Strategic implications of a “nuclear weapons free world”
By Louis René Beres
Barack Obama still favors the creation of a “nuclear weapons free world.” This high-minded preference is more than infeasible; it is also undesirable. For Israel, in particular, a beleaguered microstate that could ultimately suffer the full fury of this American president’s misplaced idealism, a denuclearization “solution” in any form could not be tolerated.
Historically, the risks of war between adversarial states are not heightened by any presumed powers of destruction. Most worrisome, today, are Jihadist leaders who could combine nuclear capacity with irrationality. These leaders would not necessarily be “crazy,” but only inclined to value certain non-negotiable religious preferences more highly than national secular survival.
By themselves, the president fails to understand, nuclear weapons are not the problem. Intrinsically, these weapons are neither good, nor evil. In some cases, they can actually provide the most credible basis for conspicuously viable deterrence.
For Israel, nuclear weapons, whether ambiguous or disclosed, serve as genuine impediments to war.
President Obama should now be looking toward a world that exhibits fewer risks for war and terror. He should focus on creating an improved US strategic doctrine that would target not only principal Jihadist adversaries, but also still-prospective national foes in Russia, North Korea, Iran, and even a post-coup Pakistan. Any such doctrine could have determinable survival implications for Israel.
During the 1950s, the United States first began to codify various doctrines of nuclear deterrence. At that time, the world was tightly bipolar, and the enemy was the Soviet Union. American national security was openly premised on a strategic policy called “massive retaliation.” Over time, that stance became “flexible response.”
Today, the world reveals multiple and inter-penetrating axes of real and potentially violent conflict. There are almost four times as many countries as had existed in 1945. In this expressly multipolar world, Russia, which had once assumed diminished importance in optimistic American strategic calculations, is once again a major concern.
The Russians are largely spurred on in their ambitious nuclear invigorations by an understandable fear of planned US ballistic missile defenses in Europe. Such active defenses, in the Russian view, threaten the long agreed upon deterrence logic of “mutual vulnerability.”
What should be done?
It is time to gather together America’s best strategic thinkers, and put them to work on a present-day equivalent of the Manhattan Project. This time, the task would not be to develop any new form of super weapon; yet, it should also not become a pretext to oppose nuclear weapons per se. After all, without a nuclear “balance of terror” during the Cold War, it is likely there would have been a third world war.
A capable American strategic “brain trust” will need to consider complex matters of nuclear targeting. These core issues would concern critically basic differences between the targeting of enemy civilians and cities (“countervalue” targeting), and the targeting of enemy military assets and infrastructures (“counterforce” targeting).
At a time when the American president may draw his principal strategic policy options from idealized assumptions about nuclear disarmament, and when his Republican opponents publicly ignore vital national defense subjects altogether, Americans need to understand that they are still at risk of unprecedented enemy attacks. For Israel, moreover, the risks of naive or ignored strategic thinking are substantially greater.
For the foreseeable future, there will not be a “nuclear weapons free world.” And, at least for now, there should be no encouragement for any such pattern of global denuclearization. It is a bad idea on its face, not only impracticable, but also misguided in principle.
The president of the United States, whether Barack Obama, or his Republican successor, should work to create an improved US strategic doctrine, one that would examine inter alia fundamentally new directions in preemption (“anticipatory self-defense”), active defense, and cyber-war. Such a coherent and purposeful macro-plan is needed to serve critical national security needs in both Washington and Jerusalem. More than anything else, perhaps, it could successfully prevent catastrophic enemy aggressions against the United States and Israel.
Louis René Beres is Professor of Political Science at Purdue University and the author of many major books and articles on nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including several of the first published works on nuclear terrorism. His writing has appeared in Special Warfare and Parameters, publications of the U.S. Department of Defense, International Security, World Politics, The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, and International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. Read his previous OUPblog posts here.
For further reading on the role of nuclear weapons in politics and culture, we recommend Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda.