April 10, 2009

On the original unconventional warfare...

I don't know why I bother reading Charles Krauthammer's columns on issues relating to international security. They are always filled with ridiculous lines such as:

Having thus bravely rallied the international community and summoned the United Nations -- a fiction and a farce, respectively -- what was Obama's further response?

Now that probably makes people who get most of their news from the National Review Online chuckle, but it does very little for the rest of us. The Left, of course, has its own columnists of this sort -- paging Robert Fisk? -- who appeal only to those predisposed to agree with them in the first place.

When a U.S. president goes abroad and starts talking about something as bold as nuclear disarmament, though, we need more sober and thoughtful criticism than the usual mouth-breathing commentary we get from the Right -- or the mindless applause from the Left.

Enter Sir Lawrence Freedman, pretty much the world's leading expert on nuclear strategy and deterrence. His column in the Financial Times yesterday is password protected, but I am re-printing the whole damn thing because the alternative is to leave my readers to the likes of Krauthammer and Fisk.

Last weekend’s speech by President Barack Obama, embracing the goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons, reflects a developing view around the world that the time is ripe to revive what has in the past been considered a utopian dream. We are now a long way from the massive arsenals of the cold war, and the Americans and Russians are about to embark on a new round of talks that could see arsenals reduced to at most 1,500 warheads each and possibly lower. Yet the move towards zero is by no means free of risk. The problem is less the ultimate goal, and whether it could be properly verified, but the transition period, which we have already entered. This new nuclear age involves issues and perils quite different from those of the cold war.

The old nuclear age was dominated by the arsenals of the US and Russia, with tens of thousands of warheads on both sides, and the drive to perfect their lethality while exploring forms of defence and relying on deterrence. Confidence that this relationship could be stable came from mutual assured destruction, with caution resulting from the prospect of terrible retribution even after a surprise first strike. The biggest fear was that numerous nuclear detonations would hurl vast quantities of soot and smoke into the stratosphere, creating a nuclear winter.

The new nuclear age involves more countries but smaller arsenals. The old strategic theories argued that such a situation was bound to be less stable than the cold war. Two superpowers locked in a long-term confrontation understood the logic of deterrence. Large arsenals encouraged caution as there could be no doubting the catastrophic consequences should they be fired. With small arsenals there might be a belief that a cleverly aimed strike could destroy the enemy's means of retaliation or that somehow the use of a few weapons, however terrible their effects, could be part of warfare as usual and contained in their impact. As a result of proliferation, there are now nuclear states marked by chronic insecurity, with tumultuous internal politics and fraught external relations.

So, according to Mr Obama, his greatest fear is that al-Qaeda will acquire a warhead and immediately use it against a population centre. Osama bin Laden has no interest in deterrence or other forms of deadly bargaining. There are other pressing nuclear issues. Might the struggling regime of North Korea be tempted to use its tiny arsenal? What does Iran have in mind as it strives to acquire enough highly enriched uranium to make a few nuclear weapons? What does Israel plan to do about that? Could a build-up of tensions between India and Pakistan result in nuclear exchanges? Is it possible that strife within Pakistan could result in its weapons falling into the wrong hands?

Even if the anticipated strategic arms reduction talks succeed, the US and Russian arsenals will still be much larger than the rest, but the differences will not be as great as before. The US is generally thought most able to cope with the end of the nuclear era because of its conventional strength, yet it still has allies in Nato and in Asia who depend on its security guarantees, and who might become nervous if it appears to be losing its edge over Russia and China. Meanwhile, Russia insists that with the expansion of Nato and the relative weakness of its conventional forces it has greater need of a nuclear deterrent. At the moment it has a much larger arsenal than China – but as the numbers go down might Russia become just an ordinary nuclear power with growing doubts about the credibility of its deterrent?

These are not arguments for the status quo. It should be a fundamental objective of policy to marginalise nuclear weapons. There was far too much complacency during the cold war about the possibility of unauthorised access to weapons or accidental use. It is hard to argue in favour of non-proliferation if the major powers show no interest in disarmament. Significant reductions in arsenals should not pose new security threats when coupled with other measures to reduce tensions and address conflicts.

But there has never been a natural relationship between fewer weapons and more peace, and if we aim to get the numbers down then we must give much more thought to the implications of moving from a world dominated by two large nuclear arsenals to one in which nuclear power is more widely distributed in smaller packets. It would be good to get to zero, but before that there could be some anxious moments.