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The War That Must Never Be Fought
Dilemmas of Nuclear Deterrence
By George P. Shultz, James E. Goodby
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
A Bet Portrayed as a Certainty: Reassessing the Added Deterrent Value of Nuclear Weapons
"Concepts, first employed to make things intelligible, are clung to often when they make them unintelligible."
A world free of nuclear weapons has been seen as an exercise in utopian dreaming. It took the credentials of realists like Secretaries Shultz, Perry, and Kissinger and Senator Nunn to bring this goal back to the front of the US political scene. But framing the discussion in terms of utopia versus reality is deceptive because in actuality both supporters and critics of this goal hold to a vision of the world as they think it ought to be. On the one hand, setting a goal of a world without nuclear weapons while there are still approximately seventeen thousands of them in the world today is clearly ambitious. On the other hand, those who reject this goal and want to continue to rely on the threat of nuclear retaliation have to assume that this strategy will work perfectly until the end of days. There is no third future. Either nuclear weapons remain in numbers higher than necessary to create a global-scale disaster and we have to rely on deterrence and hope for the best or we reach very low numbers or zero and the issue then will be to make sure that they are not rebuilt. Even if a credible missile defense system could be built, it would not constitute a third future; it would just be another parameter in the choice between these two futures.
Proponents of a world without nuclear weapons use the rhetoric of only two possible futures: either getting to zero or nuclear proliferation. But getting to very low numbers versus trusting nuclear deterrence forever reflects a more fundamental truth. This depiction of future choices does not make any assumption about the pace of proliferation or the connection between nuclear disarmament and nuclear proliferation.
If the only two available futures are getting to zero (or very low numbers) and relying on luck forever, which future ought to be realized? This is not a question of realism or utopia. It is a question of political choice: we either wager on perpetual luck or we wager on the ability of people to adjust to new international environments. Which future do you choose as a goal before putting your forces into the battle to "bring the 'is' closer to the 'ought'"? Maybe the proponents of nuclear deterrence assume that a civilization-destroying disaster will happen before nuclear weapons are used, so that their priorities lie elsewhere, but this bet is not made explicit or maybe they imply that future nuclear weapons use is inevitable and can be limited. Those are debatable assumptions which should be made explicit and become part of the conversation. Once this is done and the proponents of nuclear deterrence acknowledge the fundamental problem of global nuclear vulnerability, the burden of proof will be shared more equally and the ethical and political questions about which future we want to strive for will be fruitfully reopened.
The Case for Nuclear Deterrence
In this paper, I address three of the most frequently used arguments for maintaining a significant measure of dependence for international security on nuclear deterrence both globally and regionally:
1. Nuclear weapons have deterred great powers from waging war against each other, so a world without nuclear weapons will lead to, or at least might encourage, great-power war.
2. The US nuclear umbrella has deterred nuclear proliferation, so the reduction of the US nuclear arsenal will undermine the credibility of US extended deterrence and create additional incentives for nuclear proliferation.
3. Nuclear weapons have deterred other powers from invading the territory of those states that possess nuclear weapons and thus leaders of countries with relatively weak conventional capabilities will keep their weapons as an equalizer. A version of this argument focuses on dictatorial regimes or "rogue states" whose very existence depends on their having nuclear weapons.
I argue that none of these arguments holds.
These three arguments for acquiring and keeping nuclear arsenals rest on the power of these weapons to deter an action, whether a great-powers war, nuclear proliferation, or invasion of and regime change in weaker nations. But deterrence of such an action is most often based on the credibility of a set of national capabilities that include all the non-nuclear assets of a nation, including its credibility as an ally. Therefore, deterrence should not be identified with nuclear weapons and defined by them as has become the habit, almost unconsciously. The added deterrent value of nuclear weapons, rather than their deterrent value per se, has to be reexamined, keeping in mind that conventional weapons and other factors (economic, as an example) can have a deterrent effect with a much higher credibility of actual use.
After showing that these arguments are not as convincing as their frequency suggests, I will delineate opportunities which advocates for a nuclear-free world should exploit on their way to advancing their goal, based on the decoupling of nuclear weapons and deterrence.
One cannot state for certain that great-power war will be more likely in a world without nuclear weapons
The most intimidating critique of the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons is that it would make the world safe for further war among great powers. Its most eloquent proponent was probably Winston Churchill, who warned his fellow citizens: "Be careful above all things not to let go of the atomic weapon until you are sure and more than sure that other means of preserving peace are in your hands." In other words, according to Kenneth Waltz, "abolishing the weapons that have caused sixty-five years of peace would certainly have effects. It would, among other things, make the world safe for the fighting of World War III." This common belief is summarized in the famous October 2009 Time magazine article: "Want peace? Give a Nuke the Nobel."
I will show three major flaws in this statement. First, it assumes that we can know for sure what caused peace and neglects several competing hypotheses explaining the absence of great-power wars. Second, it thus assumes that nuclear weapons are either the only, or at least a necessary, cause of great-power peace. Third, it assumes a stark contrast between the world of the last seventy years, which have appeared relatively "peaceful," and a world without nuclear weapons that would be war-prone.
The "nuclear peace" is only a risky hypothesis among others
We cannot know for sure what caused the absence of great-power wars over the last seventy years. We are left with dueling counterfactuals and the need to bet and trust. The opponents of the goal of a world without nuclear weapons create a false dichotomy between what we know for a fact and what we hypothesize. On the one hand, they argue, is the hard fact of the nuclear peace; on the other hand are other hypotheses or counterfactual reasonings. But the nuclear peace is not a fact. It is a hypothesis trying to link two observable facts: the existence of nuclear weapons in the world since 1945 and the absence of war between the United States and the Soviet Union during the same period. The fact is that the idea of the nuclear peace and competing explanations share the same status: all are hypotheses, requiring a rerun of the history of the last seventy years without nuclear weapons to see whether war would have broken out. The nuclear peace hypothesis is no less a counterfactual than its rivals. It faces the challenge of proving a negative. In these circumstances, faith in the nuclear peace becomes a bet or a matter of trust.
Moreover, we know that complex and tightly coupled systems like nuclear weapons are doomed to fail eventually, even if the frequency of failure is very low. This is because their complexity and tight coupling don't allow for anticipating and testing of every possible failure. Given this epistemological challenge, which relies ultimately on the trust one puts in one potential cause of peace at the expense of the others and on the expected timing of nuclear versus non-nuclear disasters, at least one question arises: is seventy years a high enough standard of evidence for us to surrender our fate to nuclear weapons forever?
The limits of nuclear deterrence as a peacemaker
Critics of abolition portray a world without nuclear weapons as war-prone and believe that nuclear weapons are a necessary and sufficient cause for great-power peace. This is only the latest instance of an idea that has repeatedly been proven wrong, since at least 1860: the expectation that the unprecedented destructiveness of a new weapon system and the threat of its use will put an end to war. This was wrong for dynamite, submarines, artillery, smokeless powder, the machine gun, and poison gas. Was nuclear deterrence a necessary and sufficient cause for peace among great powers? Most critics of the idea of a world without nuclear weapons maintain that it was. They argue that the nuclear-armed states never fought a war against each other. This can now be proven wrong. The 1969 border clash between China and Russia and, more recently, the 1999 Kargil crisis between India and Pakistan show that the conventional wisdom that a nuclear-armed state cannot be attacked is historically inaccurate. Moreover, nuclear-armed states have been attacked by non-nuclear-weapon states on multiple occasions. US troops were attacked by Chinese forces in 1950 in Korea and by Vietnamese forces in the 1960s and 1970s; Israel was attacked by Syria and Egypt in 1973 and by Iraq in 1991; and in 1982, Argentina invaded the British Falkland Islands. This narrows down the claims for nuclear weapons as peacemakers. More importantly, even this narrower claim needs to be reexamined taking into account two facts: (1) avoidance of several nuclear disasters was due to luck and cannot be explained by nuclear deterrence; and (2) deterrence as a strategy has favored more risk-prone strategies and in some cases made war possible instead of preventing it.
Luck is too often taken as a confirmation that nuclear deterrence kept the peace. But luck should not be misread as successful deterrence. More accurately, as Thomas Schelling noted, leaders of nuclear-weapon states can make threats that "leave something to chance" — recognizing that things could spiral out of control and nuclear weapons could be used even if they do not intend to use them — to make those threats more credible. But including luck in a successful deterrence strategy, as if you could control it, is both a conceptual confusion and a retrospective illusion. Luck was on our side this time, but this is not a consequence of purposeful action. For example, during the night of October 26 — 27, 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, an American U-2 spy plane strayed into Soviet airspace over the Arctic. Soviet fighter jets scrambled to intercept the U-2 while F-102 interceptors were sent to escort it home and prevent Soviet MIGs from freely entering US airspace. Given the circumstances, the F-102s conventional air-to-air missiles had been replaced with nuclear-tipped ones and their pilots could decide to use nuclear weapons. According to Scott Sagan in The Limits of Safety, "the interceptors at Galena were armed with the nuclear Falcon air-to-air missiles and, under existing safety rules, were authorized to carry the weapons in full readiness condition in any 'active air defense' mission." Fortunately, the spy plane turned back and the Soviet jets held their fire. There are many other instances in which deterrence cannot account for favorable outcomes. Robert McNamara was direct about the role of luck during the Cuban missile crisis:
According to former Soviet military leaders, at the height of the crisis, Soviet forces in Cuba possessed 162 nuclear warheads, including at least 90 tactical warheads. [And the United States. was not aware of that at the time.] At about the same time, Cuban President Fidel Castro asked the Soviet ambassador to Cuba to send a cable to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev stating that Castro urged him to counter a U.S. attack with a nuclear response. Clearly, there was a high risk that in the face of a U.S. attack, which many in the U.S. government were prepared to recommend to President Kennedy, the Soviet forces in Cuba would have decided to use their nuclear weapons rather than lose them. Only a few years ago did we learn that the four Soviet submarines trailing the U.S. Naval vessels near Cuba each carried torpedoes with nuclear warheads. Each of the sub commanders had the authority to launch his torpedoes. The situation was even more frightening because, as the lead commander recounted to me, the subs were out of communication with their Soviet bases, and they continued their patrols for four days after Khrushchev announced the withdrawal of the missiles from Cuba. The lesson, if it had not been clear before, was made so at a conference on the crisis held in Havana in 1992. ... Near the end of that meeting, I asked Castro whether he would have recommended that Khrushchev use the weapons in the face of a U.S. invasion, and if so, how he thought the United States would respond. "We started from the assumption that if there was an invasion of Cuba, nuclear war would erupt," Castro replied. "We were certain of that. ... [W]e would be forced to pay the price that we would disappear." He continued, "Would I have been ready to use nuclear weapons? Yes, I would have agreed to the use of nuclear weapons." And he added, "If Mr. McNamara or Mr. Kennedy had been in our place, and had their country been invaded, or their country was going to be occupied ... I believe they would have used tactical nuclear weapons." I hope that President Kennedy and I would not have behaved as Castro suggested we would have. ... Had we responded in a similar way the damage to the United States would have been unthinkable. But human beings are fallible [emphasis added].
This fascinating account shows how lack of information, misperception, and ideology could have led to disaster if we had not been lucky. But false information, lack of information, and misperceptions were not the only reason why luck was the decisive cause of the positive outcome of the Cuban missile crisis. Limits of safety, limits of command and control, and organizational problems also have to be taken into account. As Scott Sagan wrote:
Many serious safety problems, which could have resulted in an accidental or unauthorized detonation or a serious provocation to the Soviet government, occurred during the crisis. None of these incidents led to inadvertent escalation or an accidental war. All of them, however, had the potential to do so. President Kennedy may well have been prudent. He did not, however, have unchallenged final control over U.S. nuclear weapons.
Most-recent studies show that sloppy practices in nuclear weapons management have occurred at all levels of decision-makers, leaders, nuclear safety and security teams, and top-level military personnel in most nuclear-weapon states. They also show the limits of learning from past sloppy practices. Confidence in perfect nuclear safety is still a matter of wishing for the best and relying on luck. One telling example of this occurred at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota in 2007. This offers a well-documented case of multiple sloppy practices and suggests the limits of learning after the incident was identified. On August 29 — 30, 2007, six US nuclear-armed cruise missile warheads were mistakenly flown to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. They had been placed by mistake under the wings of a B-52; the weapons had not been guarded appropriately during a thirty-six-hour period. Had the plane experienced any problems in flight, the crew would not have followed the proper emergency procedures. After this widely publicized case of sloppy practices, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates emphasized the need for responsibility in handling nuclear weapons: "The problems were the result of a long-standing slide in the Service's nuclear stewardship. ... For your part, you must never take your duties lightly. There is simply no room for error. Yours is the most sensitive mission in the entire US military." Change and improvement were supposed to follow, but even on the base where the incident took place and where the Secretary of Defense came to give his speech, it was necessary to repeat the order to leave no room for error. In April 2013, one officer from the 91st Missile Wing at the same Air Force Base in North Dakota was punished for sleeping on the job while having the blast door open behind him. (Sleeping wasn't prohibited on a twenty-four-hour shift, but leaving the blast door open was.) He was one of two missile officers sanctioned that year for such a fault and he told his superiors that it wasn't the first time. Air Force officers told the Associated Press that such violations of the safety procedures had happened more often than just in the two documented cases. The limits of safety, the limits of command and control, and the persistence of sloppy practices even in the US nuclear forces suggest that the role of luck is likely to have been even more important than we can document here. There are no reliable records of nuclear weapons accidents or close calls in most nuclear-weapon states.
Excerpted from The War That Must Never Be Fought by George P. Shultz, James E. Goodby. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPreface by George P. Shultz,
Introduction to Part One,
1 A Bet Portrayed as a Certainty: Reassessing the Added Deterrent Value of Nuclear Weapons by Benoît Pelopidas,
2 The Nuclear Dilemma: Constants and Variables in American Strategic Policies by James E. Goodby,
3 A Realist's Rationale for a World without Nuclear Weapons by Steven Pifer,
Introduction to Part Two,
4 The Debate Over Disarmament within NATO by Isabelle Williams and Steven P. Andreasen,
5 Russia, Strategic Stability, and Nuclear Weapons by Pavel Podvig,
6 Comparing German and Polish Post — Cold War Nuclear Policies: A Convergence of European Attitudes on Nuclear Disarmament and Deterrence? by Katarzyna Kubiak and Oliver Meier,
7 Utility of Nuclear Deterrence in the Middle East by Shlomo Brom,
8 Proliferation and Deterrence beyond the Nuclear Tipping Point in the Middle East by Karim Haggag,
9 A Middle East Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction: Moving beyond the Stalemate by Peter Jones,
10 Decoupling Nuclear Weapons and Deterrence in South Asia by S. Paul Kapur,
11 Getting to the Table: Prospects and Challenges for Arms Control with China by Michael S. Gerson,
12 China and Global Nuclear Arms Control and Disarmament by Li Bin,
13 Korea: Will South Korea's Non-Nuclear Strategy Defeat North Korea's Nuclear Breakout? by Peter Hayes and Chung-in Moon,
14 Japan's Disarmament Dilemma: Between the Moral Commitment and the Security Reality by Nobumasa Akiyama,
Introduction to Part Three,
15 Creating the Conditions for a World without Nuclear Weapons by James E. Goodby and Steven Pifer,
About the Authors,