March 26, 2005

A Blessed 60 Years

Fred Ikle:

That event [the first use of the atomic bomb], by the way, caused a profound emotional reaction among hard-nosed, seasoned, political leaders. President Truman, Dean Acheson. It's riveting to read what they said after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And also in the second Eisenhower administration. Dwight Eisenhower himself and John Foster Dulles. And mind you, their emotional reaction was not some feeling of triumph, pride of America having built the bomb first. But a sense of deep concern and foreboding. You probably recall that right after Hiroshima and Nagasaki in '45, military historians asserted that every new powerful weapon has eventually been used in war and so they predicted the atomic bomb would also be used. Now instead we can look back on 60 years of the most extraordinary, most unique revolution in military affairs that I think you'll find anywhere in military history. Namely the uninterrupted non-use of nuclear weapons, the most powerful weapons now in the arsenals of eight countries. At first blush perhaps you'll find this point time-worn and trite. Please reconsider. It's not trite. What happened is that we all became habituated to nuclear non-use among nations. We almost assume it's the law of nature. We do not realize that we are walking on thin ice and the ice is getting thinner because of proliferation.

I'm alluding here not primarily to the often-mentioned threat of nuclear terrorism, but rather to the more pervasive instability of the international system. What I have in mind is illustrated by the agonizing choice that statesmen have to face frequently in deciding between appeasement and escalation. Rolf already referred to that. Presidents, Prime Ministers, often have to agonize, fearing they may be called another Neville Chamberlain, another Munich agreement, or fearing, conversely, that they be condemned by history for dragging the nation into another Vietnam, another quagmire. Now imagine that a serious nuclear use has suddenly occurred, say between India and Pakistan, or between Iran and Iraq, or Iran and Israel, or between North Korea and South Korea, or North Korea and Japan. If that happened, the whole global security system would be transformed within a split second, leaving no time for long consultations, whether or how to counter-attack, whether to appease or to escalate. And it would leave no solution, akin to the Cuban Missile Crisis solution, where it was possible, essentially, to restore the status quo. Once the era of non-nuclear use should end, all the strategic expectations and military plans will radically change. We remember the radical change after a much lesser event, 9/11. We look at the world differently. So do the European nations, Asian nations. But this would be a much bigger change intellectually. So what can a prudent government do? How could we get back on dry land after the thin ice of nuclear non-use suddenly has been shattered? Is it possible to be better prepared for such an awful contingency? Maybe it is. Contrary to what people read into the official 9/11 report -- read into it, not what the authors wrote into it, Secretary Lehman. What they read into it wrongly. The morning after September 11 our government was well prepared. They'd made mistakes in the past. We were well prepared not by having implemented effective measures, surely not. But in terms of our intellectual preparation thanks to the Hart/Rudman Report, the Bremer Report, and many other studies by private think tanks and government, Congress and the executive branch pretty well knew what to do on September 12, 2001. So maybe we ought to think whether we might gain a broader, more historic perspective to comprehend the enormity of what I call the most unique revolution in military affairs, the global non-use of a most powerful weapon and alas, plentiful, plentiful weapon. As long as the situation continues, we are on familiar ground. We usually refer to this familiar terrain as mutual deterrence or whatever you call it. To be sure, we are somewhat less clear about deterrence and terrorism, but it's a lesser case. [emphasis added]

We often forget how immensely lucky we have been that no atomic weaponry has been used, anywhere, since WWII for some six long decades. There was nothing foreordained about this--and there is nothing foreordained about their non-use going forward that should give us false comfort. Like Ikle, I think that we often think too much about the specter of nuclear horror emanating from an al-Qaeda like attack. This is a real risk, yes, but there remains plenty of instability in the state system itself, above and beyond the real threat of transnational terror groups, that could lead to state actors employing nuclear weaponry. Yes, the sheer horror of these weapons and doctrines like mutually assured destruction are helpful in all this in terms of deterrence. But I agree with Ikle that more thought at places like the CSIS and Brookings of the world should be given to what the world would look like, say, the day after North Korea lobbed a nuclear warhead at Osaka. It seems improbable perhaps in the extreme, but so were the Twin Towers crumbling to the ground. History is never neat and we still cannot be sure the 21st Century will be less bloody than the 20th. The specter of nuclear terrorism or state use of nuclear weaponry is one of the biggest reasons why. Above and beyond the critical attention that needs to be paid to non-proliferation regimes and efforts (would counter-proliferation be a more macho way to put it?)--more thought also needs to go into what happens if such efforts fail. A Hart-Rudman kinda report on this issue would be worthy reading indeed, no? Does anything like this exist? Please send in links if I'm missing such analyses and they are readily available.

Posted by Gregory at March 26, 2005 10:05 PM | TrackBack (17)

You'll find something apropos in there I'm sure.

But wasn't Bush that decided to scuttle nuclear verification treaties?

Posted by: avedis at March 28, 2005 09:00 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I think it is extremely likely that if the atomic bomb had not been used at the end of WWII it would have been used at some point in the future, when more than one country had it. Of course, the use of the atomic bomb in WWII accelerated the acquisition of nuclear weapons by various countries around the world.

Posted by: ATM at March 29, 2005 12:18 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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