What Are Nuclear Weapons Good For Anyway?

That’s a pretty easy one to answer, no? But if the obvious answer – absolutely nothing – is correct, then what, praytell, are nuclear weapons for? In which case, why is it so hard to imagine the babysteps we’ve taken towards nuclear disarmament leading to an actual nuke-free world?

I ask these questions apropos of the agreement in principle that Obama and Medvedev announced yesterday.

The deal itself is pretty small potatoes. The two major nuclear powers will reduce their arsenals slightly below the levels agreed in the previous agreement, and have agreed to discuss further reductions. We’ll still wind up with enormous nuclear arsenals, vastly larger than any other country’s.

Why is this nuclear disarmament a hard problem to solve? If the weapons are useless, why isn’t it easy to get agreement to reduce them in a really huge way? And is it a problem we even need to solve?

The answer to the first question – why isn’t it easy to achieve really dramatic reductions – probably has mostly to do with Russian national prestige, plus the rational desire to preserve a second strike capability if America actually does develop a functional missile defense. And Russian national pride may, actually, be the best reason for not simply scrapping some weapons unilaterally; they may not be secure enough to follow in kind (though the opposite may also be true: it may be harder to secure an agreement than to get them to reduce in response to unilateral reductions; who knows).

As for the last question, the standard reasoning about nuclear cuts in the post-Cold-War world says that the US and Russia need to make serious steps towards nuclear disarmament in order to forestall future nuclear proliferation and, potentially, stuff a couple of existing nuclear powers (North Korea? Pakistan? Israel?) back into the bottle.

I think there is a certain amount of truth in this, but not too much. The small truth is that without some degree of superficial seriousness on the part of Washington and Moscow to move towards disarmament, countries like France and Germany will see very little reason to listen to us when we ask them to support this or that initiative to control the spread of nuclear weapons. In other words, this sort of thing is useful for maintaining credibility with the populations of democratic allied states who might share our objectives on the proliferation front but not particularly trust us.

But the larger truth is that Pakistan and North Korea are never going to build massive nuclear arsenals that could plausibly threaten us with extinction, and the tiny arsenals they have serve their purpose whether we have 2,000 nuclear warheads or half or a quarter of that number. To understand the logic of proliferation, you have to understand that nuclear weapons are a defensive weapon. They are not a means of winning a war (their only actual use notwithstanding; the game is very different when there is only one nuclear power in existence); rather, they are a means of denying the enemy victory.

Let’s look at the three nuclear powers that, I would say, were always most likely to escalate to the use of nuclear weapons in war. I feel reasonably confident in saying that these powers were the most likely to so escalate, because nuclear escalation was part of their doctrine. These are (or were): the United States, Israel, and Pakistan.

The primary purpose of the US nuclear arsenal was to deter the Soviet Union from a conventional attack on Western Europe. For the entire Cold War era, the Warsaw Pact had massive numerical superiority in conventional forces. The US was perpetually worried that the Soviets would use this advantage directly, and invade West Germany – or, more likely, use the fact of that superiority to “Finlandize” Western Europe. Therefore, US policy was to use nuclear weapons first to destroy Soviet armor in the event of the outbreak of hostilities in Germany, and the US consistently refused to sign a “no-first-use” pledge. These nuclear weapons would, of course, be tactical nukes, not strategic nuclear forces; strategic nuclear weapons exist entirely to deter other countries from using strategic nuclear weapons on you, and have no tactical purpose at all.

Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal serves a fairly similar purpose. Pakistan not only suffers from a numerical inferiority vis-a-vis India, but suffers a qualitative inferiority as well, and has lost actual wars with India, including one which resulted in the splitting of the country into two states (which was a good thing, actually, but no doubt that’s not the way Pakistan sees it). Given that India also enjoys a subtantial nuclear forces advantage, it would be plainly suicidal for Pakistan to launch a strategic nuclear attack on India, either for aggressive purposes or in response to a conventional attack by India. It would not, however, be insane for Pakistan to use nuclear weapons tactically, to destroy an invading Indian army – particularly if those weapons were used on Pakistani soil, which would leave little rationale for an Indian strategic nuclear retaliation. Since India knows that Pakistan has this powerful defensive weapon, its options to escalate to a full-scale conventional attack in response to terrorism or troubles on the border are limited.

Israel’s nuclear arsenal serves slightly different purposes, but not enormously so. Because of the very small size of Israel, they could never plausibly use nuclear weapons in a tactical and defensive manner. Rather, Israel’s arsenal is intended to be a strategic deterrent against conventional aggression. More to the point, the possibility of such an escalation is an inducement to the “international community” to make sure that Israel does not wind up faced with the prospect of being completely overrun. This is pretty much how things played out the one time Israel faced the real potential of a total loss, in the 1973 October War (Yom Kippur War): the risk of Israel’s potential nuclear escalation was an important factor in the Nixon Administration’s decision to resupply Israel in the darkest hours of that war, enabling her to turn the tide on both the Syrian and Egyptian fronts, and ultimately threaten the Egyptian army with obliteration (at which points the Soviets threatened to intervene, in tit for tat fashion responding to the American intervention earlier in the war).

If you articulate the logic of nuclear weapons this way, it becomes clear that preventing nuclear proliferation depends only very peripherally on superpower arms reductions. No reductions in American or Russian nuclear forces will cut deeply enough, in the near term, to have any impact on Chinese or Indian calculations – and Pakistani calculations are yet another step removed, and might not alter even if India reduced its nuclear arsenal, given India’s conventional superiority. North Korea went nuclear even though South Korea and Japan are not nuclear powers, and China, its patron, already has a nuclear deterrent which it could deploy on its behalf. Similarly, Iran should logically pursue nuclear weapons even in a world in which the US has eschewed first use of such weapons. American conventional superiority is so overwhelming that there is every rational reason for Iran to want nuclear weapons for defensive reasons. And, if it had such weapons, it would be rational for Saudi Arabia and Turkey to seek an independent nuclear capability, because otherwise they would feel vulnerable to nuclear-backed blackmail from Iran (though, honestly, it’s not obvious to me that nuclear weapons would actually enhance Iran’s ability to achieve hegemony through blackmail that much; an actual threat to use nuclear weapons would not be credible, and Iran’s ability to project conventional force within the region is quite limited).

The main reasons to pursue strategic arms reductions with Russia are: the arms are actually worthless, so eliminating them saves both us and the Russians money, and increases global well-being directly thereby; and the reductions may help us get better support from allies like France and Germany in pursuing stricter controls on nuclear technology transfer (which is one practical way to combat proliferation). The real successes in nuclear-counter-proliferation, however, all fall into three categories: allies who have not needed to go nuclear because they are under the American nuclear umbrella (Germany, Japan, South Korea); neutrals or allies who no longer have significant in-region enemies or rivals against whom they might want to wield a nuclear deterrent (South Africa, Brazil, Argentina); and countries that gave up or have not built nuclear weapons for fear of provoking a much stronger neighbor (Taiwan, Kazakhstan, Ukraine). So the real investment in counter-proliferation is investment in conflict-reduction. Unfortunately, South Asia is the least-likely territory for conflict reduction, just as it is the least likely to be directly responsive to US-Russian moves, while simultaneously it is the most likely venue for war actually escalating to the nuclear level.