The ongoing debate of whether or not nuclear weapons are obsolete or not is a very complex one. Numerous studies have purported that nuclear weapons no longer serve an important strategic purpose for countries such as the United States of America and Great Britain. Clausewitz stated that war and politics were inextricably linked. So the distinction between “political” and “military” viability of nuclear weapons is one without meaning. Essentially this implies that deterrence theory still works, at least between state actors. After all, no nuclear power has ever been attacked by another state, and the same can’t be said about attacks by nuclear powers on non-nuclear states.
Although until ‘Global Zero’ (which is the campaign to eliminate nuclear weapons from the earth) has reached their goal, one would find it hard to say for certain that nuclear weapons were strategically obsolete. The fact that deterrence theory has worked so far does not mean it is always going to work. As Robert McNamara said after the Cold War ‘it was luck that prevented the cold war’ not deterrence theory. McNamara carries on to emphasize how ‘rational individuals came “that” close to total destruction of their societies… a hair’s breath away.’ With this statement in mind one must look favorably on the viewpoint that nuclear weapons are not strategically obsolete whilst they are still accessible, because human judgment will always play a part.
The fear of nuclear devastation has so far created peace and prevented a third world war. Rather than weapons of war, strategic weapons are becoming weapons of intimidation used to influence political and strategic outcomes. The actual likelihood of a nuclear warhead being used becomes slimmer by the day, with non-proliferation treaties, campaigns such as ‘Ground Zero’ and regulations on transporting nuclear weapons becoming stricter and stricter. The publication of a volume edited by Bernard Brodie, The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order, in 1946 marked the first systematic attempt by specialists in international relations to think through the political and strategic implications of the nuclear age. Brodie argued that nuclear weapons had made total war obsolete and that U.S. military strategy from then on would have to emphasize deterrence: “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose”.
Nuclear deterrence is the most effective way of preventing the use of nuclear weapons at the moment. Shelling depicts the notion of nuclear deterrence extremely well; he emphasizes how nuclear missiles give nations the potential to not only destroy their enemies but humanity itself without drawing immediate reprisal because of the lack of a conceivable defense system and the speed with which nuclear weapons can be deployed. A nation’s credible threat of such severe damage empowers their deterrence policies and fuels political coercion and military deadlock, which in turn can produce proxy warfare. Mutually Assured Destruction is a frightening concept but not insane, and back in the days when the Soviet union wanted to dominate the world and were equipped to destroy the west’s major cities, only the near-guarantee that it too provided the west with security.
An example is the fact that the Soviet Union weren’t able to take out British nuclear capabilities within one strike, which would have made a strike almost suicidal. However the reality now is that Britain is not an independent deterrent. Britain relies on its technology from the United States and therefore does not have an effective independent deterrence. Britain’s independent deterrent being ineffective is not an issue though; the fact that Britain has nuclear support from the U.S. is sufficed to prevent an attack. This deterrence from Britain and America does make nuclear war far less likely due to the consequences at stake, perhaps almost obsolete as it is unlikely that anyone would want to take such an enormous risk; however one has to take into account that we are human, humans can make rash decisions and we have come so close to nuclear destruction before that for one to say nuclear weapons are obsolete would be foolish.
Today the United States of America still possess approximately 1,300 tactical nuclear weapons, including about 480 bombs deployed on NATO military bases deployed in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey and the United Kingdom. In response Russia is estimated to possess at least 3,000 of these generally smaller, portable, but still devastating weapons. It only takes a fifteen-minute alert and the decision by one human being at the touch of the button in the U.S. to deploy hundreds of nuclear warheads. Surely with still such a large number of nuclear weapons still easily accessible, they cannot be strategically obsolete.
Robert McNamara says, “It was luck that prevented nuclear war”. He continues: “At the end we lucked out. It was luck that prevented nuclear war…. Rational individuals came that close to total destruction of their societies. And that danger exists today. The major lesson of the Cuban missile crisis is this: the indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations”. In the end maybe it was deterrence theory that won out, but from McNamara’s perspective this was not the case. McNamara mentioned in his Fog of War Interview that if it hadn’t have been for John F Kennedy’s personal aide Tommy Thompson who was former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Kennedy would have crushed Cuba and thus ended any form of nuclear deterrent that preexisted.
Only perfect defenses can serve the turn of making strategic missiles obsolete, and it is questionable whether or not the perfect defense is technologically realistic. Even if the perfect defense system was technologically were achieved, can it be politically realistic to approach this goal while maintaining an effective deterrent at the same time? For no party that thinks itself dependent upon its deterrent can afford to allow the point of obsolescence to be reached. It’s not as simple as reaching a point where American defenses can outwit Soviet capacities for an attack; nor even the point at which they can outwit any future modifications in Soviet capacities for attack. It a question of reaching a point where defensive capabilities (as a class) can outwit any offensive capabilities (as a class)- including those held only by Americans, for what America had today for example the Soviet may have tomorrow.
It is almost certain that this point will never be reached, as long as research is in the hands of a nation that professes dependence upon its deterrence policy. Offensive weapons can be made obsolete by defense technology only if those who control the pace and direction of technological research allow them to be, but given that technological developments in the defense program will also feed offence technology, it is unlikely that this will ever occur under a deterrence-orientated nation. As Oliver O’Donovan said ‘the will to relax the guard of deterrence is the presupposition of it obsolescence not the consequence of it’. Suggesting that whilst nuclear defense technology cannot provide complete protection against the most powerful nuclear warheads, the idea of strategically obsolete nuclear weapons is still a long shot.
Deterrence is often seen as the main argument in favour of the notion that nuclear missiles are obsolete. For example if Iran gained nuclear capability, supposedly “deterrence” would stop Iran posing as a threat, because they understand that they would come off worse or in an equally devastating situation. However this deterrent is easily bypassed if Iran used a surrogate terror group as the means of delivering a nuclear weapon in an American city. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara argued that if the US were attacked with nuclear weapons from terrorists, for example, what good would our nuclear arsenal be? “We could not use it” he was quoted as saying. Deterrence certainly didn’t seem an issue for Fidel Castro who was supposedly a “rational” man, when he recommended to Nikita Khrushchev to use nuclear force against the U.S., knowing that Cuba would have been obliterated had the Soviet Union taken action. Clearly if “rational” leaders have come so close to “pressing the red button”, then it is not unconceivable that in the future a fiasco such as the Cuban Missile Crisis could end in in Mutually Assured Destruction.
Strategic analysts such as Herman Kahn in the 1960s and Colin Gray in the 1970s and 1980s rejected the whole notion of an “absolute weapon.” Kahn and Gray contended that even large-scale nuclear warfare between the two superpowers was not “unthinkable”.They did acknowledge that nuclear weapons may lead to greater caution on the part of policymakers, but they stressed that this did not mean that the chance of war was zero. On the contrary, Kahn and Gray argued, there was a possibility that nuclear war would break out, and therefore they believed that U.S. policymakers must be prepared to fight such a war and to win it. Even though this is a slightly radical view, it is not “unthinkable” that a nuclear war may break out with North Korea, especially with a new and naïve leader, or Iran with tensions in the Middle East eternally rising. However, the main nuclear threat does seem to remain with terrorists groups, simply because retaliation would prove to be almost impossible.
Nuclear deterrence has worked successfully for a significant period of time, with only a few circumstances where any nuclear threat appeared likely. Clearly this implies that nuclear deterrence along with the notion of nuclear taboo have very much limited potential use of nuclear weapons. However to consider them strategically obsolete it naïve, the threat of nuclear weapons plays a massive role in political stand-offs in modern society, and perhaps more wars would have been fought if it wasn’t for these nuclear capabilities. One thing is for sure, is that whilst thousands of nuclear missiles are still in the hands of leaders around the globe, they remain a strategic weapon. It is not “unthinkable” that nuclear weapons could be used in the future, especially when human judgment plays a key role.
1. Bernstein, J., ‘Is Nuclear Deterrence Obsolete?’, The New York Review of Books, April 29th 2010. 2. Brodie, B., The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order (Yale University Press: 1946). P.5. 3. Barry Buzan and Eric Herring, The Arms Dynamic in World Politics, 1998, ch. 4. 4. Huessey, P., ‘Are nuclear weapons really becoming obsolete?’, Family Security Matters, October 5th 2010, http://www.familysecuritymatters.org/publications/id.7553/pub_detail.asp, Accessed 20/03/2012. 5. Joyner, J. ‘A World Without Nuclear Weapons’, Outside the Beltway, Friday, March 5th, 2005. 6. Kimball, D.G. ‘Obsolete Relics of a Dead Conflict’, Arms Control Today, Novemebr 2004. 7. Luke, T. W. (1989) “‘What’s Wrong with Deterrence?’ A Semiotic Interpretation of National Security Policy,” in J. Der Derian and M. J. Shapiro (eds.), International/Intertextual Relations: Postmodern Readings of World Politics, (New York: Lexington Books).
8. O’Donovan, O., ‘Hope for a M.A.D. World?’, Third Way, Vol. 9, No.9, September 1986. P.22. 9. ‘Michael Portillo on Gordon Brown’s nuclear deterrent policy’ for The Sunday Times, 25 June 2006, http://www.michaelportillo.co.uk/articles/art_nipress/nukes.htm, Acessed
20/03/2012. 10. http://science.jrank.org/pages/10503/Nuclear-Age-Contending-Ideas-about-Nuclear-Weapons.html”>Nuclear Age – Contending Ideas About Nuclear Weapons</a>, Accessed 21/03/2012. 11. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZES8e4P1IzM- Accessed 20/03/2012.
[ 1 ]. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZES8e4P1IzM- Accessed 20/03/2012 [ 2 ]. Brodie, B., The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order (Yale University Press: 1946). P.5. [ 3 ]. Article by Michael Portillo on Gordon Brown’s nuclear deterrent policy for The Sunday Times, 25 June 2006, http://www.michaelportillo.co.uk/articles/art_nipress/nukes.htm, Acessed 20/03/2012. [ 4 ]. Bernstein, J., ‘Is Nuclear Deterrence Obsolete?’, The New York Review of Books, April 29th 2010. [ 5 ]. Barry Buzan and Eric Herring, The Arms Dynamic in World Politics, 1998, ch. 4. [ 6 ]. Kimball, D.G. ‘Obsolete Relics of a Dead Conflict’, Arms Control Today, Novemebr 2004. [ 7 ]. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZES8e4P1IzM- Accessed 20/03/2012 [ 8 ]. Ibd. Acessed 20/03/2012
[ 9 ]. O’Donovan, O., ‘Hope for a M.A.D. World?’, Third Way, Vol. 9, No.9, September 1986. P.22. [ 10 ]. Ibid. p.22.
[ 11 ]. Ibid. p.23.
[ 12 ]. Huessey, P., ‘Are nuclear weapons really becoming obsolete?’, Family Security Matters, October 5th 2010, http://www.familysecuritymatters.org/publications/id.7553/pub_detail.asp, Accessed 20/03/2012. [ 13 ]. Ibid.
[ 14 ]. Luke, T. W. (1989) “‘What’s Wrong with Deterrence?’ A Semiotic Interpretation of
National Security Policy,” in J. Der Derian and M. J. Shapiro (eds.),
International/Intertextual Relations: Postmodern Readings of World Politics,
(New York: Lexington Books), p.229.
[ 15 ]. http://science.jrank.org/pages/10503/Nuclear-Age-Contending-Ideas-about-Nuclear-Weapons.html”>Nuclear Age – Contending Ideas About Nuclear Weapons,