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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.

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Recent Comments

  1. Adina Kutnicki, Israel

    A nuclear weapons free world will become a viable option when the world becomes a global utopia. Is it any wonder that those pressing for such pie-in-the-sky outcomes are true ‘believers’ in socialist/Marxist paradigms?

    NEVER mind that under said regimes there have been more innocents murdered than under western democratic constructs. Could it be, that the more one chases Alice-in-Wonderland designs, the more dead bodies pile up? Have our peace-at-all-costs followers learned nothing?

    Be that as it may, clear thinkers (one hardly has to be a nuclear expert either)understand how the real world operates. To wit, those who crave mayhem/murder will always get their hands on weapons of choice, regardless of the fantasists on the other side. Therefore, to suggest that law abiding, freedom seeking leaders would ever use weapons-of any kind-other than as a last resort,fail to discern between good and evil.

    Students of history understand too, that an Israel without nuclear weapons will NEVER survive, regardless of who serves as POTUS, or who becomes its PM. Similarly, a US without nuclear weapons (again, whether led by Republicans or Democrats)will animate the likes of China, Russia and every bad actor in the world. To expect their leaderships to abide by gentlemen’s agreements (not to be confused with MAD) is to believe in the tooth fairy.

    Due to the above, if I were on a nominating committee, asked to identity who is the strongest candidate to head a ‘world strategic center on WMD’, I wouldn’t hesitate to name Professor Louis Beres to the post.The readers-and the rest of the civilized world-would be well served.

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