Quote of the week:
“How can we suppose that something so monstrously powerful would not, after forty years, compose our identity? The great golem we have made against our enemies is our culture, our bomb culture—its logic, its faith, its vision. … Is it possible that the bomb, in its inventions and reinventions, is not primarily deterrence, or even a weapon at all, but an overwrought ambition, an impiety?”
—E.L. Doctorow, “The State of Mind of the Union,” 1986
How do backers defend their support for spending more a trillion dollars over the next three decades to recapitalize all three legs (and shorter appendages) of the U.S. nuclear triad? By invoking the awesome power of nuclear weapons and the uses they presumably serve. Foremost among them is deterrence of a nuclear attack. As long as nuclear weapons exist and are held by competitors and adversaries, investment on these grounds is entirely justifiable, since the costs of being attacked by nuclear weapons could easily dwarf the costs of recapitalization.
But how much of an investment is needed to deter? Which expenditures make the most sense, and which are best avoided? Debates over “how much is enough” have theological overtones. Rational analysis does not support the contention that a shortfall in spending of, say, ten percent, will lead to the failure of deterrence. There will, almost certainly, be a shortfall of ten percent if not far more over the next three decades. But no expense is too great if one believes in the Bomb’s supreme powers—not simply deterrence, but the value of nuclear war-fighting capabilities if deterrence fails, and the leverage that the Bomb can apply to those less well endowed.
I will grant that there is a competing theology of disarmament, one that finds international politics to be an unnecessary impediment. The economic costs of believing in the Bomb are, however, far greater than the costs of believing in nuclear disarmament. One set of costs is quite real; the other is conjectural, and very hard to envision for those who have been entrusted with the Bomb’s stewardship and for those with powers of the purse.
The most powerful weapon created by mankind mocks theoretical constructs such as strategic and crisis stability. Deities are above such calculations. The same Ivory Towers that conceived of these constructs also conceived of dangers and opportunities from falling behind or forging ahead in a nuclear competition. Nothing about the Bomb suggests stasis. Everything about the Bomb exudes omnipresent danger and demands material sustenance.
Down-sizing nuclear arsenals is possible if we down size our expectations of the Bomb. Todd Sechser and Matt Fuhrmann have done their part, applying the tools of Political Science to the question of whether the Bomb has helped shape outcomes in confrontations between nuclear-armed states and contests between nuclear “haves” and non-nuclear weapon states. Their book, Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy, accepts Professor Alex George’s challenge to his fellow academics to tackle big, important issues that have profound consequences for public policy, and to do so in understandable ways. Todd’s and Matt’s focus is the political utility of nuclear weapons. They help bridge the gap between academia and public policy for those willing to apply rational analysis to nuclear excess.
Here are some of their key findings from 19 crises and confrontations since the Bomb’s unveiling:
- Nuclear weapons have helped to deter nuclear exchanges and large-scale conventional wars—but not lesser contingencies.
- The record of these lesser contingencies strongly suggests that nuclear weapons have little coercive utility in today’s world, and that the contrary view is badly misguided.
- What matters most in a confrontation between nuclear-armed states or between the “haves” and “have nots” are the coercer’s ability to impose its will militarily, the stakes in dispute, and the costs of military conflict.
- Most nuclear threats lack credibility because of the limited military utility of nuclear weapons relative to conventional firepower, the high costs of implementing coercive nuclear threats, and the relatively low stakes for the coercer relative to the defender.
- Nuclear blackmail can still be credible, but only when a state lacks conventional military capabilities, if it faces extreme provocation, or finds itself in a desperate situation with its back to the wall. These conditions can also lend credibility to threats of nuclear weapons use for deterrence purposes.
- Nuclear weapons support primarily defensive rather than offensive objectives.
- The notion that more nuclear firepower equals greater influence is intuitive, but is not supported by real-world events. In a crunch, nuclear superiority is trumped by more prosaic factors.
Todd and Matt advance and apply a “nuclear skepticism theory.” Their analysis badly undermines the coercionist school. All of the classic cases where coercion seemed to have utility are weakened the deeper one delves into particulars. Moreover, all of the cases that lend themselves best to coercionist assumptions are over four decades old, the last being the Nixon Administration’s nuclear alert during the 1973 Middle East crisis. At least in this case, the Nixon Administration’s signaling was clear-cut; in most cases, signaling is misread or ambiguous, as was most certainly the case during the Nixon Administration’s attempts to shorten the Vietnam War.
The record to date of 21st-Century attempts at nuclear coercion in the Asia-Pacific theater is no better than in the 1950s. On the Korean Peninsula, overflights of U.S. bombers, the presence of aircraft carrier strike groups, and port calls by nuclear-powered submarines might partly reassure anxious allies, but they are unlikely to affect Kim Jong Un’s calculus of decision. His deterrence signals—underground nuclear explosions and missile flight-tests—are just as, if not more powerful.
In South Asia, which presents the most cases of nuclear-tinged crises since 1998, the track record to date strongly favors the authors’ skepticism. While nuclear dangers have increased as capabilities have grown, these capabilities have not altered the status quo. Pakistan, which has sought to change it through adventurism or proxies, has received international censure, not disputed territory. In any event, the presumed value of nuclear advantage is thoroughly muddled, as opposing capabilities are shrouded in secrecy and unclear to the contestants. Was the nuclear status of forces instrumental in determining the outcome of the Kargil crisis? No one knows. Pakistan might have possessed more of an operational capability than India at that time, but what mattered most was that Pakistan faced global condemnation for this gambit. Nuclear signaling during these crises has been as much to prompt diplomatic intervention by third parties as to reinforce deterrence. Pakistan’s embrace of “tactical” nuclear weapons follows this pattern of nuclear signaling. India, too, is engaged in signaling by embracing the “Cold Start” doctrine, but status quo powers don’t do coercion very well.
Nuclear deterrence has worked in the most taxing cases—so far. The cost of this insurance policy can be greatly reduced if we are able to recognize this policy’s exclusions. For this, we have Todd and Matt to thank. For those wanting to hear their case, as well as the commentary provided by Toby Dalton and Mira Rapp-Hooper, you can go here for a recording of Stimson’s book luncheon.
This historical record isn’t immutable. All bets are off if another mushroom cloud appears on a battlefield. If this long-dreaded event occurs, it will be due to the failure of diplomacy and abetted by the accumulation of nuclear war-fighting capabilities. To state the obvious: The costs of diplomacy are a mere pittance compared to the costs of nuclear deterrence.
Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on June 13, 2017.