Opinion | The Age of Predatory Nuclear-Weapon States Has Arrived




  • In World
  • 2022-09-30 08:30:00Z
  • By Politico

Russia's invasion of Ukraine makes at least one thing clear: It's time for us to update how we think about nuclear weapons. For the first time in the nuclear era, one country used loudly issued nuclear threats - repeated just last week - to deter other countries from intervening in a large-scale conventional war of aggression. We have entered the age of "predatory nuclear-weapon states."

For political analysts and military officials, this is not an unexpected phenomenon. On the contrary, the concept falls under the so-called stability-instability paradox. Because the threat of nuclear war is so terrifying and the risk of annihilation so real, lower-level conflict actually becomes more feasible. One nuclear-armed country can undertake major conventional military action, expecting that its nuclear capability will prevent outside intervention. That is what's happening in Ukraine.

This is deeply problematic for international security. First, it is profoundly unjust. The world should not tolerate a status quo in which any nuclear-armed country can conduct conventional wars with impunity, slaughter tens of thousands and seize and annex territory, simply because its nuclear arsenal inhibits a strong military response. The international security system should not work that way.

Second, the fight for Ukraine significantly increases the likelihood of nuclear war. Many experts asserted that Russia would not invade Ukraine, yet it did, highlighting the very real risk that Russian President Vladimir Putin still could use nuclear weapons, particularly if Moscow continues to lose the war. President Joe Biden recently urged Putin not to use nuclear weapons - a move that would end an invaluable 77-year-long taboo and alter the course of history, with potentially horrific costs.

Third, the idea that nuclear deterrence plainly allows naked conventional aggression is not how most people think nuclear deterrence operates, nor how it should work. Most observers understand that deterrence is founded on the terrifying threat of nuclear annihilation, the ever-present risk of imminent death. Most wish the system was not in place, but they had become desensitized to the risk.

Ukraine changed that. Early on, nearly 70 percent of U.S. adults feared the invasion would lead to nuclear war - a reasonable, terrifying fear. It turns out nuclear weapons don't "keep the peace." Quite the contrary, they enable conventional conflicts where escalation to the "ultimate weapon" is entirely too possible.

Deterrence does work. Russian nuclear capabilities and threats are deterring the United States. The Pentagon even delayed the flight test of a nuclear-armed missile, concerned it could heighten tensions. This is the strongest argument for nuclear deterrence: It prevents wider conflicts like the two world wars that killed tens of millions.

But at what risk? The Ukraine war shows nuclear deterrence does not work as most imagined it, and the world is now a much more dangerous place than we thought. The risk of nuclear war leading to hundreds of millions of deaths is at its highest point in decades.

This fact could and should stimulate a shift in thinking about the value of nuclear weapons.

With that in mind, there are four paths the world could possibly take.

The first - and sadly most likely - is continuing the status quo, but that would be deeply dissatisfying. Prior to the Ukraine invasion, Russia, China and the United States were already improving or expanding their nuclear arsenals. Now some U.S. policymakers argue the United States needs more nuclear weapons, although their rationale is weak and counterproductive. The United States already has the most capable nuclear arsenal in the world, yet that did not stop Russia from invading Ukraine. How would more weapons help?

Another path could have countries like Brazil, Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Turkey acquiring nuclear weapons, leading to the collapse of the international nonproliferation regime and more countries following suit. With more countries armed, a nuclear war would happen sooner rather than later, with disastrous consequences.

A third option is to try to rid the world of the "problem states" that possess nuclear weapons. Supporters of this approach would promote regime change in China, North Korea and Russia to avoid wars like the one in Ukraine. That also would be a recipe for disaster. Despite Russia's unprovoked attack on Ukraine, many nations have not joined the West in condemning it. China, meanwhile, is integrated into the global economy, and North Korea is paranoid and on alert. It is not feasible to eliminate any of those governments.

That leaves a fourth possibility, the most promising and the most secure. Recognize that nuclear weapons are the problem, and rather than creating a more nuclear-armed world or ousting rogue governments that have nuclear weapons, the world needs to eliminate nuclear weapons. It will not happen quickly, and the world would have to develop a new, truly stabilizing security regime to replace the current system built upon nuclear deterrence, but that effort should be the focus of international efforts moving forward.

One place to start should be reforming the United Nations Security Council, where currently the five original nuclear-armed countries - China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States - have permanent veto power over efforts to end conflicts around the world. There cannot be a new security system until that arrangement ends.

A second is returning to arms control. That includes reaching bilateral U.S.-Russian agreements to cut nuclear arsenals (which will have to include limits on long-range missile defenses among other challenges); concluding two international agreements, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (two steps that would sharply hamper China's nuclear program); and building support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the only emerging success in the nuclear field.

Seventy-seven years ago, just two nuclear bombs ended World War II. Yet today nuclear-armed countries have more than 12,000 weapons, most of them far more destructive that the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It's now clear the risk of continued reliance on nuclear weapons for security is even more dangerous than anyone imagined. It is time to move beyond nuclear deterrence. That is the best hope for the future of humanity.

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