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August 21, 2009 |  6 comments |  Print  Your Opinion  

J. Shire and W. Wilson

Topic Regional Disputes Do Not Rule Out Disarmament

J. Shire and W. Wilson: Contrary to the assumption, the settlement of regional disputes does not have to be a precondition for nuclear disarmament. The deterrent serves to make regions torn by conflict no safer but instead accentuate fear and cause stalemate.

Scholars in the nuclear field point to enduring regional conflicts as one of the hurdles that must be overcome before nuclear disarmament is possible. George Perkovich and James Acton, for example, write "The eight nuclear-armed states will not be able to collectively envisage a prohibition of nuclear weapons until conflicts centering on Taiwan, Kashmir, Palestine and (perhaps) the Russian periphery are resolved, or at least durably stabilised.

One of the abiding areas of tension between nuclear weapon states and many members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) is the failure to make progress on a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (or weapons of mass destruction free zone). The resolution calling for establishment of this zone was an essential part of the compromise that allowed indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995. Almost fifteen years later, the goal remains elusive, only further complicated by the emergence of Iran's nuclear program. Similarly, India and Pakistan remain outside the NPT and locked into low-level nuclear arms racing in large part because of an ongoing border dispute over the Kashmir region. The November 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai underscore continuing hostilities between groups in Pakistan hostile to India.

The notion that conflicts between nuclear-armed adversaries must be resolved before disarmament can be accomplished is understandable, and on the surface perhaps quite sensible. But on closer examination, it becomes clear that achieving the perfect conditions for the resolution of long-running conflicts, in particular those involving Israel and its neighbors and India and Pakistan, may not be realistic and must not be allowed to derail either broader progress toward disarmament or the implementation of stronger nonproliferation norms and policies.  

The idea that what are essentially human relationships must be resolved before particular weapons technologies can be banned was not central to Cold War-era thinking about nuclear disarmament. For example, the United States and Soviet Union did not wait until their rivalry was entirely resolved before they began negotiating significant reductions in their nuclear arsenals. This notion has a particular view of the role of nuclear weapons at its heart and those who espouse it seem to believe that nuclear weapons are like a salve in these volatile areas, that they make the participants in these disputes more careful, more pacific.

Nuclear weapons, according to this view, both create increased safety and are extremely dangerous, which is paradoxical. What sort of technology can create safety and danger at the same time? The ability to create this kind of paradox argues for nuclear weapons being invested with extraordinary, exceptional powers.  But we know that this is essentially false-they are simply more explosive than conventional weapons.   

One way to think about the notion of retiring weapons from an area of deep, abiding conflict is to consider cities such as Los Angeles, with considerable gang activity. If we imagine that the police launched an initiative to ban assault rifles from the streets, what would we say about the notion that the Bloods and Crips must first resolve all of their differences and agree to a strict verification regimen for maintaining adherence to their peace treaty before the ban on assault rifles was attempted?

It may be the case that nuclear weapons bring about a level of caution in leaders facing confrontations with adversaries that conventional weapons (assault rifles) do not. However, this does not argue for keeping them until all confrontations are resolved. Keeping nuclear weapons is only a sound strategy if the benefit they create by inducing caution is greater than the destruction they would cause if they were used.

To believe that the fear of nuclear weapons will make a region torn by conflict safe over the long run, is to believe that nuclear weapons can permanently tamp down human folly. The record of history shows that human folly is stronger and more resilient than that.  

The notion that regional conflicts and rivalries must be resolved before disarmament is possible is deeply embedded in thinking about nuclear weapons and letting go is not simple. Surely it does not mean that efforts to bring about peace in Kashmir, the Middle East or break-away Russian regions be less intensely pursued. Confrontations flare, often unexpectedly, all over the world and will continue to. Waiting until they have been resolved means waiting for a state of perfect peace that will never come.

Jacqueline W. Shire is a Senior Analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security.  Ward H. Wilson is a Visiting Research Collaborator at Princeton University's Program on Science and Global Security.

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Greg Randolph Lawson

August 21, 2009

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I would agree that it makes no sense to solve the Taiwans and Kasmirs of the world before pursuing nuclear reductions. This seems merely a particularly disingenuous way of defending never getting rid of nuclear weapons.

By saying "if only we could resolve this conflict or that one first" one gives legitimacy to an idea that is, as I have commented elsewhere, a pipedream while still not having to take the steps to make the pipedream become a reality. Its hiding from the truth while secretly embracing it.

Why not just be honest and say that human nature and our current knowledge prohibit our ability to go back to some tranquil time before nuclear weapons were introduced onto the world stage? That is, in my estimation, the truth.
 
Donald  Stadler

August 21, 2009

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Well - yes and know. We are talking about zero as the target for nuclear weapons, so obviously that means regional as well as strategic reductions.

But does (say) North Korea have a major impact upon talks between Russia and the US about reducing both arsenals? Probably not much, because North Korea is not going to be more or less deterred whether the US arsenal is 2000 or 2500. any impact would be when the US arsenal falls below 500. Probably well below 500. If it fell to (say) 100 that might actually encourage them, but that not going to happen in the forseeable future.
 
Unregistered User

August 22, 2009

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I am impressed with this well thought out theory and article by the co-authors. It makes good sense.
 
Marek  Swierczynski

August 24, 2009

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As good old huntingtonism tells us, many of these ongoing regional conflicts are just tips of a civilization clash icebergs. They have more potential to expand and heat-up than to calm down and freeze. If we're serious about nuclear reduction, we should act regardless of whether there is still fire exchange in Kashmir or bloodshed in the Palestine. But I'm afraid actions towards nuclear abolition and reduction will bring limited results, as - if Huntington's right - the nukes are needed for achieving greater aims.
 
Ilyas M. Mohsin

August 26, 2009

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A well-meaning article whcih is imbued with idealism. However, the paradigm advocatong nuclear disarmament without settling long-festering disputes makes the issue a catch-22 for the Global village.
Our friends in US seldom like to mention that Israel with their clandestine help has acquired about a hundred nuclear weapons. While Korea, Iran etc are pilloried for daring to defy the 'ban', even speaking of Israeli arsenal appears to be treated as a an aberration by the US. Recent history shows how much Pakistan suffered due to sanctions etc. ZABhutto had to hang to fulfil Kissinger' threat to him that "we will make a horrible example of you" when the latter was trying to dissuade the former against acquisition of nuclear capability. ZAB had pleaded that Paksitan could not survive against a nuclear India. As such while Pakistan has been a friend of US, generally, and more so now that the latter is digging a hole in Afghanistan, but on this score a lot of resntment exists among the pakistanis. US is seen here as having softpeddaled the nuclear explosions by India due to her startaegic considerations which ended up in their nuclear collaboration agreement against China last year.
Festering disputes constitute not only permanet threats but these also sabotage development in the specific areas. See how SAARC is held a hostage to the rift between India and Pakistan despite its vast potential to act as lever for energy development/transportation to other countries. Pakistan and Afghanistan form the round-about of the world but nothing much can happen because of lack of amity.
If an honorable solution if developed in each case of suppurating disputes, past would be forgotten like in the case of EU and the whole world plus the specific regions would benefit immensely. In such an
environment, the number of nukes can be reduced by all those who own them.
 
Carl A Lundgren

September 1, 2009

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Shire and Wilson quote Perkovich and Acton to the effect that the nuclear-armed nations will not be able to prohibit nuclear weapons until various regional conflicts are resolved. The Perkovich/Acton statement implies that the world cannot achieve zero nuclear weapons, absent a resolution of regional conflicts. Shire/Wilson argue against this.

We can analyze this issue, either from a world perspective or from a national interest perspective. Since any agreement to go to zero must be voluntarily assented to by each nuclear nation, the world perspective is mostly irrelevant. This is because the national interest will predominate in the calculations of each nation that must give up its nuclear weapons.

Even from a strictly national perspective, we should distinguish major and minor conflicts. A major conflict is one where the outcome makes a very significant difference to the nation. During the Cold War, a Soviet invasion of Western Europe would have been a major conflict for both the United States and Soviet Union. Berlin, Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, and Afghanistan were minor conflicts.

Generally speaking, nuclear threats should be avoided for minor conflicts. If nuclear threats ever make sense, they should be confined to major conflicts. Because nuclear weapons pose dangers to the possessing nation, they are “needed” only if there is a significant chance of major conflict. Using this principle, we can analyze the various regional conflicts pointed out by Perkovich/Acton.

Taiwan: This would be a minor conflict for both the United States and China, albeit a major conflict for Taiwan. Since it would be a minor conflict, neither the United States nor China should threaten or deploy nuclear weapons. Hence, failure to resolve the Taiwan issue should not prevent mutual nuclear reductions, possibly to zero.

Kashmir: This would be a minor conflict for both India and Pakistan. Neither India nor Pakistan require nuclear weapons on account of Kashmir. If India would try to conquer all of Pakistan, that would be a major war for Pakistan, but there is little chance of this. Neither Canada nor Mexico need nuclear weapons to deter a United States invasion, nor does Pakistan need nuclear weapons to deter Indian conquest. If Pakistan were rational, Pakistan would give up its nuclear weapons unilaterally.

Palestine: Only Israel has nuclear weapons; Iran and other Mideast nations may acquire them. Another Mideast war could be a major war for Israel, but a minor war for the other Mideast nations. If the probability of a future Mideast war is sufficiently high, Israel may need nuclear weapons, but the others do not. Even here there is room for negotiation: Does Israel really need 75-200 atomic bombs? Or can Israel make do with only 5-15?

Russian periphery: All such conflicts would be minor wars for Russia, for which Russia requires no nuclear weapons. Wars along the Russian periphery do not justify Russian nuclear weapons. The only major conflicts might be with China or the United States, with whom mutual reductions can be negotiated.

During the Cold War, all minor conflicts were resolved without nuclear weapons. This was achieved by limiting the wars only to conventional weapons and only to particular combat zones. The Korean War stayed in Korea and did not spread to China, Russia, Japan, or the United States, despite the presence of both U.S. and Chinese troops. The other minor conflicts also remained inside their local boundaries. This was deliberate policy, because a local war that escaped its boundaries could become an unlimited world war that might go nuclear.

The Cuban missile crisis was the only Cold War conflict that almost went nuclear. The cause was poor Soviet judgment. By sneaking nuclear missiles into Cuba, the Soviets dimwittedly caused distrust and fear of Soviet nuclear intentions. This made it difficult (but not impossible) to limit the crisis only to conventional weapons and only to Cuba and surrounding oceans.

The Cuban crisis offers some lessons for managing these minor conflicts. For starters, both the United States and China should completely forswear nuclear weapons in any conflict over Taiwan; similarly for India and Pakistan over Kashmir, and Russia vis--vis its periphery. Secondly, efforts should be made to limit the area of such conflicts: Perhaps Taiwan, the Taiwan Straits, and a limited number of targets inside China; perhaps Kashmir and some strictly limited areas inside India and Pakistan.

In theory, nuclear weapons can deter a conventional war. In practice, poor judgment by human leaders can easily mess things up and cause a nuclear war. It is questionable whether nuclear threats should be used to deter major wars. Nuclear weapons and nuclear threats should most definitely not be used to deter minor wars. Even from a strictly rational, national perspective, there is too much danger in such threats.
 

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