A Perpetual Menace: Nuclear Weapons and International Order

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A Perpetual Menace: Nuclear Weapons and International Order By William Walker Routledge, 2011, 256 pp.

William Walker is a rare find: a humanist and elegant writer conversant with technical detail, as well as a specialist in nuclear proliferation who is intrigued by the subject of how power has been applied to create, maintain, and shape nuclear order. Walker is well positioned to provide a big-picture assessment of the nuclear dilemma, in part because he has observed it at a distance from Washington and Moscow.

The dilemmas Walker covers in his latest book will be familiar to most readers. The value of the book, A Perpetual Menace: Nuclear Weapons and International Order, lies in its subtitle: Walker surveys this poorly covered niche with breadth and without academic jargon in a work intended for an audience of general readers as well as practitioners and academic peers. He succeeds best when recasting key events in nuclear history through the lens of an evolving, ragged, but surprisingly successful nuclear order.

Walker shies away from offering more than a sketchy treatment of how the global nuclear order is most likely to evolve from a structural perspective. Instead, he presents a shorthand analysis that rests heavily on familiar policy options and alternative futures.

The book's title comes from a famous quote by Niels Bohr, who sought to warn President Franklin Roosevelt in a July 1944 memorandum against the horrors of a world with atomic bombs. Bohr understood that a U.S. president would likely find compelling reasons to use a "winning weapon" to end World War II.1 Nonetheless, he advised that "any temporary advantage, however great, may be outweighed by a perpetual menace to human security."

Walker seems drawn to Bohr with good reason. They share a sensibility about the bomb, as well as an informed distance from grinding policy decisions governing its evolution.

As Justice Potter Stewart noted with respect to pornography, the nuclear order is more easily recognized than defined. Order in international politics, as Walker notes, is traditionally shaped by the occasion and conclusion of great wars. Nuclear order, in contrast, has been shaped and has evolved in the absence of major wars between major powers.

The nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union could have made the process of creating nuclear order well-nigh impossible. Instead, the race was accompanied by creative diplomacy that ultimately reduced vertical proliferation and limited horizontal proliferation. Three crucial norms backstopping nuclear order evolved during this extended competition: the absence of the bomb's battlefield use since 1945; an unprecedented, ongoing 15- year moratorium of nuclear testing by major powers; and deep cuts in global inventories. The evolving nuclear order in the vertical and horizontal domains, along with connective tissue between them, may be the most consequential but underappreciated accomplishment of post-World War II diplomacy.

Walker's introductory chapter is particularly good. The pursuit of nuclear order, he writes, "is inherently problematic, will always be contentious and entail political struggle, has to operate simultaneously at several levels (global, regional, and local, inter-state and intra-state) and can probably never end." The "central question" that Walker addresses is how states are drawn into "a logic of restraint.... Installing and embedding this logic and rendering it tolerable have lain at the heart of the problem and project of nuclear order."

Creating order is inherently difficult and impermanent yet necessary, given the diverse equities of states possessing and abstaining from nuclear weapons, ongoing hedging strategies, the flux of civil nuclear power programs, and the unacceptability of any order that permanently recognizes "institutionalized injustice." Order must also require, at least provisionally, the underpinning of nuclear deterrence, a potentially wild beast domesticated through treaty instruments and norms. …