To the majority of the public, nuclear weapons appear to be a thing of the past – a bargaining chip for the two great powers of the bipolar world of the Cold War. The START treaties were a distant pinpoint of light, a hope that one day the world could be without nuclear weapons, and no one would have to fear a nuclear winter blocking out the sun. Fast forward to the 21st century, and it would appear that light is further away than we would have hoped. Nuclear weapons are making a comeback, and it does not take a master’s student to figure that out. At the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Nuclear Policy Conference, I have learned is there is much more to nuclear policy than I originally thought.
Nuclear policy is more than just who should and who should not have nuclear weapons. The game primarily rotates around the idea of deterrence – which is essentially a giant balancing act. Nations like the United States want to keep their nuclear weapons because China and Russia have them, and these two latter nations want their weapons for the same reasons. These three major players are not interested in seeing the spread of nuclear weapons because it throws the global balance off, and disrupts the focus that the major powers have on one another. Additionally, technology used to diminish the chances of a retaliatory strike – such as ballistic missile defense – reduces the efficacy of deterrence, even if defenses are erected to guard against a nation other than China or Russia; BMDs will not discriminate based on the missile’s origin.
The major states are generally rational players, and are not interested in starting a global nuclear war – backed up by the fact that Russia, China, and the United States vastly favor second strike capabilities. Non-proliferation offers the chance for the world to stop the spread of nuclear weapons technology, a vital tool needed in order for disarmament to come into full force. The three powers seem to all agree that they do not need nuclear weapons, no one really does, but as long as the “opposing” nations have them, they will keep their own. Due to China’s very small arsenal, they are currently left out of the major START talks, but in the future, when the US and Russian stockpiles dwindle to be on parity with China, they will be brought into the fold, so all three nations can work on ridding the world of nuclear weapons together.
As smaller, less rational nations acquire nuclear weapons, the United States and other nations have to react. Our response has been the increased construction and research into BMDs – as stated before; this reduces the efficacy of deterrence between the great powers – but we cannot rely on diplomacy or peer pressure to remove the nuclear weapons from places like North Korea. Instead, we must use all the tools in our shed in order to provide for the safety of ourselves and our allies. Unfortunately, this potentially opens up the way for a mini-arms race in the form of a proportional response from China and Russia.
The fortunate side to the alliances that the United States has with Japan, Korea, and the nations of NATO means they do not need nuclear weapons themselves. They are covered underneath our umbrella of extended deterrence – a form of deterrence which essentially means we deter threats beyond our borders. However, politicians such as M.J. Chung, a veteran member of South Korea’s National Assembly, are advocating for the acquirement of nuclear weapons, in order to better defend themselves against North Korean threats. Chung has been touring the United States, speaking at different venues, and making the case for a nuclear South Korea, but I doubt encouragement and the mission was solely his. During his remarks, he made several, subtle references to the incoming President Park Geun-hye, whom I believe actually sent Chung out to rally support. If that’s the case, then the drive is not just one or two National Assembly members, but the leader of their nation, a very serious issue.
Amongst rational states, nuclear weapons do not seem to act as a deterrent against conventional wars. Nuclear weapons are only a deterrent against the use of other nuclear weapons. In the 80s, Argentina went to war with the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands, well aware of the fact that the latter was in possession of nuclear weapons. However, the regime responsible for initiating the war knew that such a small scale conflict, mixed with the rationality of the British, were confident in knowing that nuclear weapons would not be involved in the fighting.
One of the most interesting points of nuclear deterrence is the development of the technology level of the United States. As our nation continues to jump ahead and lead the rest of the world in advanced weaponry and military hardware, we will eventually get to a point where the deployment of conventional weapons could equal or eclipse active nuclear weapons. Moreover, the use of just conventional weapons is more acceptable to the global community than the connotations associated with nuclear weapons (i.e. radioactivity). The United States certainly has shown that we are not squeamish when it comes to using the necessary force to punish those that have attacked or wronged us or our allies.
I had the opportunity to ask Major-General Yao Yunzhu about
China's attitude towards US BMD.
Photo: Ben Levelius