Rethinking the Role of Nuclear Weapons

By Gompert, David C. | Strategic Forum, May 1998 | Go to article overview

Rethinking the Role of Nuclear Weapons


Gompert, David C., Strategic Forum


Conclusion

In the new era, the United States does not need to rely on nuclear weapons to prevent a global challenger from upsetting the status quo, to compensate for weakness in conventional defense, or to impress others of its power. While the threat of nuclear response to conventional attack is no longer crucial to U.S. strategy, there is a mounting danger that rogue states might adopt this tactic to deter U.S. power projection. At the same time, the United States does need nuclear weapons to deter not only nuclear attack but also biological attack, which could be just as deadly and which might not be deterred by the threat of U.S. conventional retaliation. The United States should aim to reduce the importance and attractiveness of nuclear weapons, to delegimitize their use in response to conventional threats, yet also to sharpen nuclear deterrence against biological weapons. It could do this by stating that it would use nuclear weapons only in retaliation for attacks with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in essence, a no-first-use-of-WMD policy.

Introduction

The reduction of U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals suggests that such weapons have a reduced role in world affairs. But what that role should be is unclear. Should nuclear weapons be available only to prevent nuclear war or, instead, to underpin global security? The two concepts have divergent implications. If nuclear weapons have any use beyond retaliation for nuclear attack, the danger of nuclear war is bound to be higher. Conversely, lowering the danger of nuclear violence weakens the utility of the fear that that danger produces.

In the Cold War, the fear of nuclear war was used by the United States to engender caution and stability. Had it not been for that fear, the 20th century might have had three world wars instead of two. The nuclear standoff parity between arsenals large enough to assure mutual destruction negated the nuclear threat of each superpower and thus the likelihood of nuclear war. Yet, simultaneously, the Americans shrewdly negated that negation, on their side, by threatening to use nuclear weapons if need be to block any Soviet aggression. Fearing for their way of life, they risked nuclear war, potentially annihilation, to buttress the status quo.

In a world transformed, do we still need to parlay the fear of nuclear war in order to secure U.S. interests and international peace? The American way of life is not threatened; rather, it is on the march. Because the main current of change globalization promotes its interests and ideals, the United States no longer wants to freeze the international situation. U.S. technological and conventional military capabilities instill confidence in means other than nuclear weapons to thwart aggression.

Should we therefore embrace the opposite of the U.S. Cold-War philosophy about nuclear weapons, disengaging them from international security and military strategy, reserving them strictly to ensure that nuclear war never occurs? Is this Humankind's chance to eradicate nuclear fear, even if the weapons themselves cannot be eradicated? The problem with such a smooth and alluring idea is that international peace and U.S. interests might suffer, in very real ways, if the fear of nuclear war is nullified.

The hot debate about whether to abolish nuclear weapons is less important than the abolitionists think. Nuclear weapons are here to stay period. The more practical argument over the right size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal will be bracketed by a few thousand warheads at the high end and a few hundred at the low end. That difference matters less for U.S. interests and international security, including whether nuclear weapons are used again, than the more fundamental question: Should nuclear weapons have any purpose other than to prevent nuclear war?

Let us not bureaucratically extend the deterrence concept of the first phase of the nuclear age while claiming that the role of nuclear weapons has shrunk simply because there are fewer of them.

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