The Myth of Nuclear Arms
By Jason Arvak
The U.S. and Russia have signed the first major arms control treaty in over a decade. Coming on the heels of President Obama’s moderate reconceptualization of the U.S.’ nuclear weapons posture, the net effect is to produce the first truly post-Cold War nuclear defense posture. But it is worth asking whether any of it really matters.
Nuclear weapons policy is, in many ways, the flagship of American defense issues. Nuclear weapons exist in a special category, subject to a special set of both strategic considerations and political rules. In many ways, they have been the symbol of global power for decades. This is why states like North Korea and Iran may seek nuclear weapons capabilities — not because of a concrete intended use for such weapons (any use would almost certainly lead to the end of their regime, and totalitarian dictators are usually quite interested in their own survival), but rather as a kind of global status symbol.
This is particularly true in the post-Cold War era. The American “nuclear shield” protecting allies in the Pacific and Japan used to be the sine qua non of the American global commitment during the Cold War. Part of the reason Germany and Japan never built their own nuclear weapons programs was because the United States acted as guarantor of their security, up to and including in a nuclear conflict. China developed a nuclear capability in part as a deterrent towards the Soviet Union and the United States, but in greater part as a way of communicating its membership in the global elite. France developed its force de Frappe as a declaration of its military independence in a nuclear world more than out of any intended use. Similar status-seeking is a major part of the explanation for India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programs. Other countries, including South Africa, Brazil, and Taiwan, flirted with nuclear weapons technology as well, and for similar reasons.
Since the end of the Cold War, then, a major part of the challenge of putting the nuclear genie back into the bottle has been finding ways to decrease the appeal of nuclear arms as a status symbol. Advancements in nuclear programs in India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran have testified to the continuing appeal of nuclear weapons technology. And a post-Soviet Russian state faced with crippling demographic collapse and economic malaise has grown to rely on nuclear weapons even more than it did before as its basis for continued membership in the global military elite.
But the problem is that nuclear weapons are expensive and practically useless except in moderate numbers as a deterrent against nuclear attack. And as long as the U.S. maintains a large nuclear arsenal, it continues to send the message that nuclear weapons are the membership card for the global military elite, notwithstanding arms control treaties and proclamations about nuclear non-proliferation. The substantive change in American nuclear posture last week is far more important than any “arms control” treaty.
A law student today, Jason is a former professor of international relations. In his research and writing, he focuses on international law, military strategy, and civil-military relations. Prior to graduate school, he served for 15 years in the United States Air Force. Comments are welcomed at [email protected]