Our Nuclear-Free Opportunity

Top Ten Reasons Why a World Free of Nuclear Weapons is Now Achievable

By Nathan Pyles

The Fallacy of Deterrence in a Proliferated World

Deterrence in a proliferated world? Photo: Flickr – Ryan Archer

Deterrence in a proliferated world? Photo: Flickr – Ryan Archer









Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer understands the limitations of a nuclear deterrence policy in a highly proliferated world.  In a 2002 Weekly Standard article entitled The Obsolescence of Deterrence, he wrote, “Yes, deterrence worked in the past. But in the past it was a play with very few actors…To voluntarily choose it as the principle on which to rest our safety in this age of weapons of mass destruction is sheer folly.”  However, his proposed replacement for deterrence was preemptive war with Iraq.  He got the problem right, but not the solution.

Proponents of nuclear deterrence choose only to see the shiny face of what is a multi-faceted policy.  There are darker facets inseparable from a nuclear deterrence policy.  When crediting deterrence for keeping the peace by preventing conflict, the debit side of nuclear deterrence must simultaneously be examined.  They are part and parcel.

The three large problems created by a policy of nuclear deterrence are:  1) it creates a state of permanent or institutionalized hostility that prolongs national differences and the risks of nuclear conflict;  2) while direct war did not occur between the superpowers during the Cold War, unresolved ideological tensions found their outlet in proxy wars in third world nations;  3) if nuclear deterrence works for some nations who pledge to hold onto them  ‘into the indefinite future’, then others will also strive for this self-defense benefit – and nuclear proliferation will continue, elevating the risks for all.

A nuclear deterrent policy fosters a permanent hostility that undermines trust between nations.  It is a not so subtle Mexican standoff where each threatens the other with annihilation at a moment’s notice.  This permanent hostility limits progress in developing closer ties between nations by creating a constant state of ‘near-war’. As President Reagan once put it, “It can be said that the old discredited policy of MAD is like two adversaries holding loaded guns to each other’s head.”

A state of near-war also carries with it risks of nuclear war either by a small conflict escalating unpredictably out of hand (Cuban missile crisis), by accident (1995 Norwegian satellite near miss), or internal subterfuge (Pakistan’s Kahn nuclear freelancing).

Prolonged unresolved differences will find a way to express themselves.  The unwritten rules of the Cold War forswore direct Soviet – U.S. fighting.  But the rules did not prevent either power from undermining the interests of the other in proxy third-world wars.  U.S. forces fought directly in Korea and Vietnam while the Soviet Union provided advisors and arms.  Soviets troops fought directly in Afghanistan while the U.S. provided advice and high tech militia weaponry.  All told, over nine millions lives were lost in these proxy wars.

During the recent Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture presentation, former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger made a vigorous defense of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.  “Sometimes one hears or reads in the press that these weapons will never be used. That is a fallacy. These weapons are used every day in that the deterrent is always there – protecting the United and its allies against major attack.”

If Schlesinger were correct, he inadvertently also made the case for every non-nuclear state to pursue a nuclear program. If nuclear weapons protect us every single day while sitting silently in their silos, then this same talisman quality should hold true whether the nuclear silo is in the U.S., Iran, or North Korea.

Fortunately, he is wrong.  Former U.N. Ambassador from Australia Richard Butler summed the proliferation dilemma inherent in a nuclear deterrence policy. “There is, in fact, an axiom of proliferation,” he has said. “It states that as long as any state holds nuclear weapons, others will seek to acquire them.”

A policy of nuclear deterrence masks and prolongs hostilities while putting millions at risk of catastrophic death.  Its security promise is a lethal illusion.

Civil rights and anti-nuclear weapons advocate Martin Luther King understood that we must always go to the root of our problems to find permanent resolution.   As we look again at the problem of continued nuclear weapons proliferation, he offered us this clue, “The best way to solve any problem is to remove its cause.”

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This article is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License






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