Does Deterrence Work

Since the 189 member countries of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of the Nuclear Weapons (NPT) plan to assemble in Geneva for preparatory meeting to the treaty’s 2015 review conference, the myth that the nuclear deterrence has served to maintain peace has been challenged more than ever.

In “The Myth of Nuclear Necessity’’, a New York Times piece, a nuclear expert Ward Wilson has substantiated the criticism that nuclear weapons have no deterring value providing an example of the 1982 Falklands War, in which a nuclear-armed United Kingdom was engaged in military confrontation with non-nuclear Argentina contesting the sovereignty of nuclear power over the far-flung islands.

Despite the fact that United Kingdom was successful in forcing the then invading Argentine forces to withdraw from the above war, the conflict over the territories showed clearly that fighting against nuclear-armed countries is possible. Wilson further presents the evidence of 1973 Yom Kippur War launched by non-nuclear Egypt against Israel, and the latter is in fact a nuclear power albeit it has neither confirmed nor rejected the possession of the nuclear weapons. Israel, though not internationally recognized as nuclear power, has indeed successfully detonated nuclear device long before the South Asian neighbors did in 1998.

The craze for nuclear weapons has not been declining rather it is on the increase. North Korea has exploded atomic bombs three times joking at the international ambivalence and inaction. Iran is under UN sanctions for secretly pursuing the production of nuclear weapons. Talks under the aegis of P5+Germany have not produced any concrete result in persuading Iran to halt its suspicious uranium enrichment program. Six-Party (China, Japan, Russia, U.S., and two Koreas) disarmament negotiations invented for denuclearizing the Korean peninsula about a decade earlier have stalled for years casting a pall over any prospects for nuclear disarmament in the region.

Against the background of the great bargain reached between the nuclear-haves and non-nuclear countries under the framework of the NPT, one feels that justice has not been done in implementing the treaty in its true spirit. When the treaty was negotiated stretching over a long period of years in the 1960s, it was agreed that the non-nuclear states would forgo their pursuit of nuclear weapons in exchange for the nuclear weapon states’ willingness to destroy their nuclear arsenals.

A former German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, in his Project-Syndicate piece “The Nuclear Risk” has rightly analyzed the bargain struck between nuclear weapon and non-nuclear weapon states in the NPT and believes that the promise of those with nuclear weapons have remained unfulfilled although non-nuclear weapon states have been abiding by the norms of the treaty with a very few exceptions. Therefore, his advice that nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation should not be merely treated as the questions of the past sounds relevant at a time when the international community prepares to review the NPT.

The past review conferences of the NPT have hardly been effective due to intransigence of those in possession of the nuclear weapons. Commenting on the achievements of the last 2010 review conference of the NPT, Australia’s former Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans through his latest feature carried by Project-Syndicate “The Nuclear Illusion”, has said that foot dragging by the nuclear states in disarmament is making it difficult to add necessary new muscle to the global non-proliferation regime. He defends his allegation by the failure of the last review conference when efforts to mandate stronger safeguards, strengthen compliance and enforcement mechanisms, and inject new life into the control of fissile material production all went nowhere.

Undoubtedly, the U.S. and Russia are the major nuclear powers holding 18000 of the world’s current stockpile of 19000 nuclear weapons as quoted by Gareth Evans in his above feature. Any attempt to persuade other nuclear weapon states to reduce their arsenals is a hard nut to crack until the U.S. and Russia are prepared to further cut down their own stockpiles.

What obstructs the nuclear superpowers from cutting down their arsenals is clearly seen from their Cold War mindset, when they believed and still believe in the logic of nuclear deterrence and the doctrine of Mutually-Assured Destruction (MAD). Their insistence on having about 800-900 nuclear warheads on prompt-launch alert only signifies their mutual fear of each other. David E. Hoffman, a nuclear expert, in his Foreign Policy piece “Take the Nukes Off-Alert” has expressed alarm that maintaining such Cold War stance of keeping strategic nuclear weapons on high-alert increases the risks of an accidental and unauthorized nuclear launch.

Gareth Evans brilliantly explains the reasons behind the American and Russian hesitancy to de-alert the strategic weapons when he cites Russian worries that its nuclear-tipped missiles, based largely in strategic locations, might be destroyed on the ground by a preemptive strike by the long-range U.S. missiles, and its retaliatory punch weakened by U.S. ballistic missile defense. Not surprisingly, the U.S. refuses to de-alert its own nuclear missiles if Russia will not.

Such ground reality provides an ominous environment for nuclear disarmament as opined by Klaus Naumann, who was Chairman of NATO military committee (1996-99). In his essay “Defusing the Nuclear Arms Race” (Project-Syndicate), he concludes that without the U.S. and Russian examples, the world would see more, not fewer, nuclear-weapon states.

In the similar vein Executive Secretary of the Preparatory Commission of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), Tibor Toth has commented through his piece “Nuclear Lessons Unlearned” that the distrustful Cold War mentality has taken its toll, with both sides regarding nuclear weapons as the ultimate guarantor of their own security, but a threat in the hands of the other.

The usefulness of nuclear weapons is always questionable. The retention of such weapons even by nuclear capable India and Pakistan presents us a risk of miscalculation though chances of them being engaged in deliberate warmongering are seemingly remote under the present circumstances. Possession of nuclear weapons is a threat and a world free of such weapons is a global public good of the highest order as incumbent UN Secretary-General has observed.

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