The Advantage of Being the Weaker, Nuclear-Armed State

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Doyens of nuclear deterrence strategy during the first nuclear age were convinced that size mattered. The nuclear-armed state with a bigger arsenal, or greater missile throw-weight, or sharper missile accuracy, or more tactical nuclear weapons, or [fill in the blank] would be better off in leveraging outcomes, before and after the balloon went up.

In the second nuclear age, it’s striking how this presumption of leveraging has been turned on its head. There is now abundant evidence that the strong preference of a major nuclear power has scant influence on the decision-making of a state with a smaller nuclear arsenal.

For starters:

  • China, with the most economic leverage on North Korea, has been notably unsuccessful in persuading Kim Jong-un to refrain from testing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. So have the United States, Great Britain, and France.
  • The United States has been unable to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority, pursue a two-state solution, and not try to torpedo the Iran nuclear deal. Mr. Netanyahu went so far as to stick his finger in Mr. Obama’s eye before a Joint Session of Congress – while pocketing unprecedented levels of U.S. military assistance.
  • The Government of Pakistan continues to exercise a veto over the start of Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty negotiations. The Pakistan Army and Air Force continue to prosecute bad actors on a selective basis, placing the groups that carry out explosions in India and attacks on US forces in Afghanistan at the back of the queue. The Obama Administration, like its predecessor, continues generous military assistance and coalition support funding.
  • The Bush Administration agreed to a civil-nuclear deal with India and acceded to New Delhi’s rejection of compensatory steps that would shore up the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The Obama administration appears interested in going one step farther, helping India to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, without any evident quid pro quo.

All of these cases are different. North Korea isn’t just an outlier; it’s an outcast. Its weakness is its strength. Kim Jong-un has perfected Richard Nixon’s madman theory of international relations. The young Kim threatens to bring down the temple to get his way – or at least not to be attacked. The only nuclear numbers that count are his, not someone else’s. Benjamin Netanyahu is the ultimate free rider: he can stiff Barack Obama and still be protected by U.S. vetoes in the UN Security Council. He knows that Washington will not turn its back on Israel. Pakistan’s military leaders have perfected the art of translating post 9/11 nuclear nightmares and worries about the future of Afghanistan (of all places) into big paydays. Indian political leaders have leveraged their market and their potential to serve as a counterweight to China into displacing Pakistan as America’s most important non-NATO ally on the subcontinent. Except that these words cannot be spoken because they would offend India’s sense of strategic autonomy, which makes market access and cooperation against China difficult.

What do these diverse cases have in common? The exact opposite of deterrence theology rooted in the more-is-better school of nuclear weapons. Instead, countries with smaller nuclear arsenals are more than holding their own with countries having larger nuclear arsenals. North Korea, the state with the smallest inventory of nuclear warheads, is holding off the largest number of nuclear-armed states. Advantages in nuclear war-fighting capabilities don’t amount to much if you don’t want to fight a nuclear war. And advantages in nuclear war-fighting capabilities don’t translate into diplomatic suasion when the point of having nuclear weapons is not to use them.

Stockpile size doesn’t matter when the Bigger Boys have a higher priority to advance or protect – one that overrides the application of serious economic and military muscle over nuclear-related issues. Beijing doesn’t want North Korea to crack up, spilling countless refugees across the border. Besides, nobody wants to start a war against the DPRK to denuclearize the Peninsula. The United States is not going to undermine Israeli security even though its Prime Minister acts intransigently. Rawalpindi can always rely on nuclear nightmare scenarios and the decline and fall of the Afghan government to keep Washington from completely going off the reservation. And New Delhi can count on the prospect of strategic convergence to solicit help from Washington, notwithstanding its domestic imperative of maintaining strategic autonomy.

States with small or mid-sized nuclear arsenals are doing quite well, thank you, in fending off pressure from states with bigger stockpiles. Size doesn’t matter when seeking attention and deference to security concerns. In India’s case, it can be the ticket to a seat at the high table. The Bomb helps Pakistan gain an “out-sized” profile, to use Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s unfortunate phrase when plugging for Great Britain to recapitalize its Trident boats. The Bomb also doesn’t hurt Pakistan when dealing with the International Monetary Fund, getting Chinese help and inflows of cash from the United States. The only state that isn’t cashing in is North Korea. Being an outcast might keep the wolves at bay, but it doesn’t help with cash flow.

The takeaways from this aren’t entirely bad. All of the good things that a small nuclear arsenal can provide come with all of hard things that can be expected when trying to join the nuclear club; otherwise, there would be far more members. The good news (for those in search of silver linings) is that size doesn’t matter, and that competition in the usual metrics of nuclear weapon capabilities is a con game. Spread the word.

Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on April 24, 2016.

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