Nuclear Weapons

A Rebuttal to Brown and Deutch Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal

11.26.07 | 9 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

Arguments justifying the continuing existence of the world’s nuclear arsenals are like the tired joke about the joke convention. Many of these arguments have been with us for decades. Some made sense decades ago but do no longer, now that the Cold War is history. Others never made sense even during the Cold War but have, through sheer longevity, taken on a wholly undeserved intellectual authority. And some statements are not really logical arguments at all but merely catch-phrases that have been with us so long we no longer question their truth; indeed, we don’t even reflect on what, if anything, they actually mean. So one can, like at the joke convention, just shout out “Number 37!” and, instead of laughing, the wise ones of the nuclear establishment nod in sage agreement.

There would be some sense in holding defenders of the status quo to less stringent logical standards if those arguing for change, in this case those arguing for global nuclear prohibition, were arguing for something that had some hypothetical benefit but also clear risks, while those arguing for the status quo were arguing for staying with the safe bet we know. Anyone advocating any new, potentially risky course should be held to higher standards of proof. But the bet we know is not safe. There is one, and only one, danger that threatens our very existence as a nation and a society and that is Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal. The Russians can say the same about us. Having thousands of immensely powerful nuclear warheads on hair trigger alert twenty-four hours a day is a real and continuing danger. The fact that the world has been lucky so far does not make the danger any less real. Those arguing for continuing today’s nuclear force posture should not win their arguments by default; they should be held to as rigorous logical standards as those, like me, who argue that we should make every effort to move toward a global prohibition on nuclear weapons.

It is, therefore, immensely frustrating to read the recent op-ed, “The Nuclear Disarmament Fallacy,” by Harold Brown and John Deutch in the 19 November 2007 Wall Street Journal (p. A19), written as a counter to the earlier Wall Street Journal op-ed by Henry Kissinger et al. that argued for a campaign for nuclear prohibition. Even accepting the enforced shorthand of the op-ed format, Brown and Deutch do not make a logical case for staying the course.

The first, and the most pervasive, logical sleight of hand is the appeal to “deterrence.” What is deterrence? Apparently it is something that nuclear weapons just ooze. Or that they simply are. I have heard our submarine nuclear missiles referred to as our “sea-based deterrent.” The definition of deterrence seems to be that it is what you get when you have nuclear weapons; so if you want some of this deterrence stuff, you better get yourself some nuclear weapons. And deterrence, of course, is a good thing to have. Brown and Deutch write, “…it [nuclear prohibition] risks compromising the value that nuclear weapons continue to contribute, through deterrence, to U.S. security and international stability.” Therefore, we need nuclear weapons. Please, whenever anyone discusses “deterrence,” tell me what is being deterred and how.

Most discussions of nuclear “deterrence” are not about deterrence at all, they are about nuclear war fighting, or nuclear machismo, or nuclear revenge but let’s assume that when the authors say “deterrence” they mean deterrence. Deterrence by punishment is simple: if you try to grab something, I have to be able to inflict enough pain, or at least plausibly threaten to, to make the seizing of that thing a bad deal; then you will be deterred. I have written elsewhere that, if we want a nuclear arsenal, not for nuclear war fighting, but to deter attacks, particularly nuclear attacks, then the size of our nuclear arsenal should be tied the stakes involved. During the Cold War the stakes were the ideological future of the entire world and the nuclear arsenals were correspondingly huge. The plausible stakes in play among nations today are much smaller and the number of nuclear weapons should be correspondingly smaller.

If the Russians want to launch a thousand nuclear bombs at us, we want to respond with a thousand to make that seem like a bad idea, that is, to deter them. Right? But why are they launching weapons at us? What are their war goals? What prize are they trying to sieze? How do we make seizing that prize seem like a bad idea? Perhaps, based on their war goal, we do not need to launch a thousand but only one. If we need to launch one and we actually launch a thousand, that is not deterrence, that is revenge. Perhaps what we want is revenge but then we should say that and not muddy the argument by calling it something else. Unless nuclear defenders can tell me what this hypothetical conflict is all about—and I am not asking for specifics, just some, any, example—then there is no way I can even know whether I need nuclear weapons, much less how many.

Another common logical lacuna is to make some theoretically appealing case for nuclear weapons and then jump to the conclusion that we need more or less the nuclear force structure we have today. The authors say, “…the U.S. can safely reduce the total inventory of nuclear weapons to the lowest number needed for the purpose of deterrence. This number is likely to be considerably below the present stockpile of over 8,000 weapons.” That hedging “likely” hints strongly to me that the number they have in mind is not 99% less than the 8,000 we have today. If I match my nuclear forces to the stakes in play today, then I imagine we might be able to make do with ten nuclear weapons; to be on the safe side we could double it to twenty. Nuclear advocates will respond that my number implies that I am going to use my nuclear forces to flatten cities, to use these horrendous weapons to inflict pain on the enemy by massacring innocents. No, they respond, nuclear deterrence is far subtler than that. Attacks on cities are immoral so we have to be more discriminating. Alright, I accept that argument. But now what are the targets? Power stations? Oil refineries? These targets can be attacked with conventional weapons. Why do I need to threaten with nuclear weapons to deter if I am not going to fully exploit what nuclear weapons are best at: turning cities into balls of flame and killing civilians by the millions? Some might respond that there are important targets that are not vulnerable to conventional weapons, for example, hardened enemy missile silos, but if the missiles are still inside then that sounds more like nuclear preemption, not deterrence. True, I might threaten nuclear preemption to deter conventional attack but that is not what most Americans have in mind when they hear “nuclear deterrence.” Moreover, if the enemy hides some valued assets in deep caves, I cannot destroy them but that does not matter. The enemy does not get to choose how I inflict my deterring pain, I do. Just so long as there is something vulnerable that I can hurt, which in every society includes its industry and society, then I can have something to threaten for the sake of deterrence. Whenever and wherever we scratch the surface, get beyond vague appeals for “deterrence,” the arguments for having nuclear weapons come apart.

The authors go on to write: “A nation that wishes to acquire nuclear weapons believes these weapons will improve its security. The declaration by the U.S. that it will move to eliminate nuclear weapons in a distant future will have no direct effect on changing this calculus. Indeed, nothing that the U.S. does to its nuclear posture will directly influence such a nation’s (let alone a terrorist group’s) calculus.

Everything about this statement is wrong.

The first sentence is true only because it is tautological.

The second sentence is puzzling on several counts. First, it counters one of the main arguments for U.S. nuclear forces, that our nuclear weapons are a strong force for limiting nuclear proliferation. It is only a robust U.S. nuclear umbrella, so the argument goes, that keeps the Japanese, Taiwanese, and Koreans from going nuclear; that is, our nuclear forces have a very powerful, and positive, effect on other countries’ nuclear decision. But the authors are really arguing that we must keep nuclear weapons because of the inevitability of other countries’ having them; in other words, other nations’ possession of nuclear weapons drives our decisions but our possession is irrelevant to their decisions. Curious. This may be true but such a peculiar asymmetric result bears explaining.

One explanation of the asymmetry might be that, for example, in the case of Pakistan and India, they are looking at each other not at the United States. In the cases of Iran and North Korea, however, the nuclear programs are probably quite strongly motivated as a counter to the United States. But here too it may be true that the structure of our nuclear forces is irrelevant because Iran and North Korea are developing their weapons as a counter to our conventional military capability. To say that our decisions about our nuclear forces will not affect their nuclear calculus is to admit that our nuclear forces are neither a response to nor a counter to their nuclear forces. Iran and North Korea might develop biological and chemical weapons but that does not mean we must develop biological and chemical weapons as a counter or balance just as our nuclear weapons are not an appropriate response to their nuclear weapons.

The last sentence may be true depending on how one defines “directly.” But consider this situation: Imagine the big nuclear powers, in particular, the United States, Russia, and China, have decided to eliminate nuclear weapons. Now imagine that a little fifth rate country like North Korea starts a nuclear program. When its only ally, China, gently takes North Korea aside and explains that nuclear weapons simply will not do, isn’t it at least plausible that such a bit of advice would carry particularly strong weight coming from a country that has just rid itself of its nuclear arsenal? I believe that changes in our nuclear forces and particularly our nuclear doctrine can have “direct” influence on other countries’ decisions.

Finally, I have to note the parenthetical reference to terrorist groups. Stating that terrorist groups are going to try to get nuclear weapons—even if we plan to get rid of ours—sneakily implies that somehow our nuclear weapons are a response to nuclear terror. If by “terrorist groups” we mean non-state actors, will someone please explain to me what are the nuclear targets involved? What is the role for nuclear weapons in deterrence of terrorist attack? And finally, the authors are flatly wrong: national nuclear arsenals are important to terrorist bombs because, by far, the most likely way for terrorists to get a nuclear bomb is to steal the materials or a complete bomb from some nation’s nuclear weapons program.

Another curious unexplained asymmetry is that the authors say we cannot give nuclear weapons up ourselves but we should make every effort to limit their further proliferation. I do not agree with Ken Waltz that a world of many, even mostly, nuclear powers would be so circumspect that it would actually be safer but at least it has a certain “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” consistency. Presumably the best possible world from the perspective of Brown and Deutch is that only the United States have nuclear weapons. But if that is not going to happen, they fail to explain why it is that we must have nuclear weapons and how we are still going to convince the rest of the world to give them up, presumably for our, not their, benefit.

Upon close reading, this essay by Brown and Deutch, like so many other calls to rally the nuclear troops, depends on an appeal to cliché, to tired arguments left over from the Cold War, to seemingly profound but ultimately ungrounded theoretical arguments that cannot find any handhold in the real world. Here is a compromise: Let’s not get rid of nuclear weapons; let’s take the nuclear advocates at their word and agree that nuclear weapons are needed for deterrence (and actual deterrence of nuclear attack, not war fighting, not preemption, not revenge, not prestige); let’s make realistic evaluations about how many nuclear weapons that deterrence will require, and, when the answer turns out to be a dozen or so, let’s get down to a dozen or so and then I will wait a year before haranguing again for zero.