A world without nuclear weapons?

by on December 29, 2009 at 10:53 am in Political Science | Permalink

Thomas Schelling — who remains a master of cool, insightful analysis, has a new essay on this question.  Such a world would not be a picnic.  Here is one good excerpt:

In summary, a "world without nuclear weapons" would be a world in which
the United States, Russia, Israel, China, and half a dozen or a dozen
other countries would have hair-trigger mobilization plans to rebuild
nuclear weapons and mobilize or commandeer delivery systems, and would
have prepared targets to preempt other nations' nuclear facilities, all
in a high-alert status, with practice drills and secure emergency
communications. Every crisis would be a nuclear crisis, any war could
become a nuclear war. The urge to preempt would dominate; whoever gets
the first few weapons will coerce or preempt. It would be a nervous
world.

Hat tip goes to www.bookforum.com.

JSK December 29, 2009 at 11:23 am

It is already a “nervous world”.

Yancey Ward December 29, 2009 at 11:45 am

A nuclear weapons free world is a pipe dream, and a dangerous one for any superpower to entertain at anything greater than a cheap, rhetorical level.

Sean December 29, 2009 at 12:19 pm

Heh, in a class on the politics of NBC weapons, we had a set of guest lecturers tell us how the North Koreans felt they needed to develop nukes because the Americans had them, etc etc. These were guys who wrote books and in Bulletin of Atomic Scientists — brilliant and at the forefront of the movement. After they left, the lone student with military experience posed the question: How would the North Koreans deter a non-nuclear US invasion?

It was a brilliant point, and one that most people conveniently ignore: To conventional forces, the US military itself is a nuclear-sized weapon. No one stands a chance against the US in a head-to-head fight. Nuclear weapons are the most rational choice when facing a super-power, whether they have nukes or no. Given this, what is most likely to deter those states from using/obtaining nukes? I submit that de-nuclearization is not at the top of the list.

(Sure, guerrilla forces cause trouble, but is devoid of a state power structure. The people developing nukes have already long lost the battle in that case.)

(Also, yes, the whole point of the Superpowers supporting non-proliferation was to simply enable them to more easily invade the rest of the world.)

azmyth December 29, 2009 at 2:39 pm

I went to see Schelling talk in Oxford and it was fascinating. The coolest part was when he talked about how nervous American commanders are when they are assigned to the nuclear forces or are put in a position to use nuclear force. He told a story of when he taught at the U.S. War College and the following scenario was posed to several top commanders (Colonels, Captains, etc):
Suppose Iraq aquired nuclear weapons secretly and invaded Saudi Arabia and was winning a conventional war. The U.S. mobilized to defend Saudi Arabia. Faced with conventional military defeat, Saddam Hussein nuked the U.S. force and killed several hundred thousand American soldiers. What do you do? (this was in the mid to late 90s as I recall)

The most amazing thing was that not a single person in the class said that they would use nukes in retaliation. Most, if not all of the people in that room have retired, and the U.S. policy may have changed, but the message was clear: there is a strong norm against using nukes in the U.S. military.

I got the sense that Schelling thinks nuclear weapons are good, but that the cultural norm of not using them is critical to their continued goodness. The norm is quite strong. The British did not nuke Argentia, the Soviets not nuke Afghanistan, the Israelis did not nuke Egypt, and the U.S. did not nuke China during the Korean war. In each case, they could have saved lives of their own military, but decided it was not worth being the first to use nuclear weapons. The loss of lives in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a horrible price to pay, but if it means avoiding future world wars, they did not die in vain. We can only hope and pray that the norm will hold for another 60 years (or more).

quadszilla December 29, 2009 at 3:14 pm

Even worse might be a world in which nuclear weapons were never invented. Is there any reason to think that the world would not have had more, bigger wars since the end of WWII without the nuclear deterrent?

Maynard Handley December 29, 2009 at 4:05 pm

“Suppose Iraq aquired nuclear weapons secretly and invaded Saudi Arabia and was winning a conventional war. The U.S. mobilized to defend Saudi Arabia. Faced with conventional military defeat, Saddam Hussein nuked the U.S. force and killed several hundred thousand American soldiers. What do you do? (this was in the mid to late 90s as I recall)

The most amazing thing was that not a single person in the class said that they would use nukes in retaliation. Most, if not all of the people in that room have retired, and the U.S. policy may have changed, but the message was clear: there is a strong norm against using nukes in the U.S. military.”

I’m sorry but I call bullshit on this analysis, or rather what it is assumed to imply.
The US military, for better or worse, does not get to make the decisions about what weapons are used, US politicians do — US politicians goaded by nuts with megaphones.

Look at the bezerk US reaction to 9/11 and tell me honestly that the US would not respond to a single kiloton fission weapon with a barrage of megaton fusion weapons? For god’s sake, we have segments of our population demanding the US invade Yemen in reaction to the sparkler “bomber”, and if Bush (or McCain or Palin) were in power the invasion would probably already be in the planning stages.

anon December 29, 2009 at 5:44 pm

There were no nuclear weapons during the period spanning June 28, 1914 to November 11, 1918.

I do not wish such a war to return.

Thank you, Mr. Oppenheimer et al. You have saved countless millions of lives.

mulp December 29, 2009 at 6:39 pm

Why does the US have 9400 nukes?

On the other hand, why does the US deny North Korea support for their nuclear weapons program which would ensure they would not attack any US ally?

And why isn’t the US offering Iran assistance in developing nuclear weapons so it would be deterred from striking at the US directly and would be forced to act only via proxies which are not US allies?

No nuclear powers have ever been at war with each other.

No treaty ally of a nuclear power has been attacked by a nuclear power with an ensuing war.

Basically, letting nations who want them to have a couple dozen nuclear weapons would make the cost of war too high for wars to begin.

As it stands today, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, et al, can all attack the US or Russians and be confident that what will follow are conventional wars that put both the US and Russia at severe disadvantage. US nuclear weapons are useless against all the nations with which the US or Russia have major conflicts.

In fact, in Laden would certainly love the US or Russia to attempt to use nuclear weapons strategically against al qaeda – both the US and Russia would lose the real war.

Nuclear weapons can not deter a non-nuclear power because nuclear weapons can’t be used against a non-nuclear power with the nuclear power ever achieving a moral victory.

Jody December 29, 2009 at 9:25 pm

the invasion would probably already be in the planning stages
Name a country and there’s an invasion plan (or two) for it already on the shelf.

Al Brown December 30, 2009 at 12:30 am

When I look at how many wars have been fought between nuclear powers, I’m glad that we have them. And I can see why Iran wants them. You are safer when someone stands the chance of being just as injured as you are if they attack you.

“Oh, its not really peace its fear that makes someone respect you.” I’ll take it anyway! The forces for good get stronger when the forces for evil within a country can’t justify tyranny by invading other countries. That’s the despot’s stratey of choice when his policies are failing. Well, its getting harder to do these days.

Chev December 30, 2009 at 8:31 am

“”"How would the North Koreans deter a non-nuclear US invasion?”"”

Maybe the same way they did it before: cold weather, help from the Chinese, etc. Technological/military superiority does not always equal a win. Heck, the other side doesn’t even need to win, just outlast our will (c.f., Afghanistan and Russia, Afghanistan and Britain, etc.)

Andrew December 30, 2009 at 4:50 pm

Okay Doug, that’s fine, but what exactly do you think our military actions will entail in Yemen?

Brett December 31, 2009 at 4:48 am

If it’s a choice between potential conventional, non-nuclear conflicts where the Great Powers can blunder their way into wars that kills millions, and nuclear weapons, I’ll take the nuclear weapons. Screw that alternative non-nuclear world, where we all get stuck with higher defense budgets, and where countries can crunch the numbers on almost any conflict.

Hell, can you imagine what our world would have been like without them? What do you suppose would have happened to Western Europe after the end of World War 2? The US was in no way capable or willing to fund a gigantic conventional military commitment necessary to go toe-to-toe with the Soviets (this was before the era of precision weaponry and the like, so the tech differences weren’t as significant), considering it was in over 120% of its GDP in debt and damaging its industrial base at full mobilization. Nukes allowed us to realistically build that alliance – nukes allowed the US to help guarantee security for the NATO allies before the Revolution in Military Affairs. Without them, we’d probably know of countless graves of American soldiers scattered across Europe after 1945.

Johnson January 2, 2010 at 8:10 am

Aneutronic fusion reactor does not produce neutrons being unsuitable for production of nuclear weapons. Its potential for electricity generation is spectacular,
ending up the claim of uranium for peaceful purposes like production of energy.

Andrew January 27, 2010 at 4:49 am

HA HA…ha.

I may be paranoid, but I have a good memory. As it turned out, the USA already bombed Yemen before I was accused of paranoia for the prediction. I hate being right about our government.

“Obama approved a December 24 strike against a compound where a U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Aulaqi, was believed to be meeting with regional al Qaeda leaders”

http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20100127/pl_nm/us_yemen_usa

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