By Theodore Couloumbis, Bill Ahlstrom & Gary Weaver
The recent signing of the new Russian-U.S. strategic arms reduction treaty launches a month of intense activity focused on reducing the threats of nuclear conflict and nuclear terrorism and tightening control over nuclear materiel and technologies.
Regardless of outcomes, this reflects the new dynamics driving the original nuclear club of the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, and China toward coordinated policies and actions.
What are those new dynamics?
This is a very different world from the early Cold War, or the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, or the 1991 Soviet Union collapse – a world made stark by the terrorist attacks on the U.S., Madrid and London, on Mumbai and Moscow, as well as by North Korean nuclear weapons and missile tests, and Iranian missile tests coupled with hidden uranium enrichment plants.
Bomb-building knowledge is readily available on the Internet, and nuclear technology masquerades in multiple uses. Nuclear weapons materiel is relatively less – but still dangerously – accessible. Well-financed terrorist groups with a gleam in their suicidal eye abound, and as Pakistan’s chief nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan proved, everyone and everything has a price.
The major powers, including the European Union (two of whose members are nuclear-armed), are threatened by various extremist and terrorist groups that have the potential of building or buying a nuclear bomb, or a less destructive but still horrific “dirty bomb” that uses conventional explosives to scatter highly radioactive material in a city.
The major powers no longer are focused on deterring military action among themselves. The new U.S.-Russian START treaty signed last week recognizes that minimal deterrence and assured second strike capability with siloed and submarine-based missiles is sufficient. Today the fear is that the new actors will not be deterred by threat of retaliation, or, in the case of terrorist groups and non-state actors, no place could be identified to retaliate against.
Direct major power military conflict – even conventional – is highly unlikely in current conditions and will remain so as long as none of them becomes aggressively revisionist. Globalization has inextricably intertwined the stability and prosperity of the established powers and the emerging major powers – as starkly demonstrated by the collapse of the financial system. This tends to restrain revisionist tendencies. (Although revisionism could be tempting in extreme conditions brought about by climate change, for example.)
Among the major powers, strategy is shifting to preventing successful attacks from terrorist groups or rogue states. President Obama's statement on the release of the updated U.S. Nuclear Posture Review emphasized that “… the greatest threat to U.S. and global security is no longer a nuclear exchange between nations, but nuclear terrorism by violent extremists and nuclear proliferation to an increasing number of states.“
As a result, there are two overriding priorities for the major powers: Building a Russian-American-European-Chinese consensus that active defense against rogue-state and terrorist nuclear attacks is in their common interest, and taking concerted action to prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons and delivery systems. While different, the two are inseparable.
How can the major powers respond to these new dynamics and deal with this significantly different nuclear future?
First, aggressively prevent the spread of nuclear materiel and technologies. Enhanced controls over nuclear technologies and materiel should effectively put both out of the reach of rogue states and terrorist groups. Theoretical knowledge about how to build a weapon is one thing … and uncontrollable in the Internet age. Weapons-grade materiel and the technologies to create and use it are something else – and quite controllable. Significant, collective controls over dual-use technologies must be agreed and enforced by the major powers, including against their own businesses as well as international black marketeers.
Second, collaboratively develop and deploy advanced technologies and defense systems that can prevent missile attacks and cross-border trafficking in weapons-capable nuclear materiel and bombs. The U.S. should make available its anti-missile technology to any major power that wants to deploy it. All the major powers should cooperate on developing and deploying advanced detection technology to secure national borders against smuggled bombs and fissile material. Relevant intelligence sharing, including commercial intelligence, should be aggressively expanded.
While deterrence has ceased to dominate U.S.-Russian relations, it was in part the justification for both India and Pakistan to develop their nuclear weapons – to deter China, but also each other.
Deterrence and defense are both arguably still relevant for Israel -- a known but not acknowledged nuclear power. Israel can credibly threaten conventional or nuclear retaliation for any attack from another state. And it has multiple methods of preventing such attacks from states and terrorist groups through deployment of anti-missile defenses and advanced detection technologies, and its willingness to use force. But its willingness to preemptively destroy suspected nuclear facilities in its neighbors is not an ultimate defense -- merely a delaying tactic.
If the deterrence and defense argument works for Israel, so too can Iran argue that having nuclear weapons would deter American invasion and regime change a la Iraq with a nuclear threat against American energy interests in the Middle East. While the major powers and the UN Security Council can make it difficult, if Iran is determined to secure nuclear weapons, it will do so. Iranian and Israeli nuclear weapons might create a new, regional deterrence scenario of mutual assured destruction leading to a standoff. But it would also most likely trigger an accelerated arms race involving Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both of whom would rightfully feel threatened by nuclear-equipped Iranian forces. And the nuclear arsenal in an unstable Pakistan remains a wildcard.
The stability and territorial integrity of the entire Middle East is at risk if Israel preemptively attacks Iranian nuclear installations, or if Iran launches any major attack on Israel, nuclear or conventional, and Israel retaliates with nuclear or conventional arms.
Extending major power guarantees of the territorial integrity of the entire Middle East is a potential way of dealing with these complexities. The major powers should jointly guarantee the territorial integrity of all states in the Middle East, and extend anti-missile coverage to those who desire it while keeping these defensive umbrellas under their own control. A separate American guarantee of Israeli territorial integrity, perhaps matched by a European or Russian guarantee for Iran, would bolster the guarantees’ credibility.
The major nuclear powers should all adopt the stance taken in the new U.S. Nuclear Posture Review: “[to] not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations … [while a non-nuclear state] that uses chemical or biological weapons … would face the prospect of a devastating conventional military response ….“ This updates a position first advocated by President Eisenhower in 1957.
American and Russian leadership, as it emerged in the new START treaty, can catalyse concerted action, drawing in Europe and China. Certainly the collaboration of the U.S. and Russia on decreasing their own stockpiles gives both a more persuasive position in convincing other nations to restrict nuclear weapons. Some collaboration may best be institutionalized in the UN Security Council, or in other forums, such as the nonproliferation regime. Any and all available avenues should be used.
Major power actions should be directed at inducing cooperation from North Korea, India, and Pakistan to renounce (North Korea) or reduce (India and Pakistan) their nuclear weapons programs. And at persuading other potential nuclear powers, such as Brazil and South Africa, that they have nothing to gain from nuclear arms.
While highly unlikely that we will see nuclear weapons disappear from our world in the foreseeable future, restricting their further spread and controlling nuclear weapons technologies and materiel is an urgent task calling for major power leadership to accelerate global action.
Atomic weapons changed everything in 1945. We were just not sure how.
From the 65 years of the nuclear era, during the time of most intense global competition short of world war, we have learned how to live with nuclear weapons. We have also learned how to work realistically toward a world without them once again.