Jonathan Tepperman’s article in the September 7, 2009 issue of Newsweek, “Why Obama Should Learn to Love the Bomb,” provides a novel but frivolous argument that nuclear weapons “may not, in fact, make the world more dangerous….” Rather, in Tepperman’s world, “The bomb may actually make us safer.” Tepperman shares this world with Kenneth Waltz, a University of California professor emeritus of political science, who Tepperman describes as “the leading ‘nuclear optimist.’”
Waltz expresses his optimism in this way: “We’ve now had 64 years of experience since Hiroshima. It’s striking and against all historical precedent that for that substantial period, there has not been any war among nuclear states.” Actually, there were a number of proxy wars between nuclear weapons states, such as those in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan, and some near disasters, the most notable being the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Waltz’s logic is akin to observing a man falling from a high rise building, and noting that he had already fallen for 64 floors without anything bad happening to him, and concluding that so far it looked so good that others should try it. Dangerous logic!
Tepperman builds upon Waltz’s logic, and concludes “that all states are rational,” even though their leaders may have a lot of bad qualities, including being “stupid, petty, venal, even evil….” He asks us to trust that rationality will always prevail when there is a risk of nuclear retaliation, because these weapons make “the costs of war obvious, inevitable, and unacceptable.” Actually, he is asking us to do more than trust in the rationality of leaders; he is asking us to gamble the future on this proposition. “The iron logic of deterrence and mutually assured destruction is so compelling,” Tepperman argues, “it’s led to what’s known as the nuclear peace….” But if this is a peace worthy of the name, which it isn’t, it certainly is not one on which to risk the future of civilization. One irrational leader with control over a nuclear arsenal could start a nuclear conflagration, resulting in a global Hiroshima.
Tepperman celebrates “the iron logic of deterrence,” but deterrence is a theory that is far from rooted in “iron logic.” It is a theory based upon threats that must be effectively communicated and believed. Leaders of Country A with nuclear weapons must communicate to other countries (B, C, etc.) the conditions under which A will retaliate with nuclear weapons. The leaders of the other countries must understand and believe the threat from Country A will, in fact, be carried out. The longer that nuclear weapons are not used, the more other countries may come to believe that they can challenge Country A with impunity from nuclear retaliation. The more that Country A bullies other countries, the greater the incentive for these countries to develop their own nuclear arsenals. Deterrence is unstable and therefore precarious.
Most of the countries in the world reject the argument, made most prominently by Kenneth Waltz, that the spread of nuclear weapons makes the world safer. These countries joined together in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, but they never agreed to maintain indefinitely a system of nuclear apartheid in which some states possess nuclear weapons and others are prohibited from doing so. The principal bargain of the NPT requires the five NPT nuclear weapons states (US, Russia, UK, France and China) to engage in good faith negotiations for nuclear disarmament, and the International Court of Justice interpreted this to mean complete nuclear disarmament in all its aspects.
Tepperman seems to be arguing that seeking to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons is bad policy, and that nuclear weapons, because of their threat, make efforts at non-proliferation unnecessary and even unwise. If some additional states, including Iran, developed nuclear arsenals, he concludes that wouldn’t be so bad “given the way that bombs tend to mellow behavior.” Those who oppose Tepperman’s favorable disposition toward the bomb, he refers to as “nuclear pessimists.” These would be the people, and I would certainly be one of them, who see nuclear weapons as presenting an urgent danger to our security, our species and our future.
Tepperman finds that when viewed from his “nuclear optimist” perspective, “nuclear weapons start to seem a lot less frightening.” “Nuclear peace,” he tells us, “rests on a scary bargain: you accept a small chance that something extremely bad will happen in exchange for a much bigger chance that something very bad – conventional war – won’t happen.” But the “extremely bad” thing he asks us to accept is the end of the human species. Yes, that would be serious. He also doesn’t make the case that in a world without nuclear weapons, the prospects of conventional war would increase dramatically. After all, it is only an unproven supposition that nuclear weapons have prevented wars, or would do so in the future. We have certainly come far too close to the precipice of catastrophic nuclear war.
As an ultimate celebration of the faulty logic of deterrence, Tepperman calls for providing any nuclear weapons state with a “survivable second strike option.” Thus, he not only favors nuclear weapons, but finds the security of these weapons to trump human security. Presumably he would have President Obama providing new and secure nuclear weapons to North Korea, Pakistan and any other nuclear weapons states that come along so that they will feel secure enough not to use their weapons in a first-strike attack. Do we really want to bet the human future that Kim Jong-Il and his successors are more rational than Mr. Tepperman?