I recently read the latest debate between Kenneth Waltz and Scott Sagan over the stability of nuclear weapons and their further proliferation. Their fundamental disagreement is in their faith in states, and their leaders, to realise that the detonation of a nuclear weapon for anything even resembling an attack would be catastrophic. This means that states have to make sure they are in complete control of their arsenals. No accidents; never striking first; and the maintenance of deterrence are the essential requirements for stability of nuclear states.
Waltz believes in states to seek optimal outcomes and respect the national interests. It’s not really in the interests of any state to go off using nuclear weapons when the full force of the international community would bare down on them with little mercy. This could be with a nuclear strike in return – maybe if the initial attack was towards a nuclear capable state – but, if not, it would likely be something just as economically devastating. This is the same for accidental detonation, there is no “oops, my bad”. States and their leaders know this. This is why there hasn’t been mass proliferation, states are scared that they don’t have the organisational and technological know how to maintain an arsenal without it blowing up in their face.
Sagan thinks it is impossible that all nuclear proliferators have the capability to keep to the three requirements. After all, every state is different, with rulers and military officers that may see it necessary to strike first for security; Or organisations given the responsibility of the safety of the arsenal that can’t be trusted. He has little faith, no trust in a leader’s ability to realise the consequences of nuclear use. The stakes are much too high for a state to just ad-hoc their way to an arsenal without the provisions to minimise the costs of misfires. Take North Korea, they may seem unreliable but surely they know what faces them if they point their missile toward the wrong place. Escalation is not an option, the use of nuclear weapons would garner little support and many critics internationally.
Okay, so deterrence prevents states from nuclear strike. But deterrence doesn’t work for terrorists, they have no ‘homelands’. They also don’t have capability. Such small groups don’t have the resources to build enrichment centres, they’d have to rely on a state to hand over the goods. No state would do this. A nuclear attack by terrorists would be traced back to the supplier and so the fury of the international community would fall upon them. Why would a state entrust a product of such time and investment into an unreliable group, only for it to come back to bite them when their investments are used maliciously? They wouldn’t. Terrorists are going to have a very difficult time sourcing such terrible weapons for the foreseeable future. A risk may be if a nuclear state collapses (like the USSR did), unlikely – maybe North Korea?
So if nuclear weapons are no source of stability, as Sagan wants us to believe, then what are our alternatives? Nuclear zero seems the most popular, no nuclear weapons at all sounds good – It also sounds completely unreasonable and impossible. Nuclear states are not about to give up their deterrent, they are there for security and there is no replacement. Once a technology exists there is no hiding it away, especially when it has been around for the best part of a century and the internet exists. Complete disarmament would leave the globe open to a lone nuclear proliferator exerting power above their rank. Deterrence would no longer exist so there is nothing to stop nuclear use. How do you stop this? Preventive war against nuclear proliferators – that is a lot of war! If the aim of nuclear zero is to promote peace it is dumb, it will only incentivise war.
Nuclear weapons provide stability. They exist to deter high stake war, conventional and nuclear. There is no other way of doing this. It is reasonable to believe that leaders are sensible enough to know the damage that would be caused to their own state if they were to use a nuclear weapon aggressively – whether on purpose or not. They will not be used. A world with no nuclear weapons causes more problems than it fixes. Yes, it is odd that we have to rely on the existence of such devastating weapons to prevent devastating war, but we would not survive without them.