The mirage of nuclear zero

titanii_siloDecommissioned Titan II ICBM silo, from Telstar Logistics‘ Flickr photostream.

President Barack Obama has backed plans to deploy missile defence systems to Poland and the Czech Republic, as a hedge against Iranian nuclear ambitions.

“As long as the threat from Iran persists, we will go forward with a missile defence system that is cost-effective and proven,” he told a crowd of about 20,000 gathered in Hradcany Square, next to Prague Castle.

“Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile activity poses a real threat, not just to the United States, but to Iran’s neighbours and our allies.”

…The crowd enthusiastically cheered the more idealistic parts of Mr Obama’s speech but was relatively subdued when he spoke about his backing for missile defence.

— Toby Harnden and Bruno Waterfield.  “Barack Obama goes ahead with missile defence shield despite disarmament pledge“, The London Telegraph, April 5th, 2009.

The media were far more subdued than the crowd.  The Telegraph is one of a handful of news organs that has bothered to report the missile defence angle at all.  The rest of the world’s media have ignored it and focused instead on the utopian daydreams of a nuclear-weapon-free globe.  The President has helpfully outlined the barest basics of his disarmament plan:

  • Marginalising nuclear assets within the framework of US grand strategy, and working with Russia to further reduce their already-small stockpiles of warheads.
  • Constraining the spread of nuclear fuel by creating an international fuel bank; letting non-nuclear powers get materials needed for nuclear power without developing the capacity to create material for weapons.
  • Starting a new international effort to secure from terrorists all the materials needed for nuclear weapons.

Nice ideas, to be sure, but they completely ignore the central issue.  Nuclear proliferation has a logic all its own, based in raw calculation of national interest, power projection and threat deterrence.  Nukes provide great power and deterrence for a much cheaper price than equivalent conventional capabilities.  Not many nations have the ability to develop stealthy aircraft and precision-guided munitions in large enough numbers to level a city regardless of opposition countermeasures.  But nuclear-armed ballistic missiles provide equivalent capability, with countermeasures out of reach for all but the wealthiest of nations.

In order to devalue nuclear weapons as a currency of power, their power, efficiency and relative cheapness have to be degraded.  Like any weapon system, nuclear obsolescence can only be attained through replacement or redundancy.  Either humanity develops newer, more destructive weapons, or a countermeasure is developed that renders nuclear weapons far less effective.  What will definitely not succeed is an effort to disarm using nothing more potent than moral suasion.

Moral suasion has its uses, but it is not nearly as potent as the President (and the Czechs) imagine.

While Kennedy memorably declared “Ich bin ein Berliner,” Obama confined his venture into the local language to a mention of “Sametová revoluce,” the Czechoslovak “Velvet Revolution” of 1989 that brought down communist rule.

That event, he said, “proved that moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon.”

“That is why I am speaking to you in the centre of a Europe that is peaceful, united and free, because ordinary people believed that divisions could be bridged … They believed that walls could come down, that peace could prevail,” Obama told an audience of tens of thousands.

— Michael Winfrey.  “Obama in Prague echoes famous Cold War speeches“, Reuters UK, April 5th, 2009.

The President’s understanding of recent history is remarkably flawed.  A belief in peace and moral leadership did not bring down Communist rule.  Two decisions made decades apart by two very different men brought down Communist rule.

First, Harry Truman’s belated adoption of George Kennan’s containment doctrine, after watching a series of eastern European states fall to Communist-funded coups throughout the late 1940s.  Truman realised that Soviet tyranny was every bit as voracious, brutal and unquenchable as Nazi tyranny.  It could only be opposed, not appeased; and it would never be satisfied.  Containment eventually became a bipartisan bedrock policy observed by every president from Harry S. Truman to George H. W. Bush.

Second, Mikhail Gorbachev’s repudiation of the Brezhnev Doctrine assured that the USSR would not intervene to crush democratic movements in its satellite states.  In practical terms it meant that the Communist leadership of eastern Europe was hung out to dry.  Ordinary people could agitate for democratic reform—and their ruling class could contemplate capitulation—without fear that both groups would end up before a firing squad as traitors to the international socialist revolution.

Without enduring determination in the West, and a fatal weakening of resolve in the East, the Iron Curtain would be alive and well today.  As in Stalin’s famous quip about the Pope—how many divisions does he have?—moral leadership without armed might is laughable in the face of remorseless tyranny.  Logic dictates that if tyrants were susceptible to moral suasion at all, they would not be tyrants in the first place.

Change the effectiveness of nuclear weapons and you change the logic of trying to attain them.  Hoping to convince the power hungry or insecure to throw away a nuclear “sure thing” by way of one’s good example is an effort doomed to failure.

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One Response
  1. UNRR says:

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 4/6/2009, at The Unreligious Right