Nuclear war became more likely this time here’s why

By Robert Andersen & Martin J Sherwin

It is possible that the post-1945 US-Soviet peace came ‘through strength’, but that need not imply nuclear deterrence. It is also undeniable that the presence of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert capable of reaching each other’s homeland in minutes has made both sides edgy. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962  when, by all accounts, the world came closer to nuclear war than at any other time  is not testimony to the effectiveness of deterrence: the crisis occurred because of nuclear weapons. It is more likely that we have been spared nuclear war not because of deterrence but in spite of it. Even when possessed by just one side, nuclear weapons have not deterred other forms of war. The Chinese, Cuban, Iranian and Nicaraguan revolutions all took place even though a nuclear-armed US backed the overthrown governments. Similarly, the US lost the Vietnam War, just as the Soviet Union lost in Afghanistan, despite both countries not only possessing nuclear weapons, but also more and better conventional arms than their adversaries. Nor did nuclear weapons aid Russia in its unsuccessful war against Chechen rebels in 1994-96, or in 1999-2000, when Russia’s conventional weapons devastated the suffering Chechen Republic. Nuclear weapons did not help the US achieve its goals in Iraq or Afghanistan, which have become expensive catastrophic failures for the country with the world’s most advanced nuclear weapons. Moreover, despite its nuclear arsenal, the US remains fearful of domestic terrorist attacks, which are more likely to be made with nuclear weapons than be deterred by them.

In short, it is not legitimate to argue that nuclear weapons have deterred any sort of war, or that they will do so in the future. During the Cold War, each side engaged in conventional warfare: the Soviets, for example, in Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), and Afghanistan (1979-89); the Russians in Chechnya (1994-96; 1999-2009), Georgia (2008), Ukraine (2014-present), as well as Syria (2015-present); and the US in Korea (1950-53), Vietnam (1955-75), Lebanon (1982), Grenada (1983), Panama (1989-90), the Persian Gulf (1990-91), the former Yugoslavia (1991-99), Afghanistan (2001-present), and Iraq (2003-present), to mention just a few cases. Nor have their weapons deterred attacks upon nuclear armed states by non-nuclear opponents. In 1950, China stood 14 years from developing and deploying its own nuclear weapons, whereas the US had a well-developed atomic arsenal. Nonetheless, as the Korean War’s tide was shifting dramatically against the North, that US nuclear arsenal did not inhibit China from sending more than 300,000 soldiers across the Yalu River, resulting in the stalemate on the Korean peninsula that divides it to this day, and has resulted in one of the world’s most dangerous unresolved stand-offs.

In 1956, the nuclear-armed United Kingdom warned non-nuclear Egypt to refrain from nationalising the Suez Canal. To no avail: the UK, France and Israel ended up invading Sinai with conventional forces. In 1982, Argentina attacked the British-held Falkland Islands, even though the UK had nuclear weapons and Argentina did not. Following the US-led invasion in 1991, conventionally armed Iraq was not deterred from lobbing Scud missiles at nuclear-armed Israel, which did not retaliate, although it could have used its nuclear weapons to vaporise Baghdad. It is hard to imagine how doing so would have benefitted anyone. Obviously, US nuclear weapons did not deter the terrorist attacks on the US of 11 September 2001, just as the nuclear arsenals of the UK and France have not prevented repeated terrorist attacks on those countries. Nuclear weapons didn’t escalate demands; if anything, such countries were less successful in getting their way. Deterrence, in short, does not deter. The pattern is deep and geographically widespread.

Nuclear-armed France couldn’t prevail over the non-nuclear Algerian National Liberation Front. The US nuclear arsenal didn’t inhibit North Korea from seizing a US intelligence-gathering vessel, the USS Pueblo, in 1968. Even today, this boat remains in North Korean hands. US nukes didn’t enable China to get Vietnam to end its invasion of Cambodia in 1979. Nor did US nuclear weapons stop Iranian Revolutionary Guards from capturing US diplomats and holding them hostage (1979-81), just as fear of US nuclear weapons didn’t empower the US and its allies to force Iraq to retreat from Kuwait without a fight in 1990. In Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy (2017), the political scientists Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann examined 348 territorial disputes occurring between 1919 and 1995. They used statistical analysis to see whether nuclear-armed states were more successful than conventional countries in coercing their adversaries during territorial disputes. They weren’t. Not only that, but nuclear weapons didn’t embolden those who own them to escalate demands; if anything, such countries were somewhat less successful in getting their way. In some cases, the analysis is almost comical. Thus, among the very few cases in which threats from a nuclear-armed country were coded as having compelled an opponent was the US insistence, in 1961, that the Dominican Republic hold democratic elections following the assassination of the dictator Rafael Trujillo, as well as the US demand, in 1994, following a Haitian military coup, that the Haitian colonels restore Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power.

In 1974-75, nuclear China forced non-nuclear Portugal to surrender its claim to Macau. These examples were included because the authors honestly sought to consider all cases in which a nuclear-armed country got its way vis-à-vis a non-nuclear one. But no serious observer would attribute the capitulation of Portugal or the Dominican Republic to the nuclear weapons of China or the US. All of this also suggests that the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran or North Korea is unlikely to enable these countries to coerce others, whether their ‘targets’ are armed with nuclear or conventional weapons. It is one thing to conclude that nuclear deterrence hasn’t necessarily deterred, and hasn’t provided coercive power  but its extraordinary risks are even more discrediting. First, deterrence via nuclear weapons lacks credibility. A police officer armed with a backpack nuclear weapon would be unlikely to deter a robber: ‘Stop in the name of the law, or I’ll blow us all up!’ Similarly, during the Cold War, NATO generals lamented that towns in West Germany were less than two kilotons apart  which meant that defending Europe with nuclear weapons would destroy it, and so the claim that the Red Army would be deterred by nuclear means was literally incredible. The result was the elaboration of smaller, more accurate tactical weapons that would be more usable and, thus, whose employment in a crisis would be more credible. But deployed weapons that are more usable, and thus more credible as deterrents, are more liable to be used.

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