Does Defense Fuel Offensive-Arms Buildups?


As debate ensues between two major nuclear powers such as the U.S and Russia on the rationale of New START, the issue of developing antinuclear defense has captured the global attention in the recent times. It is the defensive capability of the U.S. as seen in its proposed deployment of anti missile system in some of the European allies, which has prompted Russia to oppose the implementation of New START.

It is very important to note that a country acquires monopoly in the nuclear field when it develops antinuclear defenses. The simple reason is that provision of such defense capabilities renders any country the immunity from nuclear strikes. In this sense, the doctrine of deterrence does not remain valid. This doctrine of deterrence, in vogue since the onset of Cold War, and in continuance even after its demise in 1989, has purposefully maintained nuclear balance.

Simply put, the doctrine of deterrence prevents the nuclear weapons possessors from using them. Any nuclear-capable country including the world’s acknowledged nuclear powers, such as the U.S., Russia, China, France, and Britain, are constrained to think twice before launching nuclear attacks against the possessors of such weapons. The use of these weapons is catastrophic. Fortunately, they have not been used after their experimentation during World War II.

In the words of Jonathan Schell, a central lesson of deterrence theory is that the psychological effects of nuclear arms are as important as the physical ones. According to this theory, deterrence works when the leadership on both sides of a nuclear standoff so deeply fears the other side’s retaliation that they do not dare to strike in the first place. Therefore, Mr. Schell argues that every nuclear arsenal is linked to every other nuclear arsenal in the world by these powerful ties of terror and response.

This is exactly exemplified in 1999 in South Asia, when both India and Pakistan, nuclear-armed already since 1998, were locked in armed confrontation in Kargil. Had the deterrence doctrine not worked then, the two South Asian strategic rivals would have experienced nuclear exchange with attendant colossal damage to them.

Deterrence is thus the codification and institutionalization of this reactive cycle. In fact, it is deterrence, which even induces countries go after nuclear arms. Countries tend to believe that acquiring nuclear weapons will guarantee them safety from destruction, whatever may be the source. A country is easily provoked to manufacture or obtain nuclear weapons to defend itself against nuclear-capable foes. From this standpoint, deterrence leads to the cycle of proliferation.

Both deterrence and proliferance are responsible for encouraging nations to go nuclear. Proliferance inspires nations that lack nuclear weapons to get them. But in different circumstances, deterrence and proliferance have had varying effects in the nuclear policy. During the Cold War period (1945-89), deterrence was focused but now proliferance is more evident.

In the changed situation of non-state actors becoming violent and desiring to take any risk to gain their objectives, the traditional doctrine of deterrence seems to appear obsolete. Today’s terrorists have no fear whatsoever of losing any territory or state if they are defeated in any war. There is no anxiety of annihilation on their part, which the use of nuclear weapons is likely to result in.

The peril of proliferation of nuclear weapons is boosted by the possibility of terrorists having access to nuclear arsenals. This is why the international community has been concluding treaties designed to address the problem of nuclear terrorism. The Nuclear Summit hosted by the Obama administration in Washington D.C. (April, 2010), had reasonably emphasized the safety of nuclear arsenals. This administration’s intermittent intervention on the Pakistani leadership for securing nuclear weapons has to be seen against the background of some disturbing news in the past of some non-state actors’ failed attempts to steal nuclear bombs.

Nuclear crisis has been faced by the world when the U.S. became the first country to detonate nuclear explosion in the mid-1940s. So far other eight countries have possessed the nuclear weapons capability. Since 1970 the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has been operational as the most successful and impressive treaty to stem the proliferation of nuclear arms. A few new entrants to the nuclear club such as India, Pakistan and Israel have remained outside the regime of above treaty.

In view of holding the largest nuclear arsenal, the U.S. deservedly has the greatest responsibility to tackle nuclear armament. Without the American leadership, any efforts to promote nuclear disarmament will fail. Encouragingly, the current U.S. administration has taken the lead to advance the goal of making a nuclear weapons-free world. President Obama’s commitment to seek complete abolition of nuclear weapons has been recognized by the conferment of Nobel Peace prize in the past.

But in the words of nuclear theorist James May, “Nuclear weapons are not all that is needed to make war obsolete, but they have no real substitute”. There are others who cast a doubt on the practicability of the vision of a nuke- free world. In the 1983 Harvard-sponsored book, “Living with Nuclear Weapons” a question has been posed as “Why not abolish nuclear weapons”? The same book answers, “Because we cannot” explaining that “mankind’s nuclear innocence, once lost, cannot be regained”.

In this vein Jonathan Schell in his Foreign Affairs essay, “The Folly of Arms Control” contends that if the political preconditions of trust and consensus are missing, complete disarmament is inherently unstable. He continues, “In a disarmed world, the first nation to acquire a few arms would be able to influence events to a much greater extent than it could in a heavily-armed world”.

Notwithstanding the above observations, President Obama’s pursuit of nuclear disarmament through negotiating strategic nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia is commendable. His success in concluding New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) and obtaining Senate ratification of the same in 2010 has raised hopes that his vision of abandoning nuclear weapons will be realized. However, recent objection by the Russian leadership to the Obama administration’s planned deployment of antinuclear defenses, in the wake of START’s ratification, needs to be taken seriously. Unless trust is built with another major nuclear power such as Russia, the U.S. dream of abandonment of nuclear weapons will remain unfulfilled.

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