Why Nuclear Weapons Are Here to Stay

The more one reads about strategic studies and strategic history, the more one finds that the old Latin adage, Si vis pacem, para bellum, has rightly dominated the minds of the world’s greatest statesmen and strategists. In a world that has known war longer than it has known peace, strategists are obligated to think through what tomorrow’s conflict might bring. Much of the current strategic literature is dedicated to two “new” types of future warfare: nuclear war and cyber attacks. Future nuclear and cyber attacks by state and non-state actors will likely disrupt the international order in ways the world has yet experienced. Against the prospect of another bloody century, Ward Wilson recently argued, not only that we should eliminate nuclear weapons, but indeed told us how

In his series of articles, Wilson claims to make a realist case for eliminating nuclear weapons. He does so by showing the “faulty” assumptions upon which nuclear strategic thinking rests, demonstrates how deterrence has “failed” and described a process by which nuclear technology might “go away.” Wilson’s voice is undoubtedly important to be heard in a world where nuclear strategic thinking is dominated by the names of Bernard Brodie, Herman Khan, Colin Gray, and Thomas Schelling. Wilson’s arguments, however, fall short of usurping the past half century of nuclear strategic thinking. 

My goal is to respond to Wilson’s arguments in the spirit of scholarly debate. I hope to: counter Wilson’s understanding of realism, offer a different version of the history of nuclear strategic thinking, and show why this scholarly back and forth doesn’t really matter. 

UNDERSTANDING REALISM

In Part I of the series, Wilson makes some peculiar claims about realism. Perhaps his most striking one is this: 

Think about one of the central tenets of the “realist” theory handed down to us from the Cold War: The notion that the world is an anarchic place. Because there is no policing agency to enforce laws between nations, it is said that international relations must be thought of as a world of anarchy. This is a peculiar claim. Both modern experience and human history contradict it — and some academics too.

But the notion of an anarchic society is not a Cold War theory. Far from it. Arguably tracing its roots to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, realists are pessimistic about human nature. Hobbes and his followers noted that people are “inherently destructive, selfish, competitive, and aggressive.” Indeed, Adam Smith’s recognition that it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we receive our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest is a statement about human nature more than it is a statement of economic theory. In other words, individuals care about themselves. 

It follows from the realist perspective that war and conflict are more than just byproducts of the international system. Their endemic existence stems from the human need to survive, thrive, and dominate. In the anarchic system, states pursue their own interests since no overarching body governs their conduct. If pushed to defend its own interests, if politics needs to be continued by other means, to quote Clausewitz, states will wield deadly force, much in the same way an individual would draw his weapon to protect his household. As such, states exist in a constant pursuit of power to ensure their survival. In International Relations (IR), might determines the winners, as Thucydides pointed out throughout his history of the Peloponnesian War. Frankly, it must be this way. States are an abstract idea; they don’t make decisions. Only people make decisions. Since behind sovereign states are individuals bound by human nature, it’s only logical that the quest for self-interest will permeate into the international realm.

In the anarchic world, the most valuable currency is power. This is another claim that Thucydides made clear in his history. Realists, therefore, recognize that power sits at the fundament of a state’s policy objectives. Gordon Harland notes:

Realism is a clear recognition of the limits of reason in politics: the acceptance of the fact that political realities are power realities and that power must be countered with power; that self-interest in the primary datum in the action of all groups and nations. 

The importance of this classical understanding of realism will become important in Part III of this essay. For now, it is important to note that the realist understanding of human nature that Hobbes described hasn’t changed. This is why, as Colin S. Gray was fond of noting, nothing of real importance changes:

The well educated strategist knows that the grand strategy of Alexander the Great provides object lessons for all time. That judgment also applies to the revolution in military affairs that he carried through as well to his counterinsurgency campaign in what today is Afghanistan. What [this] means is that statecraft and strategy, at their cores, have not changed over millennia. If one seeks strategic instruction there is no particular reason to focus upon Iraq or Afghanistan in the 2000s, any period of strategic history might provide what is needed.

What the well educated strategist will see when he looks at strategic history is that the quest for ever more power remains as constant as the sun’s rising in the east.

EVOLUTION OF NUCLEAR STRATEGIC THINKING

Parts II and III of Wilson’s series deals with the limited utility of nuclear weapons and deterrence theory, respectively. What is striking about Wilson’s arguments in these two essays is that one would never know that nuclear strategic thinking developed beyond the Cold War. The reader walks away with knowledge of theories from Bernard Brodie, Herman Khan, and Albert Wohlstetter, but nothing from Colin S. Gray, Lawrence Freedman, David Lonsdale, or Scott Sagan. By ignoring twenty-first century, post–Cold War nuclear thinking, Wilson paints a distorted picture of both nuclear weapons utility and deterrence theory. 

Strategic studies came onto the scene in the 1950s to deal with nuclear weapons. Yet, the fundamental debate over nukes during the infancy of strategic studies was whether nuclear strategy was an oxymoron. If Clausewitz is right that strategy is the “use of the engagement for the purpose of war,” could the use of nuclear weapons actually contribute to the policy objectives the war is seeking to achieve? Early nuclear thought answered that question in the negative. Hence Brodie’s famous line: “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose.” 

Brodie and his colleagues at the RAND Corporation began pioneering theories of nuclear deterrence. Theories of deterrence, particularly about Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), not only plagued the academics, but also frightened the general population. Movies like Fail Safe in 1964 and War Games in 1983 were made not only to show the devastation a nuclear war between the two powers would bring, but also to demonstrate their folly. Yet, MAD remained the backbone of American nuclear policy during the Cold War. 

So far as this budding strategist can tell, the pioneers of nuclear deterrence never argued that nuclear weapons would prevent all conflict. Instead, deterrence was to prevent nuclear conflict, as well as minimize the chances of industrial, mechanized Great Power war. By arguing that deterrence failed because Stalin blockaded Berlin, Wilson implies a version of nuclear deterrence theory as a theory that was meant to be a peacekeeping panacea and end all conflict. That was not — nor could it be — what nuclear deterrence was about. On the contrary, the fact that nuclear weapons have never been used as an act of aggression since Hiroshima and Nagasaki imply, on some level, that deterrence has worked. Whether this can be explained by the controllability of nuclear weapons or the fear of their uncontrollability, as Gray noted, is still unclear. 

Wilson is right that we don’t have historical evidence upon which to answer many questions surrounding nuclear weapons. Yet, for one reason or another, all of the nuclear powers have decided not to lob nuclear weapons through the atmosphere. Whether or not the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) plays a role in this behavior is debatable. But the fact that nuclear war has not broken out shows that deterrence exists and has indeed achieved its job of preventing nuclear war. The world has not seen a great power war since 1945 either.

Deterrence theory, however, had holes in it. President Ronald Reagan wasn’t convinced that deterrence would continue to hold and advocated for a ballistic missile defense program. Khan famously theorized about how a nuclear war would play out should deterrence truly fail. At this point in history, nuclear theory progressed from MAD to more limited and flexible options. Thinkers like Schelling emerged and offered a theory of bargaining, which made nuclear weapons more nuanced and flexible. Khan’s escalation ladder and Henry Kissinger’s theories of limited nuclear war presented many other unique ways of thinking about nuclear conflict. They also had their own set of legitimate challenges. Thus endeth Cold War nuclear thinking.

With the turn of the century, a new way of thinking about nuclear weapons developed. This is the “warfighting” school of thought, pioneered by David Lonsdale at the University of Hull in the United Kingdom. He argues that nuclear warfighting has five primary motivations: to increase the credibility of deterrence, deal with deterrence failure, limit damage, provide a theory of victory, and to adhere to the moral obligations of the just war tradition. He further writes that nuclear warfighting: 

[s]eeks to develop capabilities and plans to wage nuclear war in a controlled way and perhaps even in a protracted way. Although nuclear warfighting can be an important part of a credible deterrence posture, it can also be seen as a means to go beyond deterrence, to deny the enemy their objectives, or even to seek victory in a nuclear conflict. 

And Lonsdale is just one of the many post–Cold War strategists who have “updated” strategic thought on nuclear weapons. Other thinkers who have dealt with the flaws in Cold War thinking include Matthew Kroenig, Brad Roberts, Jeffrey Larsen, Vipin Narang, and Patrick Morgan, to name just a few. They have set out, like Lonsdale, to create serious strategic thought and planning should the world see another nuclear attack. In other words, we have come a long way since the days of Brodie and Khan. By painting the future as either the total surrendering of nuclear weapons or Armageddon based solely on Cold War thinking, Wilson naturally chooses the “better” of the two options. His painting, however, is far from complete. 

Wilson claims that we have been living “on a kind of nuclear death row for decades — stoic, uncomplaining, never discussing our fate, but knowing that explosions and ashes could be just over the horizon — and every year losing a little bit of confidence.” But Wilson fails to acknowledge how nuclear weapons have truly kept the peace for the past half century. Indeed, Wilson ignores that there may be a profound moral issue with eliminating nuclear weapons. Again, we now have the benefit of looking beyond Cold War thinking to realize how valuable nuclear weapons have been to international stability. We should not advocate for giving that up. 

IT’S NOT REALLY UP TO THE UNITED STATES 

Debates on classical realism and the history of nuclear strategic thinking don’t really matter in today’s world. Let me explain.

I am often left aghast by the movements and thinkers who aim to eliminate nuclear weapons for one simple reason: the choice isn’t ours to arbitrarily make. It is hard to underemphasize this point. The United States doesn’t only get to decide if nuclear weapons are to be eliminated — Russia does. The United States doesn’t get the only say in nonproliferation — China does. So does Iran and North Korea. So does al-Qaida. Neither Russia nor China, arguably our two biggest adversaries, have shown any interest in giving up their nuclear arsenals. On the contrary, Russia has no issue flaunting their willingness to use them. China is expected to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile by the end of the decade. Both Russia and China are modernizing their arsenals. Iran’s nuclear program remains active, while North Korea never seems to put launching a nuclear weapon out of question, should they develop the requisite means. 

Why did the United States develop nuclear weapons in the first place? The impetus to start the Manhattan Project was prompted by a letter written by Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard to FDR that the Germans might get to a bomb first. Nuclear thinking from its very inception has recognized the importance of countering nuclear powers. We are not alone in the nuclear world and all discussions about nuclear elimination cannot be had without acknowledging who else has nukes. Are we really safer in a world where the United States has an old, antiquated nuclear arsenal, or heaven forbid none at all, while Russia and China further modernize their nuclear weapons programs? If the answer is a resounding no, as I most certainly think it is, why are we speaking about nuclear weapons elimination? 

It is here that we can now fully appreciate the power of the classical realist tradition. Wilson notes the lack of utility that nuclear weapons present in combat. But their utility does not only lay on the battlefield, as Scott Sagan has shown. North Korea, for instance, believes nuclear weapons give them unprecedented access to the world state. They are, frankly, not wrong. According to Gray, nuclear weapons provide states with unprecedented power, politically, strategically, operationally, and tactically. This is why states not only retain their nuclear weapons, but why some, such as India, Pakistan, and Israel, have joined their ranks, and others like Iran and North Korea, aspire to. The world has seen only one instance of nuclear disarmament: South Africa in the 1990s. Scholars, however, are unsure how the South African example relates to disarmament as a whole, if it does at all. The realist understanding of human nature paints a clear picture for us: no state will ever give up what it believes to be the key to unprecedented power. For now, that key is found in weaponized nuclear fusion and fission.

In a world where Russia has its eyes set on conquering the Baltic states and the Baltic Sea, if not even further westward; in a world where China inches further and further to an invasion of Taiwan, talks of nuclear disarmament embolden our adversaries. We have already seen how weak discourse leads to disastrous outcomes — our failure to keep the “red line” in Syria and the very weak US and NATO response to Russia’s invasion of Crimea are but two recent examples

Should nuclear disarmament make its way into official US nuclear doctrine as its prime goal, we should not be totally surprised if some of the nuclear powers with grand ambitions begin acting violently. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has already demonstrated his willingness to resort to violence. Just recently, he threatened the West with military action. If we don’t continue to carry a big stick, we can expect seismic shifts in the international order. 

In response to an audience question about capital and inequality, Milton Friedman noted that “nirvana is not for this world.” So it goes for strategic thinking. We do the future we hope to inhabit and pass onto our children a disservice by focusing on nuclear weapon elimination. We’ve opened Pandora’s Box. The knowhow to build a nuclear weapon is out there. States and non-state actors are prepared to take advantage of the awesomeness of nuclear power. It is, therefore, up to us to prepare for the nuclear reality we will inhabit, not philosophize about a utopia we will never get. 

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