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A Word From Afar - On Denuclearization

A Word From Afar: On Denuclearization

A Word From Afar is a regular column that analyses political/strategic/international interest.

By Paul G. Buchanan


Barack Obama’s promise to commit his administration to the global elimination of nuclear weapons is the political equivalent of comfort food: it is easily digested and gratifying in stressful times. Although pacifists have welcomed the promise, most security experts have reacted with skepticism that the goal can ever be reached. This essay evaluates the reasons why.

To begin with, the nature of the US political process is such that even if President Obama completes two terms in office, that is a total of eight years to push the denuclearization agenda. Should a more conservative president succeed him, the agenda could well be discarded and replaced with something less idealistic. Thus, even if sincere, his promise is only good until 2016.

Secondly, his promise assumes cooperation from other nuclear states and those that aspire to nuclear weapons status. That is a tenuous assumption at best, and presumes some alterations in the status quo that will either convince or compel otherwise uncooperative states to follow the US lead.

Third, the call to denuclearization assumes that there is a shared consensus within the US security community that it is a good idea. Again, that is by no means apparent.

Given these fundamental obstacles to denuclearization, what exactly was Obama thinking when he made his promise to the crowd in Prague? Or was, he, as some critics suggest, just blowing rhetorical sunshine onto a naively receptive audience? The answer appears to be that his “promise” was more of a statement of intent than an agenda for action, but nevertheless hopeful and sincere.

To begin with, prior to arriving in Prague Obama had met with Russian President Medvedev on the sidelines of the G-20 meetings in London, where the two leaders agreed to resume bilateral discussions on reducing their strategic nuclear arsenals. The Prague speech can therefore been seen as the US president’s public reaffirmation of that commitment. In turn, concrete bilateral steps by the US and Russia to reduce their nuclear arsenals is seen by the Democratic administration as the first step in revitalizing the moribund Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT is both a non-proliferation agreement as well as a denuclearization project, with limited success in achieving the former and no success in achieving the latter. Thus, bilateral moves by the US and Russia are seen as “leading by example,” thereby paving the way for other nuclear states to follow suit, which in turn is believed could provide incentives for nuclear weapons aspirants like Iran and North Korea to do the same. France’s announcement that it will rejoin NATO could be a step in that direction, since it would imply, at a minimum, integration of the French force de frappe into alliance collective security planning even if France’s nuclear weapons remain under French command authority.

As part of revitalizing the NPT, Obama’s speech spoke to the dangers of nuclear weapons proliferation among rogue states and non-state actors such as al-Qaeda (which has openly advertised its interest in acquiring radioactive weapons). A commitment by nuclear powers (the so-called “Big Five” comprised of China, France, the US, UK and Russia) to reduce their strategic arsenals and to limit the transfer of nuclear material and technology even to allies is seen as a way of promoting similar attitudes amongst newer nuclear weapons states, that is, India, Israel and Pakistan. Self-restraint by the eight nuclear weapons states is seen as helping the work of the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) in monitoring nuclear energy programs and the transfer of material and technologies to non-nuclear states and non-state actors.

That, in a nutshell, appears to be the logic behind Obama’s denuclearization promise. He admitted that he may not see this dream achieved in his lifetime, but he wanted to put into the public record his commitment to the cause. Although every US president since Harry Truman has spoken of their desire to reduce nuclear arsenals and make the world free from the fear of nuclear war, Obama’s intent appears more akin to Jimmy Carter’s commitment to the promotion of human rights as a basis for US foreign policy. That is to say, even if flawed in practice and implementation, the Obama administration wants to introduce the concept of denuclearization as a mainstay of the US foreign policy discourse. That, in a sense, is more of a domestic political issue than a diplomatic one.

While his intentions may be sincere, President Obama appears to be less versed in the practical matters of nuclear strategy and deployment. It is here where the root obstacles to the denuclearization dream are grounded.

Contrary to what many still believe, the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) was replaced in the US and USSR in the late 1970s by the doctrine of Flexible Response. (FR). Under MAD, deterrence was the primary objective of strategic nuclear forces, and retaliatory targeting of counter-value assets such as cities was designed to deter adversaries from launching first strikes. By the early 1970s, however, the targeting accuracies of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and other delivery platforms, coupled with revolutionary technological developments in the strategic nuclear triad (air-sea-land)—particularly in Sea Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) deployed by submarines—made counter-value targeting obsolete. With targeting accuracies as measured in Circular Error Probable (CEP, the distance in a circle from the target where a warhead would likely hit) now measured in a handful of meters, it makes no sense to target cities and leave the adversary’s counter-force assets (hardened silos, bunkers, arsenals and Command, Control, Communications, Computing and Intelligence (C4I) facilities) intact. Thus, for the last two and a half decades the emphasis of FR has been deterrence via the ability to fight and prevail in any nuclear conflict through the full spectrum of force, from the tactical to the theater and strategic levels. The reasoning is that by developing tactical nuclear weapons and a war-fighting mindset, a more calibrated approach to nuclear escalation, and hence deterrence, can be achieved. In parallel to the adoption of FR, the US announced that it would resume efforts to build anti-ballistic missile defenses (first mentioned by Ronald Reagan in his “Star Wars” speech, which effectively scuttled the 1972 ABM Treaty). This demonstrated the US belief that it could fight on both the defensive and offensive side of the nuclear ledger. From that point the push was on to develop tactical nuclear weaponry. These now include field artillery shells, seaborne mines, cruise missile warheads, so-called “bunker-busting” bombs (which unconfirmed reports claim were used at Tora Bora) and the infamous “neutron” bomb (which purportedly leaves inanimate objects intact but kills people).

If one charts the evolution of the US nuclear arsenal it becomes apparent that reductions in strategic nuclear forces has been paralleled by increases in tactical nuclear forces. The same can be said for Russia, albeit in far lesser numbers. Technological improvements in both countries have reduced the overall need to stockpile massive amounts of nuclear warheads, to the point that of the approximately 10,000 warheads the US confirms in its arsenal (6000 deployed, 4000 in reserve), the majority are tactical rather than strategic in nature.

The more important point, from the standpoint of the denuclearization project, is that the US military maintains a nuclear war-fighting stance based on FR that has pushed the concept of deterrence to a secondary plane. What is more, US strategic doctrine allows for the pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons, especially against non-state actors. Such pre-emptive strikes would presumably be tactical rather than strategic in nature, and in fact the latest US nuclear strategy doctrine de-emphasizes strategic deterrence via vis the Russians and Chinese in favor of tactical deterrence against rogue states and non-state actors.

What this means is that strategic nuclear reductions notwithstanding, the main impediment to denuclearization, at least with regards to the US, is at the tactical level. Thus, for Obama to pursue his denuclearization project he will have to convince the US security community that it must abandon its FR-based nuclear war-fighting doctrine. That is no small task.

More broadly, the denuclearization project runs counter to the fundamental utility of nuclear weapons for small states: their deterrent capability. A small state with one nuclear weapon can effectively put a much larger conventional adversary in check. Think of Iran (North Korean nuclear strategy being driven more by internal political idiosyncrasies than genuine strategic concerns). Iran perceives itself surrounded by hostile states. It has seen what happened to Iraq in the absence of an Iraqi nuclear deterrent. It therefore has very rational reasons to want to procure at least one deliverable nuclear warhead to deter what it perceives to be inevitable US (led) conventional aggression. That warhead could be aimed at Tel Aviv, Riyadh, Dubai, Kabul, Ankara or Mumbai, or at US military forces in the Persian Gulf, Qatar or Bahrain (all within range of its most advanced missile systems). The deterrence effect lies not in the choice of specific target but the potential escalatory impact of it. Iran might be obliterated in a retaliatory strike, but by then the real damage will have been done politically as well as physically. Hence the Iranian leadership may appear to be crazy for pursuing the nuclear weapons option in the face of international resistance, but if so, they are crazy like foxes. The US will have to think long and hard before it chooses to mount a conventional assault on a nuclear-tipped Iran (which would already be a formidable conventional adversary when defending its homeland). It is for that reason that Israel, in particular, wishes to preclude that eventuality—by pre-emptive force, if necessary.

For lesser nuclear powers like China and France, the deterrent logic still holds. For Israel it is seen as a key to national survival. For India and Pakistan (the latter particularly) it is seen as a preventative to all-out conventional war (hence the use of irregular proxies in places like Kashmir and the Pashtun majority regions in Pakistan). With all of these countries locked into the nuclear deterrence mindset, and with aspiring nuclear weapons states thinking along the same lines, it will be very hard to convince them that the logic of deterrence is no longer viable—especially when the US, Russia and the UK have adopted variations on the FR war-fighting/deterrence perspective and accept the utility of the deterrence logic when applied to smaller powers.

Moreover, even if all nuclear states and aspiring nuclear powers agreed to eliminate their stockpiles and weapons programs in the immediate future, that would only serve to reinforce the US conventional advantage over everyone else. The US currently spends as much on “defense” as the next five countries combined. The US has five nuclear carrier-led naval task forces underway or in rotation; no other country has one. The US has an SLBM fleet at sea that numbers at any one time in the dozens; no other country has more than two. The US has incorporated Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or drones) as a component of its war-fighting capability and has perfected both its conventional and asymmetrical war capabilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere (and most recently, in its turn to anti-piracy operations). No other country has come close to blooding its troops and testing its equipment in such fashion. Hence, global nuclear disarmament favors the US conventional power imbalance and disfavors all others.

Then there is the prospect of low-yield radioactive weapons, commonly known as suitcase or dirty bombs. These are weapons made out of readily available fissile material such as medical isotopes, to which conventional high explosives are attached. The device is placed in a vulnerable counter-value location such as an airport terminal, subway station, shopping mall or the like. Locations with air-conditioning as well as confined spaces are optimal for the placement of such weapons, as the dispersive effects of the vaporized radioactive material compensates for the relatively small impact of the blast. Depending on the target, radioactive poisoning in such an attack could sicken hundreds or thousands of people, and depending on the material and quantities used, many could die. Of little to no military utility, such relatively primitive weapons have high value for terrorists because of their psychological impact. It is therefore doubtful that they will subscribe to the denuclearization project.

It would appear that President Obama must first address his own nuclear strategists on the need to de-emphasize both the deterrent and war-fighting properties of nuclear weapons. But even if that were possible (and I suspect it is not), he would then be open to charges by security conservatives and the disloyal opposition centered around Rush Limbaugh and the Fox News chicken hawks that he is “disarming America,” “soft” on national security, placing the country in jeopardy, pulling a Neville Chamberlain in blackface—the list of accusations will be long and harsh.

Needless to say, Obama has his work cut out for him when it comes to global denuclearization. It is an improbable goal but a worthwhile one. The issue is to lead by example and to engage in the incremental doctrinal changes as well as physical reductions in tactical as well as strategic nuclear stockpiles. The US may have to initiate the process over internal political opposition, and it will have to engage multilateral partners for the initiative to spread. But if promises are a measure of intent and intent is followed by action, then perhaps the denuclearization project can be advanced beyond the rhetorical stage. That, as they say, is a tall order.


Paul G. Buchanan is a Visiting Associate Professor of Political Science at the National University of Singapore, on leave from the University of Auckland. He is also a member of the www.kiwipolitico.com collective.

ENDS

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