emulating Karl Rove, the college dropout, in putting payback above governance. Second, it subverts the sense of perspective that, up to now, has been the President’s trademark, a rainbow of hope amidst the dark clouds of corruption, incompetence and political backbiting.

Revenge is sweet, but the best revenge is living well. We, the people, will never live well again unless the Senate gets it act together and starts solving real problems. Now that health-insurance reform is law, there is no national priority more important than getting energy policy right.

As Graham pointed out, the chance of real immigration reform occurring in an election year are next to zero. But Graham―one of the few Republican members of Congress to show recent signs of human intelligence―apparently signed on to energy-policy reform because he believes it can pass this year, before the elections.

Republicans who still can think are beginning to recognize that they have a nation to help govern. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) has assisted financial reform. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) has made noises about doing the same. Corker once recognized the improbability of “clean coal” and might support a new energy policy.

Others may be waiting in the wings. Richard Lugar (R., Ind.) once championed sensible energy policy. Now he may be too timid to be a leader but may be brave enough to follow Graham. Ditto Scott Brown (R., Mass.), who swore to be nonpartisan after his recent upset victory in blue Massachusetts.

To stomp upon these green shoots of bipartisanship is not like the President. Nor is it good politics in the long run. Apart from the Tea Partiers, the people finally seem sensitized to political games. The President should bring Reid to heel, as quickly as possible, and get credit for leadership and bipartisanship.


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  • At Mon May 03, 03:38:00 PM EDT, Blogger Greg said…

    Jay -

    I have read a number of your essays, and generally find you an insightful and learned individual. Your essays are detailed and articulate a well-thought position. It is a shame you are not syndicated in major newspapers, where the conventional wisdom is lacking in all regards but bravado these days.

    Anyways, after reading this article, I was inspired to chime in as Devil's Advocate. Since I tend to be rather verbose, I apologize that I've broken up my response into two posts (and trimmed off text at that).

    My counter-argument is as follows:

    Yes, it is true the "Mexican Stand-off" approach that you outlined has been a staple of peace accords in both local and world-scale politics (do I need to cite examples?). It is also an evident truth that knowledge cannot be veiled forever - it is a matter of when, not if, that every political entity will gain the know-how to manufacture a nuclear weapon, as well as a delivery system to place that device in any desired location on Earth. With that information, your arguments are compelling.

    But, what if the nuclear terrorist was someone who did not have a street address to deliver a response? We can sabre-rattle at Iran and North Korea because we can find them on a map - to some extent, we can do almost as well with Bin Laden. But, for argument sake, what if the originator of the bomb was me?

    I have no nation to protect, no vast landmark or holdings to destroy. And, as a citizen of the U.S., bombing me (if you can find me) would include many thousands of innocent lives - I would have human shields by virtue of my location. So, I would have nothing to "lose" by a retaliation, even if one could be mounted against me as an individual.

    Now, I understand the lunacy of my argument. But, technology has advanced since 1945 - there has been some research that speculates that U-235 can be separated and purified using lasers, and if one has a Ph.D. in atomic physics, one might be able to figure out how. Combine that with a purchase of some farmland in southern Virginia (home to the world's largest deposits of unmined Uranium) and it would be a matter of time and careful experimentation to build a basic "gun-design" nuclear bomb. From there, one can simply store it in the hold of a boat or car trunk and deliver it nearby a location of choice.

    One could argue that forensics could locate the source of the bomb by a plethora of means, but my argument lies in the fact that someone with the means, but without the morals, could start a nuclear exchange between governments with nuclear weapons. Or, one could use it for bribery or coercion in politics (e.g. an excuse to enact martial law and cancel an election). Or, one can make a few and sell them to people who would use them regardless of the consequences.

    On a scale of nations, your arguments are sound. Plus, you do address the concepts of terrorists and rogue nations. But, your arguments assume that the victims could trace the weapon's source to a nation, or organization, that has real estate that can be targeted. Plus, one must be careful not to assume that absence of evidence (of abuse of nuclear weapons) is the same as evidence of absence. My suspicion is, to date, too few people understand the technology and/or possess the means to develop it. Right now, as we know it, such weapons are basically in the hands of nations with populations and self-preservation instincts. Once such technology falls into the hands of individuals - which would, in my opinion, become far more likely in a world without any form of non-proliferation efforts - nuclear attacks with no visible foe will become the new "guerrilla war" tactic.

  • At Mon May 03, 03:42:00 PM EDT, Blogger Greg said…

    (Part 2 of my post)

    Now, I would like to pose my own defense of the "total ban" concept in light of the above argument:

    In Sun Tsu's 13 chapters on "The Art of War", he dedicates a whole chapter to what he called "The Virtue of the Sheathed Sword". In essence, the greatest of victories is when one never has to draw their sword to fight. It can mean that the foe surrenders before the fight commences, or it can mean that non-violent means are used to diffuse a situation before military means can be put to use.

    I know you are aware of this concept, but I draw upon it (as you did) because one needs to remove the need for using nuclear weapons. But, letting everyone have it is not as safe of a solution as banning it altogether. One can argue the same deterrent forces you've outlined in your essay if one nation is seeking to develop such weapons. And, any one nation with nuclear weapons would be a pariah (and soon after economically destitute) in a world that refuses to respect them. But, the key difference is that they aren't in every nation's back yard. Some nations have a poor history of securing these weapons (i.e. the Soviet Union) while others have trouble keeping the secrets to themselves. And besides, we know that there are atomic bombs, and then there are thermonuclear bombs (using fusion). So, the "nuclear club" mentality will not go away - it'll devolve into a "Keeping Up with the Jones'" race.

    Let me recap:

    No one can deny that the genie is "out of the bottle". The only thing that can be done is to provide an effective deterrence, and the only viable means is to eliminate the reasons and ready means of access and use of these Doomsday weapons. Although Pro-proliferation is a fair argument, it makes critical assumptions about the potential (ab)user that an complete ban would not. Quite frankly, ANYONE with a nuclear weapon is a threat to World Peace - even if that one owner is the United States. With the right knowledge & materials, anyone could make a bomb. But, in a world where no one respects ANYONE with one, be they nation or individual, it would be in the collective interest of the whole world to thwart them with all other means at their disposal. I can see no other way that best ensures a human race by 2100 AD.

    I apologize if my comment has expanded into an essay of its own. But, I simply want to place some more thought and focus into the the Pro- vs. Non-Proliferation debate. Thank you for allowing me to post this comment, and I hope it sparks more interest. Personally, I am glad to see a U.S. President leading a charge to rid the world of nuclear weapons, instead of embracing them as a means of leveraging other nations, or worse yet, as a means of keeping a handful of nations as pseudo-Imperialists over the world.

    Thanks again for your essays and fantastic thoughts.

    - Greg

  • At Tue May 04, 01:26:00 AM EDT, Blogger jay said…

    Dear Greg,

    Thanks for your thoughtful, well-written and diplomatically phrased comments. They invite precisely the kind of civilized dialogue that I hoped this blog would foster, but seldom does. I am particularly grateful because I suspect that many people share the same misgivings that you express so well.

    Software-imposed space limitations prevent me from answering fully here. So I've appended a reply to your comments on my most recent post, here.




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