Guest Post by Alex Bollfrass
On to Part II of the discussion of Thomas Schelling’s “A world without nuclear weapons.”
Besides the argument about non-verifiability, Schelling’s main contention against nuclear abolition is grounded in the seemingly limitless power of nuclear weapons – and therefore their irresistible appeal in the case of a major crisis. Schelling played an enormous role in shaping our understanding of nuclear deterrence during the Cold War – and it shows.
He relies too strongly on the notion that a handful of nuclear weapons can rule the world as long as no other country can balance them with an arsenal of its own:
[I]f, at the outset of what appears to be a major war, or the imminent possibility of major war, every responsible government must consider that other responsible governments will mobilize their nuclear weapons base as soon as war erupts, or as soon as war appears likely, there will be at least covert frantic efforts, or perhaps purposely conspicuous efforts, to acquire deliverable nuclear weapons as rapidly as possible.
This belief in the overwhelming power of the Bomb comes from a reading of WWII that has been convincingly dismantled by Ward Wilson. In a forthcoming manuscript, Ward points out that the destruction of cities, the one thing nuclear weapons do well, have never won wars. Think of the US Civil War: Sherman may have burned Atlanta and the Union captured the South’s capital, Richmond, but the war ended only when the Confederate armies were surrounded and faced certain defeat. Defeating armies is not something nuclear weapons, particularly small numbers of nuclear weapons, are particularly adept at.
In a disarmed world, the major powers would have accepted this line of reasoning; otherwise they would have never agreed to divest themselves of these weapons. They would also have instituted a robust enforcement process beyond the current Security Council arrangements to ensure a swift conventional response to a violation. This means that they would be both far less likely to attempt to reconstitute their arsenals in a bid to gain an advantage in an impending crisis, nor would they be as spooked about seeing their rival do so as Schelling postulates.
But even if a crisis would not automatically “go nuclear,” would countries be more likely to break out without the stabilizing effects of nuclear deterrence? No – and that is another assumption about nuclear weapons based on an incomplete reading of history. Observing that the US-Soviet rivalry never erupted into direct conflict, proponents of retaining nuclear arsenals identify them as the crucial peacekeepers.
A potent antidote to this causal explanation is Zbigniew Brzezinski’s recent piece in Foreign Affairs (subscription required). He offers a full account of why the US and the Soviets never came to blows – without ever invoking nuclear deterrence. This has important implications for the future of US-Russian relations, too. As discussed in Part I, the U.S. and Russia are the only two countries that could conceivably hide the materials necessary to maintain a near-weapons capability (something Schelling erroneously believes every major power to be capable of). Eternal harmony and love between the two is not necessary. Instead, a stable geopolitical arrangement would suffice to prevent the emergence of the paranoid escalatory dynamic Schelling fears. In a disarmed world this is a given, because we would not have gotten there without an improvement in relations between the US and Russia and the conclusion of a more stable European security system.
Although Schelling is correct that “every responsible government” will have a plan to re-arm if necessary, it will also analyze the costs and benefits of upping the nuclear ante before taking this step. This does not mean that making a decision to reconstitute will be ruled out, but it is far from self-evident that the “urge to preempt” is the irresistible temptation that Schelling describes.
Even in moments of crises, a world without nuclear weapons would therefore be far more stable than he suggests. How would it compare to the stability of the world today? We would be rid of the potentially catastrophic risk of nuclear warfare. This does not eliminate the need for further analysis and study of the merits of global zero. But Schelling’s reasoning should not dissuade President Obama and other leaders from pursuing multilateral nuclear disarmament.
To conclude on a conciliatory note: I may disagree with the Nobel Laureate on the dynamics of nuclear abolition, but there is no question that Schelling and I can find common ground celebrating last week’s disarming first strike against Stanford’s offense. Go Bears!
Alex Bollfrass works for the Unblocking the Road to Zero project at the Stimson Center, where his better angels are fighting a losing battle against the temptations of conference-origin baked goods.