Why Nuclear Weapons Are Going to Go

Phillip Dolitsky recently critiqued my four part series of articles titled “How to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons” here on Chesterfield Strategy (see “Why Nuclear Weapons are Here to Stay.”) Dolitsky’s response is well researched, cogent, and clear. He is an able scholar, but we do have some points of disagreement.

People often think that because I talk about nuclear weapons in an ordinary tone, using ordinary language, that I’m not familiar with the scholarship. I once gave a talk at Princeton University that elicited just this sort of response. When I was finished, a young man in the seminar tried to tell me, very kindly and gently, that there was this author named Schelling that I could read who could answer my questions about deterrence. Given that he probably thought I was an idiot, he was more polite than I would have been had our roles been reversed. But he mistook me. (There is a certain kind of person who relies on credentials.) I’ve actually read Brodie’s Strategy in the Missile Age four times (and dipped into it countless others). I’ve read Schelling’s Arms and Influence three times and I’m currently working on a sweeping refutation of it. I own a library of 500 carefully read volumes about nuclear weapons, nuclear war, nuclear strategy, war in general, the consequences of nuclear war, and related topics. My first scholarly paper was published in International Security; my second scholarly paper won a $10,000 prize. I’m familiar with the scholarship.

Dolitzky’s reply sometimes feels more like a kindly, instructive review of IR theory than a direct answer to the arguments I made. He does not confront the historical deterrence failures I outline, for example, and he passes over in silence the evidence I present that nuclear weapons lack military utility. So we are a little like ships passing in the night.

Understanding Realism

I think the heart of our disagreement is that Dolitsky and I see the world through different lenses. He said that he wanted to have a scholarly debate, and has been true to his word: he’s written a critique in terms of the scholars taught in IR (International Relations) programs. But although I respect scholars and have learned from them, ultimately I see things differently. I think the battleground is not a theoretical one nor one limited to scholarship. The facts are what is most important in my view. After all, scholars have sometimes been wrong (see the Ptolamaic model of the solar system, the inflated reputation of battleships prior to World War II, etc.)

It comes down to a disagreement about what realism is. Dolitsky quotes Thucydides, Hobbes, Adam Smith, and Clausewitz, and implies that they believe we are all engaged in a tooth and nail struggle to survive that is driven by self interest — that the world is a world of anarchy. There is a lot of wisdom in those authors and the “anarchic world” view is one way to look at things.

But this desperate view of the world is not the only perspective. Human beings have lived in groups — families, tribes, bands, societies — for thousands of years. They have often done so harmoniously. Those societies often function in a relatively orderly fashion. Sometimes members of the group even sacrifice their lives for the group — not an act of self-interestedness. (It is ironic that war, which is seen as one of the drivers of this “anarchic world” is only possible if individuals are willing to sacrifice themselves in battle.) In fact, much of the accomplishments of human civilization would have been impossible — pyramids, roads, computers, medical advancements — without the ability of human beings to work in together in an orderly fashion. And as the achievements of human beings are substantial, it must be that our ability to cooperate is substantial, too.
We live in a world that can be anarchic, but that also displays a surprising tendency toward order. It is, in fact, a world with quite extensive systems of norms, regulations, and laws. That is why, for example, the plane I travel on can safely land at Cape Town, South Africa — because there is worldwide agreement on how commercial air travel will work, a system of regulations, rules, transponders, identifying codes, and so on. It’s a quite orderly system. And that is also why I can buy things in London using money in my bank account based in Chicago — because there is an extensive worldwide banking system governed by innumerable rules, laws and interlocking computer systems. That is why ships don’t collide at sea — because there are international rules of the road. And so on.

So although it is possible to see the world as a place of anarchy, it is also possible to see it as a place of cooperation and order. Both perspectives are somewhat true. Neither is completely true. There is anarchy in the world, but it is not a place of pure anarchy or even a place dominated by anarchy. Perhaps one way to think of it is as a world of order with occasional spasms of anarchy.

One of the reasons I emphasize the Cold War in my account of nuclear weapons ideas, is that I believe that that time of fear and anxiety shaped what has come to be called the “realist” school of thought, making its practitioners see the world too darkly — a monochromatic view that is ultimately unrealistic. It is important to acknowledge the evil in the world and the possibility of anarchy, but acting as if the world were all killing and selfishness all the time is as foolish as believing that everyone has your best interests at heart all the time. My complaint with IR theory is that it privileges anarchy in a way that is not reflected by the reality around us. For me, Dolitsky’s scholarly quotations do not rebut this objection.

I am a not an IR realist, nor a classical realist, but what I think of as a common sense realist. In my rather everyday version of realism, ignoring the facts of the world in favor of theory is not persuasive.

The Evolution of Deterrence Theory

Dolitsky implies that because I ignore scholarly contributions to nuclear deterrence theory over the last few decades, the notion that deterrence is not stable must false. But he also admits that there is very little evidence to rely on when it comes to judging the validity of nuclear deterrence theory. This is an area of agreement between us. Because the weapons were only used against two cities in a single week, against a a particular opponent, in only one conflict that occurred more than seventy years ago, it’s hard to “learn from experience” when it comes to nuclear weapons. There is almost no hard data against which to judge the validity of nuclear deterrence theory. As a realist who tries to rely on facts, choosing more recent theory over older theory seems to me like an exercise in trading one unproven theory for another. With apologies to Hobbes, theories, without the validation of fact, are “but words and of no strength to secure a man at all.” (And as it happens, I am familiar with recent deterrence scholarship. I’ve met three of the five scholars that Mr. Dolitsky mentions as exemplars of that work — Matthew Kroenig, Brad Roberts, Jeffrey Larsen, Vipin Narang, and Patrick Morgan, was on a panel in Prague discussing deterrence with one, and had a long conversation with another at a conference in Vienna.)

As it happens, the desire to base my thinking on facts is in keeping with some of the latest scholarship on nuclear weapons. As Robert Jervis pointed out some time ago, “Perhaps the most startling fact about the development of the theory is the lack of a search for supporting evidence.” I am pressing an argument that embodies the so-called “Fourth Wave” of deterrence scholarship, which emphasizes examining the empirical evidence over theoretical work. As Amir Lupovici says, “Scholars, mainly of the first two waves, based the idea of deterrence upon apolitical and ahistorical arguments . . ., and as a result paid very little attention to its operation in reality. Ironically, this obfuscation of empirical contradictions and problems led to the consensus on its validity.”

Dolitsky argues for this validity with the familiar argument that, “the fact that nuclear war has not broken out shows that deterrence exists and has indeed achieved its job of preventing nuclear war.” Rather than arguing the unreliability of proof by absence, I’ll conceded that nuclear deterrence probably works most of the time. It’s not proved, but let’s assume it. After all, deterrence sometimes works with children and criminals.

But the fact that nuclear deterrence probably works most of the time is not comforting. Because to be safe, it has to be perfect. Even one failure can have catastrophic results. It doesn’t matter if deterrence works 98% of the time. Or 99% of the time. A single nuclear war would be a calamity of unimaginable proportions. And it’s unlikely that nuclear deterrence can ever be perfect, because we are involved in managing deterrence and we — human beings — are fallible. We are prone to folly. Which means that nuclear deterrence is inherently flawed. The failure of nuclear deterrence, one day, is inevitable.

It’s Not up to the United States

Dolitzky is right that the United States cannot eliminate nuclear weapons by fiat. But that is not the only way to eliminate them and it is not at all what I am suggesting. I argue that technology goes away when people abandon it, not through some sort of coerced “disinvention” (which is, in any case, an imaginary process). People abandon technology when better technology comes along or they realize that the technology in question wasn’t very useful to begin with. It is this second avenue that I argue can be used for eliminating nuclear weapons.

Once people focus on how little military utility nuclear weapons have, once they admit that deterrence must inevitably fail, once the reputation of nuclear weapons is lowered all around the world, eliminating them would be relatively easy. After all, it was not moral qualms that banned chemical and biological weapons, but the practical difficulty of using them to any real military advantage. This lack of real utility was amply demonstrated (at least for chemical weapons) in World War I, where chemical weapons never delivered a strategic advantage.

Of course it is difficult to get rid of any technology that is earthshakingly powerful and akin to magic. The efforts of the last seventy years prove the point. But if instead of agreeing with the assumptions that nuclear weapons advocates made during the Cold War, instead of passively accepting that nuclear weapons magically keep the peace, undergird the world alliance system, make prosperity possible, and generally are the most wonderful things since manna from heaven — if instead of that you successfully challenge those assumptions, the problem is transformed. It is rather straightforward to ban technology that is clunky, outmoded, dangerous, too large for any real circumstance, clumsy, and randomly spreads poison wherever you use it.

The way to eliminate nuclear weapons is to take a closer look at their utility, to focus on the reality rather than the theory, to brush away the exaggerations and hyperbole, and to try to determine if these weapons really are useful or not. That seems to me to be a realist’s endeavor, doesn’t it?

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