Jonathan Chait

What Are Nukes Good For?

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Peter Scoblic comes via Arms Control Today, which is not the usual stepping stone to our magazine, and has been studying the issue deeply for a long time. With the START treaty signing, it happens to be a very good time to have a nuclear weapons expert in house. Peter's cover story is a definitive essay on the future of the bomb. The most compelling question about this subject is whether nuclear deterrence still works against madmen. He says it can:

That is, in the face of the most aggressive, most highly armed, most revolutionary power the United States has ever known, deterrence worked. It worked despite serious fears about the enemy’s rationality. Indeed, it may have demonstrated that rationality is not the appropriate prerequisite for nuclear stability. Rationality can produce undesirable outcomes; it does not preclude crisis situations (Khrushchev was not insane when he ordered missiles to Cuba, he was just wrong); and in the heat of nuclear battle, rationality is unlikely to guide decisions in any country, regardless of ideology. Demanding rationality of our enemies is therefore both asking too much and asking too little. It is perhaps best that, as the scholar Kenneth Waltz has noted, “Deterrence does not depend on rationality. It depends on fear.”

Fear, after all, is an evolutionary imperative in a way that reason is not, and it induces caution in a way that can be understated by cold cost-benefit analyses. No state that values its continued existence would launch an attack that meant its own certain devastation, and there is every indicationfrom their oppression at home and their manipulations abroadthat the leaders of Iran and North Korea have every desire to survive. True, historically, leaders have made strategic errors that resulted in their downfall. But they did so because they miscalculated their odds of successan error that is impossible to make in launching a nuclear strike against an adversary that clearly has the capability to retaliate. The only plausible suicide would be an assisted one in which, say, Pyongyang’s leaders feared total military defeatdeterrence does not cover “dictators in the mood of Hitler when he found himself in his final dugout,” as Churchill once put it. That means the United States shouldn’t push nuclear-armed leaders to the brink of extermination, but otherwise deterrence should hold.

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