Are Nukes Stabilizing Tools?


In the wake of the Ukrainian crisis sparked by Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea, a debate is reignited whether the possession of nuclear weapons helps stabilize the situation of conflict. Opinions differ on the long-held perception that nuclear weapons, if possessed by the two conflicting nations, are more likely to prevent the war between them.

Therefore, the Cold War theory of mutual assured destruction (MAD) is scrutinized at a time of heightened tensions between the East and the West. Some believe that the current crisis in Ukraine is similar to the confrontation between the Atlantic community (U.S. and EU) and Russia before the Berlin Wall fell.

A few commentators have doubts over Russia’s intimidation of Ukraine, if the latter had not eliminated its nuclear weapons in 1994. The existing nuclear weapons in Ukraine, which it inherited from former Soviet Union, were eliminated under Budapest Memorandums on Security Assurances (5 December, 1994) signed by Ukraine, Russia, the U.S. and UK. The memorandums marked the decision of Ukraine to accede to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state.

The supporters of MAD have cited the events in history, when countries faced armed aggression owing to their non-acquisition of nukes. They provide the examples of Serbia (1999), Iraq (2003) and Libya (2011) to prove the vulnerability of non-nuclear weapon states. Their conclusion albeit is not without contention.

One of the critics of this perception is Gareth Evans, the former Foreign Minister Australia and the Chancellor of the Australian National University. He refutes the logic of MAD theory through his recent Project-Syndicate article “The Ukraine Nuclear Delusion”. To him the claim that the balance of nuclear terror (deterrence theory) between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union maintained peace in the world throughout the Cold War is not credible.

But the example of North Korea demonstrates that possession of nuclear weapons deters aggressors.  On a number of occasions North Korea has made provocations which would have invited military aggression had it abandoned nuclear weapons. Its defiance in continuing detonation of nuclear devices in 2009 and 2013 despite international community’s condemnation is evidence that the retention of nuclear weapons makes aggressors think twice before launching armed attacks.

The deterring value attributable to nuclear weapons notwithstanding, the existence of nuclear weapons involves serious risks to mankind. There are instances of false alarms about incoming nuclear attack. Fortunately, so far the danger of using nuclear weapons has been averted detecting the miscalculation of threat in time. Otherwise, both the attacker and the enemy would face annihilation.

Worryingly, the existence of nuclear weapon becomes riskier when the non-state actors especially the terrorist groups like the Al Qaeda vie for such weapons to increase their lethality of attack. Terrorists are always effortful either to steal away the nuclear secrets or to lure the possessors to sell the nuclear weapons to them. In both cases a great security threat exists for humanity and therefore, it has become more urgent than ever to make provisions worldwide so that nuclear weapons are safely stored and beyond the reach of terrorist organizations.

In this regard the initiative of securing nuclear materials by the respective countries deserves accolade. The American administration has prioritized the issue of nuclear security. It has been involved in organizing biannual nuclear security summit since 2010. The first such summit was held in Washington DC in which the countries operating nuclear power research reactors and possessing nuclear weapons took part. Then the participating countries pledged to take appropriate measures to secure the fissile materials including the nuclear fuels like uranium and plutonium along with the nuclear weapons.

The second nuclear security summit was organized in Seoul in 2012 and the meeting made further improvements in terms of securing nuclear materials. In 2014 the third nuclear security summit is being held in The Hague as part of biannual events. The last segment of such summits will be in the U.S. in 2016.

Writing an op-ed article in the New York Times “Highly Enriched Danger” Alan K Kuperman and Frank N. von Hippel have argued that the nuclear security summits have played a critical role in phasing out the use of highly enriched uranium as fuel in research reactors to prevent its misuse by states or terrorists to make nuclear weapons.

Those writers have also noted that the previous conclaves have failed to address the single largest use of such fuel in the nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers. They opine that the U.S., UK. Russia and India have introduced nuclear-powered submarines for their navies, which use highly enriched uranium.

Low enriched uranium, (enriched to less than 20 per cent) if used as fuel, is unlikely to be misused for producing nuclear weapons and this is why the world powers (five permanent members of UN Security Council and Germany) are negotiating with Iran and trying to persuade the latter not to enrich uranium to more than 20 %. However, Iran has been calling for nuclear-powered submarines fueled by highly enriched uranium, which would give it an excuse to produce and possess weapons-usable uranium. Endeavors to strike a permanent nuclear deal between world powers and Iran have yet to bear fruit despite two rounds of talks since 20 January, 2014 when the interim agreement on curtailing Iran’s enrichment program came into effect.

Alissa J. Rubin in “Second Round of Iran Nuclear Talks Ends with Optimism” (New York Times) comments that uranium enriched to 90% can be used to make a nuclear weapon, and it takes just a few months to increase enrichment from 20%-90%.

The adherents of MAD theory are of the view that the nukes act as stabilizing tools in managing conflicts. They try to justify by producing the example of avoidance of war between the major nuclear powers (U.S. and Soviet Union) during the Cold War. Nevertheless, nuclear weapons’ destructiveness as exemplified in World War II, and greater probability of catastrophe due to accidents, miscalculation and nuclear theft, it is difficult to value the possession and production of nukes, which are the weapons of mass destruction.

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