Since the Soviet Union’s first atomic test in August of 1949 ended the US’ monopoly of nuclear weapons, US’ strategies for averting nuclear war have evolved.  Watershed events such as the development of intercontintental ballistic missiles, the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the rise of non-state actors such as al Qaeda in the 1990’s have morphed the contours of the strategic landscape and challenged strategic thinking of how best to keep the world safe from nuclear war.  One constant attribute among most US strategic analysts throughout these dilemmas has been the dubious, though at one time probably commendable, tendency to exaggerate nuclear threats in conscious attempts to use the unique psychological impact of nuclear weapons to accomplish non-proliferation policies that were not politically possible for conventional weapons.  John Mueller, in his Atomic Obsession:  Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al Qaeda, quotes Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists editor Eugene Rabinowitch explaining that the purpose of his publication was “to preserve civilization by scaring men into rationality” as one of many examples of such hyperbole.  In the context of the Cold War, these exaggerations led to the nuclear disarmament movement and fostered the development of institutions such as the United Nations and International Atomic Energy Agency, which were at least ostensibly established to realize these goals.  Since the US became the world’s sole superpower in 1992, and the parallel ascendancy of the right in the US’ and European political systems, the anathematic role nuclear weapons play in world politics produces a different effect–namely, to make war with so-called “rogue states” more likely, evidenced first in Iraq in 2002 and 2003 and currently in Iran.  Thus, what was once a powerful argument for restraint is, in the post-Cold War international environment, a pretext for belligerent elements in the US to wage war.

Absent the Soviet threat, a more effective US strategy for maintaining peace is, first, recognizing the moderating effect nuclear weapons have had on great powers since the advent of nuclear weapons and applying those lessons to current conflicts; secondly, recognizing the moderating effect nuclear weapons have had on the few smaller states which maintain arsenals and applying those lessons to current and continuing conflicts is essential for effective security policies; finally, both the inability of emerging nuclear nations such as Iran to use their new weapons to achieve anything but the worthy goal of deterring attack and, absent threats from the West, the very limited incentives non-nuclear states have for pursuing nuclear programs should be recognized.

Nuclear weapons are stabilizers in an international system historically fraught with dissension.  As John Mearsheimer shows in his seminal The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, in the one-hundred and fifty-three years preceding the invention of nuclear weapons, Europe was ravaged by fifty-five wars.  The number of casualties in these wars exceeds 28 million, not including the approximately 75 million casualties in the two world wars.  Conversely, Europe has only had one war since the invention of nuclear weapons.  That war, the Russo-Hungarian War of 1956, saw the deaths of a meager 10,000, and evidence suggests that Soviet aggression in Hungary was tempered by the presence of NATO nuclear arsenals in the European theater.  Mearsheimer concludes that “[nuclear weapons] surely account for the absence of great-power war in Europe between 1945 and 1990”.

Prior to the invention of nuclear weapons, military planners had difficulty calculating which state would have the advantage in a given conflict, leading to all kinds of miscalculations. Nuclear weapons introduce a new Weltanshauung in the world of military strategy, the result of a newly defined value in the equation of wars, the cost of aggression.  As éminence grise Bernard Brodie observed on the first page of his brief history of nuclear strategy, “The Development of Nuclear Strategy”:  “[t]hus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars.  From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them.  It can have almost no other useful purpose”.  For states considering aggression against a state with nuclear weapons, strategic decision-making and cost-benefit analysis are simplified to the point where starting a war means annihilation of large, valuable portions of the aggressor state.  As analyst Kenneth Waltz has noted, the problematic nature of deterrence in a conventional world is absent in a nuclear world:

Nuclear weapons purify deterrent strategies by removing elements of defense and war-fighting. Nuclear warheads eliminate the necessity of fighting and remove the possibility of defending, because only a small number of warheads need to reach their targets.

Nuclear weapons eliminate the need for defense because they eliminate the possibility of defense.

The experience of Europe over the past 60 years clears a path though the paradoxical strategic morass presented by nuclear weapons.  Nuclear weapons, though highly destructive when detonated, are the first effective deterrent against wars of aggression in the long history of European warfare.  Their use as weapons of deterrence was a triumph in the second half of the twentieth century in the standoff between the US, the USSR and the European powers, and they could play a similar role in the multipolar world that is emerging in the twenty-first century.

Just as Great Powers have been successful in averting violence in the nuclear age, regional powers such as Pakistan and India are likely to have success averting major war with the presence of their nuclear weapons.  The product of a post-colonial mishandling by the British empire, the boundary between India and Pakistan was incompetently drawn by the British in their hasty withdrawal from the Asian subcontinent.  Since partition in 1947 numerous large-scale conflicts have been fought, mostly for control of the Kashmir region.  In almost every case threats of a wider war ensued, and the UN had to take drastic action to circumvent this outcome.

Nuclear weapons will give India and Pakistan the space in which a negotiated settlement may be moved toward completion.  Since the series of nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in 1998, establishing India’s mastery over nuclear technology and Pakistan’s emergence as a nuclear power, no large-scale conflicts have occurred.  Even after it had been established that Pakistan’s intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, had a role to play in the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008, India did not respond aggressively.

Those who argue that nuclear weapons are destabilizing in the India-Pakistan standoff generally tend to argue that these countries use the weapons as shields behind which they can launch limited attacks without fear of reprisal.  But this misses the fact that those skirmishes used to be much larger and threatened full-scale and even wider war.  Furthermore, evidence exists that the presence of the nuclear programs in India and Pakistan give the international community more impetus for and access to processes of diplomacy in the region.  Peaceful coexistence in the region is doubtful in the near future, but making the conflicts that do arise less conflagratory is a good idea.

The success of nuclear non-proliferation in the years since the signing of the NPT in 1968 is impressive.  Aside from the five recognized states possessing nuclear weapons, only five nations illicitly joined the nuclear club.  This is more likely because most nations already have little interest in possessing nuclear weapons than due to leaders’ desires to adhere to the NPT.  Surely, the addition of an international treaty adds something to the incentives for not having nuclear weapons, but merely expecting a sudden rise in nuclear proliferation absent such a treaty is not realistic.

As Joseph Cirincione shows in his brief primer on nuclear weapons, Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons, “politics trumps technology”. The fact that nuclear technology may be available to states plays very little role in determining whether that state will develop a nuclear weapons program. The knowledge necessary to manufacture nuclear weapons is universal, and currently 44 countries possess the industrial capability for a nuclear weapons program.  Yet, for different reasons, leaders have decided not to pursue programs.

Furthermore, enforcing non-proliferation policies is highly problematic.  The strictures of the NPT are nevertheless toothless without enforcement, and enforcement makes non-proliferation more difficult.  In the case of Iran, the threat of attack has roots much deeper than the current nuclear standoff.  Iran has been subject to Western threat and attack since the formation of its current government in 1979, and it correctly sees nuclear arms as a guarantee against Western aggression.  In this way, the more strenuously the US threatens enforcement of nonproliferation norms, the more incentives are given to countries to develop nuclear weapons as a deterrent.

The paradoxical strategic significance of nuclear weapons continues to confound strategic thinkers and politicians tasked with keeping the world safe from war and nuclear war.  What might have been a noble and successful counterproliferation policy during the Cold War is now delusional and problematic.  Complicating the situation, current US policy applies selectively the enforcement of non-proliferation; illicit Indian and Pakistani programs were aided by the West while Iran’s legitimate program, still not proven to exist, has caused the US to threaten war.  Absent the Soviet counterweight to the West, the temptation to intervene aggressively at will throughout the world is proving too strong for the political leadership in the US.  Non-proliferation enforcement is quickly becoming the cloak under which these interventions are disguised.  The more non-ideological policy of using the natural tendencies of non-threatened nations to abstain by choice from nuclear weapons, allowing their existence in global hot spots to deter aggression, and attempting to end the current policy of disguising brazen self-interest as a movement toward peace is a better goal.