Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Time for a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Time for a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World

Article excerpt

Ramesh Thakur argues the case for complete nuclear disarmament.

The worldwide outrage and disbelief provoked by the French decision to resume nuclear testing in 1995 confirmed both the public revulsion against nuclear weapons and their associated infrastructure and the general belief that they are problems left over from the history of the Cold War. I argue that, on balance, the regional and global security risks posed by the acquisition or retention of nuclear stockpiles exceed any security gains that can reasonably be anticipated from such postures. I acknowledge, therefore, that nuclear weapons can confer security benefits, but demonstrate that these benefits are outweighed by the political and security costs. The argument is developed through eight propositions.

[] First, the military utility of nuclear weapons is extremely limited. The enormous destructiveness of nuclear weapons produced major changes in military strategy. Yet the surprising thing is how little benefit has been conferred by the possession of nuclear weapons. History refutes the thesis that Soviet expansionism was matched to the Soviet nuclear arsenal. The most spectacular Soviet territorial and political advances were made during the period 1945-49, when the Americans had a monopoly of atomic weaponry. Conversely, the disintegration of the Soviet Union occurred after they had attained strategic parity with the United States. The nuclear equation has been irrelevant in determining the outcomes of regional conflicts.

Nuclear weapons were as unusable for the United States in Vietnam as for the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The one type of armament that has been quite superfluous to either fighting or managing the conflict in Bosnia is nuclear weapons. They are of no utility to India in dealing with its myriad of enduring low-intensity insurgencies. Conversely, the Gulf War showed that a massive response with sophisticated conventional weapons can suffice even against a latent, implicit or nascent threat of chemical and biological weapons.

Nuclear weapons are of limited utility in the types of conflicts engaging our attention today. Wallensteen and Sollenberg have counted a total of 94 armed conflicts during the six-year period 1989-94 inclusive.(1) Of these, only four were inter-state. The majority of the internal conflicts were over government (civil wars) or territory (state formation). Of the 42 armed conflicts in existence in 1994, 25 were major (defined as having recorded over 1000 battle-related deaths) and 17 minor (defined as having recorded at least 25 battle-related deaths in one year but under 1000 during the course of the conflict). Only seven of the 42 armed conflicts were wars (where battle-related deaths exceed 1000 in one year). Thus wars, defined in relation to battlefield casualties whether between or within states, are the exception, and armed conflicts are the norm. The threat or use of nuclear weapons is simply irrelevant in such conflicts.

Limited utility

[] Second, the political utility of nuclear weapons is also extremely limited. The very destructiveness of nuclear weapons has made them devoid of any military use whatsoever. Their only purpose can be deterrence. But here too strategists are confronted with a fundamental paradox. If one side seeks to deter war by creating the fear that it will use nuclear weapons, then it must convince the opponent of its determination to use them in certain circumstances. If, however, the weapons are used and produce a like response, then the side striking first is very much worse off than if it had abstained. Posing an unacceptable risk to the enemy therefore necessarily poses the same risk to oneself.

The mutual deterrence structure of the Cold War period is now obsolete. The idea of any one of the United States, Russia or China launching a nuclear strike against any one of the others seems too fantastic to be credible. …

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