Year XLVII, 2005, Number 2, Page 92

 

 

FOUR SHORT REFLECTIONS ON THE RISK OF NUCLEAR PROLIFERATION
 
 
Globalisation is producing such an intricate network of economic, social and cultural interdependency, as to give rise to statements such as “there are powerful reasons why wars among great powers should vanish: they are costly, economically ruinous and inimical to the interests of the majority of the population… Democracies can, consequently, create international institutions and procedures, to manage conflict.”[1] In this light, the prospect, on the one hand, of suffering very serious losses or destruction, if not outright annihilation, in the case of nuclear conflict, and on the other the advantages arising from the expansion of trade along with the assertion and diffusion of democracy should be reason enough in themselves to persuade States not to go to war.
But as even recent historical experience shows, the advent of the atomic age did indeed introduce an important deterrent against recourse to war, at least directly between nuclear powers, but it did not make wars impossible, not even the so-called wars by proxy, nor did it eliminate preparations for war and their corollary, the arms race, promoted amongst other things precisely by the manifold channels of trade and information exchange opened up by globalisation.
With this in mind we can make four brief observations.
 
1. The arms race and the risk of nuclear proliferation depend on the evolution of the balance of world power and of globalisation. In the second half of the Nineteen Eighties, the end of the Cold War had brought about great expectations about the possibility of starting a new phase of international detente based on security increasingly guaranteed by reciprocal trust between States and international collaboration, and increasingly less reliant on power relations. The material basis for these expectations was represented by the Reagan-Gorbachev agreements for the start of the reduction in US and USSR nuclear arsenals and by the cooperation between the two superpowers in strengthening international bodies and the UN in particular.
In the Nineties the First Gulf War, the disintegration of the USSR and Yugoslavia and the conflicts in Africa, demonstrated the fragility of the premises on which those expectations were based. But increasing globalisation in trade, communications, and production, with the inevitable results in terms of the increased economic, social and cultural interdependence of all peoples, still kept the hope alive, if not for the advent of a new era in relations between States, at least for an age of “cold peace”.[2]
The first five years of this new Century also served to smash these hopes: international terrorism, two wars — first in Afghanistan then in Iraq—, the decisive assertion of Pakistan as a nuclear power, the likely accomplishment of North-Korea’s nuclear military programme and the recovery of the Iranian one, showed, as if proof was still needed, that the world has indeed changed, but not to the point where States can preclude preparation for war and having to call on their own citizens to fight one.
 
2. The possession of nuclear weapons and the threat of their use remains linked to the possibility of war between States. The return to the nuclear arms race was a danger greatly feared by the very strategists of American deterrence in the last Century. Bernard Brodie, one of the theoreticians of US nuclear strategy, had been denouncing the risk of nuclear proliferation since the Forties. Brodie acknowledged that the final solution to the problem consisted in creating a world government, but he was convinced that during the inevitably long and uneven transition phase towards that goal, an increasing number of States would have acquired nuclear weapons in order to guarantee its own security by itself and if necessary in order to threaten that of others. Therefore, according to Brodie, following the dropping of the first atomic bombs there was a pressing need to answer three questions: could nuclear weapons become a deterrent to war? Would it have been possible to prevent their use? Would it have been possible to make the results of their use acceptable? “The problem of atomic bomb”, wrote Brodie in 1945, “is inseparable from the problem of war, and instruments for the control of the bomb are useful mostly in so far as they reduce the likelihood of war. The strengthening of international machinery for the preservation of peace can be greatly accelerated by the sense of greater urgency which the atomic bomb produces, and the United States must spare no endeavour to assist such a movement. But so long as nations remain to a large degree sovereign and independent, no machinery can be a substitute for a wisely oriented and skilfully directed diplomacy.”[3] International control of nuclear weapons according to Brodie should have developed on three levels: free circulation of information, to make data relating to the search for and production of nuclear material available to all; a limitation in the number of nuclear weapons; the progressive abolition of nuclear weapons production. But no sooner had the Baruch plan to create a World Authority for the control of nuclear energy failed, that it became immediately clear that, of the three levels indicated by Brodie, only the first would have had any likelihood of being partially undertaken at the international level. This is in fact what happened over the subsequent decades, which saw the creation of various audit and control bodies and the drawing up of innumerable international treaties, which were neither able to limit production nor begin the process of abolishing nuclear weapons. These last two levels of control, relating respectively to the containment and to the final abolition of nuclear weapons, were not and are still not even conceivable without an effective transfer of sovereignty at the world level.[4] Having acknowledged this impasse, one could only accept coexisting with the risk of nuclear conflict, trying to prevent it by making it unacceptable from the point of view of its destructive consequences.
In such a situation, deterrence, the deterrere reges proelio of the Romans, that is to say the threat of the use of a terrible weapon or retaliation in order to prevent war, was for Brodie the only means with which to dissuade States from undertaking a military conflict that could not have produced any winners.[5] But what was the minimum level of nuclear weapons that a State had to own in order to exercise deterrence? The reply of the USA and the USSR to this question was an unrestrained race to strengthen their respective nuclear arsenals, already in the Fifties and Sixties. This first age of nuclear proliferation, as another American strategist, McGeorge Bundy, explained had a very specific cause: the enormous imbalance of forces, especially conventional, that had been established on the European continent between the Soviet superpower and the weak Western European States.[6] The result was that, at least on the European continent, the definition of the boundary between conventional and nuclear war became progressively more uncertain and ambiguous: The balance of terror prevented war between the USA and the USSR in Europe, but at the cost of making recourse to nuclear weapons conceivable even in local conflicts and to justify the possession of vast nuclear arsenals in order to make deterrence effective.[7]
 
3. Imbalances in power relations between States feed both deterrence and nuclear proliferation. Nuclear proliferation did not involve an increasing number of States, as it was feared in the Sixties, fundamentally for three different reasons, the first political, the second technological and the third military.
As long as the world order depended ultimately on the power relations between the USA and the USSR in a well defined region of the world, Europe, the phenomenon of nuclear proliferation outside of the two superpowers, although already underway, served to strengthen one or the other zone of influence, but it had no independent strategic value, either at the regional level, or at the global level. Furthermore, since most countries did not have the possibility of developing independent nuclear programs, due to the difficulty of finding or producing the components required for the assembly of nuclear devices, the carriers needed to transport them, and the high costs that such a policy would have entailed, de facto proliferation remained limited to Russian or American zones of influence. But as soon as the end of the bipolar balance of power brought together worlds that until then had been separate both in terms of trade and of the transfer of ever cheaper and more easily accessible technologies, the danger of nuclear proliferation and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction became concrete and began to redefine the power relations between States that have since then come out of the rigid framework of the bipolar equilibrium. Against this background, the UN, the agreements made in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna could not have played a very different role from that foreseen by Brodie in his day.[8] But, on the basis of historical experience, it could not have been conceivable that the world would accept for very long that the USA would be the only power to decide where, when and how to carry out justice and guarantee order. So over the last decade a process of reaction to excessive American power has come about that has had some implications even for deterrence and nuclear proliferation. In substance, just as the USA did not hesitate to contemplate the use of nuclear weapons in Europe to counteract the conventional superiority of the USSR throughout the Cold War, so many countries began to develop military programs aimed at counteracting American conventional superiority. As they did so they laid the foundations of a second age of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction linked to missile rearmament and terrorism.[9] This is clearly a turning point in relations between States, which introduces a further element of danger compared to past competition between the USA and the USSR, since it raises the stakes and increases the possible errors of evaluation of a situation of danger that anyone government could make.
The consequence has been that the USA, themselves feeling threatened, disproportionately increased their military expenditure — which now exceed those of China, the European countries and Russia put together.[10] But this has induced those countries who in turn felt threatened by overwhelming American power or that simply did not want to depend on US policy, to accelerate their rearmament programs, even nuclear, in the attempt to discourage, i.e. deter, the Americans from acting against them.
 
4. The absence of a European pole increases the perception of worldwide imbalances of power and, the more this void becomes a constant in international relations, the more difficult it becomes to defuse the time-table of the rearmament race, conventional or otherwise. We have already hinted at the fact that the non-Europe of the Fifties encouraged nuclear proliferation under the Soviet-American umbrella. More recently the non-Europe of the end of the Cold War, appointing the USA as super armed international policeman, encouraged the birth of a climate of unbalanced competition between the USA and the rest of the world. If a European Federal State had existed in the Fifties, it is reasonable to think that it would have been in its interest to make relations between the USA and the USSR less conflictual and to promote cooperation between the two blocs. It is also reasonable to think that if the European Federal State had existed in the Nineties, it would have had been in its interest to share with the USA, China and Russia the responsibility of contributing to prevent the drive towards fragmentation in various regions of the world (especially in the Balkans) and to reduce the hotbeds of tension in the Middle East and in Africa. If today we find ourselves in a sort of more or less nuclear Far West, this is largely due to the absence of a European pole.
Therefore one can affirm, as regards nuclear proliferation and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, that the greatest risk for the world and for Europe is not about whether and how anyone State will obtain those weapons in the near future, but in which world system States this phenomenon will unfold. There are clear signals that with the bipolar equilibrium even the different factors that had characterised it are set to crumble. One only needs to consider that, in the current situation, even in countries that were defeated in the Second World War and which up to now had been denied the possibility of rearming, like Japan, a debate is opening up again about the opportunity to reassert their own national military autonomy. Similarly, whilst the USA are trying to prevent and counteract nuclear proliferation, we are witnessing the signing of US-Indian bilateral agreements for the transfer of nuclear technologies that, besides their regional strategic value, are destined to open a new front, not easily controllable, for proliferation itself.[11]
The question which Europeans must therefore try and answer is the following: how can Europe contribute to making the present world system of States come out of the greatly unbalanced regime of multipolarism in which it is found and to promote a more balanced one, in which no pole can or has to carry out, alone, the task of ultimate guarantor of its own and others’ security on a regional and global scale?[12]
In order to begin to rise to this challenge, Europeans should start to draw on the consequences of two facts that are by now hanging over their future and that can be summarised as follows: the end of American protection of Europe and the crisis of the European integration model. The first fact is the result of the inevitable process of wearing down facing American power: in so far as the USA are going to be increasingly less able to guarantee security and to prevent the arms race in most of the world, they will be no longer even be able to guarantee stability and order in Europe, nor will they be interested in tying their own security to that of the Europeans. The second fact on the other hand is the consequence of the wearing down of a model of regional integration, that of the European Community, which was not able to consolidate itself into a political union, and which against a background of unbalanced multipolarism like the present one, risks being first shattered and then overwhelmed by economic and military crises that will occur precisely due to the contradictions and the precariousness that this world order generates.
If they truly wish to start contributing to making the world change course, helping themselves and America to lay the foundations of a world system of States capable of attenuating the risks of new conflicts and to re-launch cooperation between the different regions of the planet, Europeans must replace the pseudo-diplomacy of the European Union and that based on the initiatives of a few small groups of States, with the foreign and defence policy of a European Federal State, which includes the nuclear component and the redefinition of relations with the USA.
Only once at least just a first group of countries shows itself capable of taking such a step, will Europe begin to exist.
 
Franco Spoltore


[1] Thus said Martin Wolf, in “China’s rise need not conflict”, Financial Times, 14 September 2005.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Bernard Brodie, “The Atomic Bomb and American Security” (1945), in US Nuclear Strategy, by Philip Bobbit, Lawrence Freedman and Gregory F. Treverton, London 1989.
[4] Bemard Baruch, The Public Years, Odham Press limited, London 1961.
[5] “A policy which offers a good promise of deterring war is therefore by orders of magnitude better in every way than one which depreciates the objective of deterrence in order to improve somewhat the chances of winning”, Bernard Brodie, in Strategy in the Missile Age (1959), quoted by McGeorge Bundy in “Strategic Deterrence Thirty Years Later: What has changed?” (1980), in US Nuclear Strategy, op. cit.
[6] McGeorge Bundy, op. cit.
[7] The Commission on Integrated Long-Term Strategy, January 1988, in US Nuclear Strategy, cit. On the logic that still justifies the retention of thousands of warheads by the USA, there is an interesting testimony given a few years ago by a member of the US Congress, William M. Thomberry: “The lower we make the threshold for becoming a world power, the more tempting it becomes. There may not be an appreciable difference whether the U.S. has 7,000 or 4,000 weapons. Even 2,500 weapons may seem unreachable for an emerging nuclear power with a few dozen weapons on hand. But matching a U.S. stockpile of 500 or 1000 weapons may seem much closer and much more achievable, both practically and psychologically. We do not want to lower the bar so much that others are encouraged to try to jump up and reach it particularly those who see nuclear weapons as a shortcut to global influence.” Congressman William M. “Mac” Thomberry (R, Texas), The Washington Times, 15 June 2001. Note that the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT, or “Moscow Treaty” of 2002) aims to reduce the arsenals of the USA and Russia to about 2000 warheads. SORT also guarantees the USA and Russia maintain possession of unspecified non-operating arsenals, but ones re-deployable in just a matter of hours.
[8] I.C. Oelrich, Institute for Defense Analyses, Sizing Post-Cold War Nuclear Forces, October 2001, 1801 N. Beauregard Street, Alexandria, Virginia. See also the article by Stephen Fidler which appeared on the Financial Times on 22 May 2005 commenting of the periodical meeting of the countries adhering to the Non-proliferation Treaty, “Why nuclear containment is breaking down”.
[9] “The Chinese military, for example, might be viewed as at the technological level of the U.S. military in the 1960s when tactical nuclear capabilities were at their peak. Indeed, the Chinese might have difficulty sinking an American aircraft carrier in the Taiwan Strait except with nuclear”, says Ivan Oerlich in “Nuclear Weapons after the Cold War” Occasional Paper no. 3, January 2005, Federation of American Scientists.
[10] The doctrine of preventive war is a response to this logic as revealed by a study carried out by the Pentagon and disseminated by The Washington Post, in the article by Walter Pincus, “Pentagon Revises Nuclear Strike Plan, Strategy Includes Preemptive Use Against Banned Weapons”, 11 September, 2005.
[11] Zia Mian and M. V. Ramana, “Feeding the Nuclear Fire”, in Foreign Policy in Focus, September 20, 2005.
[12] About the fact that cooperation between regional organisations of States represents a way out of this impasse, there is also agreement from diplomatic advisors of the calibre of Richard N. Haass. Their limitation is that they consider NATO, the present European Union, and ASEAN, for example, to be interlocutors capable of affirming and defending an alternative policy to that of the USA, but this clearly cannot happen. See Richard N. Haass, “The Opportunity: America’s Moment to Alter History’s Course”, Public Affairs, June 2005.

 

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