Obama, Medvedev, and the Demise of Nuclear Deterrence

Posted by (Bulatlat.com)

If our thousands of nuclear weapons actually do serve to deter, then why should we be concerned about a nuclear North Korea or a nuclear Iran? If they do not serve to deter, then why retain them at all?

When South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited Washington for a summit with President Barack Obama on June 16, the United States reaffirmed its “commitment of extended deterrence” to Seoul, “including the US nuclear umbrella.” In response, on June 25, the 59th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, North Korea vowed to continue to expand its nuclear arsenal, to deliver a “fire shower of nuclear retaliation” in response to US “provocations,” and insisted that the nuclear umbrella statement only “provides us with a stronger justification to have a nuclear deterrent.”

It is not entirely clear to us why the international community considers it wholly legitimate for the United States to say, “if North Korea engages in aggression against South Korea or the United States, we will retaliate with nuclear weapons,” while it universally condemns North Korea when it says, “if the United States engages in aggression against us, we will retaliate with nuclear weapons.” Perhaps, in light of all this radioactive rhetoric, it is worth pausing to consider just what “nuclear deterrence” might mean in today’s world … or whether it means anything at all.

The conventional wisdom holds that nuclear weapons have only one legitimate function in today’s world – deterrence. Most often this is framed as one country (the deterror) dissuading the use of nuclear weapons against it by another country (the deterree), by threatening nuclear retaliation in reply. This has long been the primary answer to the awkward question, just what are nuclear weapons for?

Deterrence theory has sometimes also extended to deterring non-nuclear attacks. During the protracted Cold War, for example, the United States threatened nuclear retaliation in response to a hypothetical conventional Soviet attack on Western Europe – in an attempt to dissuade the USSR from launching such an attack. (Never mind that in historical retrospect that threat appears never to have been more than a phantom, used primarily to justify enormously bloated military budgets of our own.) The last US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) under the Bush administration envisioned using nuclear weapons reactively in response to the use of chemical or biological weapons, proactively to prevent other countries from even acquiring such weapons, and unrestrictedly in the event of “surprising military developments” and “unexpected contingencies.” And, indeed, the vague statements in this month’s rhetorical nuclear exchange between Pyongyang and Washington leave somewhat unclear whether each party is intending to deter only nuclear aggression, or instead all aggression by the other.

Like much conventional wisdom, however, it turns out that today, there just ain’t much there there. We need to remind ourselves that “deterrence” is a high-falutin’ term for basing one country’s security on the threat to entirely incinerate another country, and all its inhabitants, and also making that country (and likely surrounding countries as well) radioactive and uninhabitable for generations to come. So deterrence theory is, to say the least, a morally shaky basis for a country’s security. Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, let’s say we can live with that moral quandary. Let’s say that we just want to know whether or not deterrence “works.”

That brings us to the contemporary cases of both North Korea and Iran. If deterrence does work, then why should we care if North Korea keeps nuclear weapons, or if Iran gets nuclear weapons? Shouldn’t the nuclear arsenals of the United States and Israel, vastly superior in both quantity and quality, deter North Korea or Iran from ever using nuclear weapons – against us or anyone else? If not, then just what are the more than 9,000 American and perhaps 200-400 Israeli nuclear weapons good for?

As the prophet Edwin Starr might say, absolutely nuthin’.
No international political issue received more attention during George W. Bush’s second term than the possibility that Iran might acquire nuclear weapons. Today, still, few issues stand higher on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s things to do list. Yet, a very simple question has rarely been asked. If Iran in fact acquired nuclear weapons, just what could they do with them?

Indeed, it was Senator Clinton herself, during her 2008 presidential campaign, who arguably addressed that question most directly. Asked by an ABC News reporter in April how she would respond to an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel, she replied, “I want the Iranians to know that if I’m the president, we will attack Iran…. In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them.”

However indelicate and unsubtle Senator Clinton’s speculations might have been, it is difficult to dispute their validity. If Iran does in fact become a nuclear weapon state in the next few years, the “policy option” for Tehran of launching a sudden and unprovoked nuclear first strike, on Israel or anyone else, would result in certain and immediate destruction for the Iranian nation – and in certain and immediate death for the leaders who had initiated it as well.

Sometimes the question of what Iran might actually do with nuclear weapons has been expressed in a single word. “If the Iranians were to have a nuclear weapon,” said President Bush in 2006, “they could blackmail the world.” He offered no elaboration or explanation of exactly what that might mean. Our American Heritage Dictionary defines “blackmail” as “extortion by the threat of exposure of something criminal or discreditable.” Pay me money, or I’ll reveal that you embezzled the community chest, or dispatched the leaky ferryboat, or seduced the farmer’s daughter. What that has to do with the political utility of nuclear weapons is difficult to discern.

Perhaps it meant that such a state might try to coerce another state by threatening a nuclear first strike. (“Evacuate the entire Israeli presence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem by next Thursday, or else.”) But all existing nuclear weapon states already possess the capability to make such coercive threats. And yet, it is difficult to identify any historical instances where any of them have actually done so.

Perhaps, instead, it meant that such a state might use its nuclear capability to persuade someone else not to do something. (“Don’t send tanks across the Elbe, or else.” “Don’t try to change our regime, or else.”) That’s nuclear deterrence. Why that is considered legitimate geopolitical behavior in one case, but “nuclear blackmail” in the other, is also difficult to discern.

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