How I Stopped Worrying…

by , March 11, 2006

So what should the United States and the West do about Iran’s effort to acquire nuclear technology and (almost certainly) eventually a nuclear weapon? Kenneth Waltz has convinced me that for the sake of reduction of conflict and war, the best thing we can do is – well, pretty much nothing.

Let’s face it, the U.S. and European governments may stamp their feet and fulminate, but eventually Iran is going to have a nuclear weapon. The question is whether this will be a calamitous development that makes the world a more dangerous place. Kenneth Waltz argues that, to the contrary, a gradual spread of nuclear weapons is more likely to make the world a marginally more peaceful place.

Waltz, emeritus professor of political science at the University of California-Berkeley, an adjunct senior research scholar at Columbia, and past president of the American Political Science Association, is generally acknowledged as one of the more influential exponents of what is called the realist or neo-realist school in international relations. For years I had heard of his 1981 monograph, "The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better," but I hadn’t read it. Now I have, and, especially given that it was written during the height of the Cold War when we were living in a bipolar international system, he makes a strong case that still stands up remarkably well.

I know that aversion to nuclear proliferation is strongly ingrained in most of the academic and political establishment, and some very fine people whom I otherwise admire believe that preventing the spread of nuclear weapons is one of the most important causes that can be pursued today. Most of these people sincerely believe that preventing any further nuclear "proliferation" will reduce the danger of accidental detonations and unintended wars and conflict.

I suspect, however, that in the future that view will be seen similarly to the way we now see bleeding as a medical practice. When bleeding was in fashion, all the best people believed in it. No doctor bled a patient with the intention of harming or weakening him or her. (And some people still believe, perhaps with a bit of scientific justification, that bleeding can still be effective for a few isolated maladies, thus the small market for medical leeches.) But eventually evidence showed that it was more harmful than helpful.

In his paper, Waltz deals with almost all the arguments logically, persuasively, and with intellectual integrity. He starts by noting that "the world has enjoyed more years of peace since 1945 than had been known in this century – if peace is defined as the absence of general war among the major states of the world." That didn’t mean an absolute absence of war, of course, but conflict had been "confined geographically and limited militarily."

Waltz argued that two factors contributed to this relative absence of major-power general conflict: (1) the bipolar world that emerged after World War II, with the United States and the Soviet Union as powers that far outstripped the power and importance of all the other powers combined, and (2) the presence of nuclear weapons. In a bipolar world as compared to the multipolar world that had been the case through much the 19th century, it’s easier for the players to calculate.

In a multipolar world, miscalculations, especially about decisions as to whether to go to war, are more possible because with more players there are more things to know, and the players may respond in unpredictable ways. Alliances shift, and hostilities may cause them to shift in ways the party that initiated the hostilities had not expected. In a world dominated by the U.S.-Soviet struggle, there were certainly things the parties didn’t know about each other, but the equations were less complex.

The other factor was nuclear weapons. The fact that both parties had nuclear weapons made both parties much more cautious than they might have been – almost certainly would have been on the evidence of several hundred years of history – in a conventionally armed world. The fact that both parties knew that a first strike would not eliminate the other side’s ability to retaliate, and that retaliation could involve the virtually complete destruction of major cities, perhaps even the country’s capital, served as a powerful deterrent to starting a general war. Thus, Waltz wrote, "Nuclear weapons have helped maintain peace between the great powers and have not led their few other possessors into military adventures."

The international system – and it was in thinking in terms of systems that Waltz went beyond previous "realists" such as Hans Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger – despite efforts such as the United Nations, international treaties, and international tribunals, is a condition of anarchy. Self-help is the principle of action in an anarchic order, and the most important way in which states must help themselves is by providing for their own security. They do this by offense, defense, or deterrence. Possession of a nuclear weapon – even a few of them, since they are easy to hide and an attacker cannot be sure he’s gotten them all of them on a first strike – is a powerful deterrent against aggression.

Nuclear weapons, in short, raise the cost of war, and therefore make general warfare less likely. They’re not a complete solution. The Cold War saw any number of low-level wars and guerrilla operations. But these were fought almost exclusively on the peripheries of the core interests of the two superpowers.

When Waltz wrote his monograph, the nuclear club was fairly small – the U.S., the Soviet Union, China, France, Britain, India, Israel – but Waltz predicted that it would slowly expand, specifically mentioning that Pakistan would almost certainly acquire nukes.

The monograph deals with almost all the fears that people have about nuclear proliferation – that they will be acquired by weak or unstable states that will not be able to control them effectively, that they will be acquired by radical or "bad" states that will be tempted to use them indiscriminately or without much thought for the consequences of their actions, that internal coups will put nukes into the hands of less stable actors than those who developed them. Based on what had already happened – Red China was considered so potentially irresponsible that U.S. liberals seriously considered a preemptive strike on its nuclear facilities before its bomb was operational, but it acted cautiously once it actually had nukes – he carefully disassembled the objections and made a powerful argument that possessing nuclear weapons (especially in a world where others also possess them, which is the world we live in and from which we’re unlikely to go back) induces caution in state leaders rather than aggressiveness.

Remember back in 1999 when Pakistan got nukes? Many people feared an imminent exchange with India, especially since the two countries had already fought three wars since 1949 over Kashmir and other disputed territories. But in more recent border disputes, both sides have been very careful not to antagonize the other too much, and although the process is still in its infancy something resembling a peaceful resolution may be in the offing.

Given the fact that one of the countries lumped together by President Bush as part of the fanciful "axis of evil" suffered an unprovoked act of aggression and invasion, it is not hard to understand why Iran might want to possess nuclear weapons – or why North Korea might want to do the same. There are other reasons, including the proximity of perfectly conventional artillery a few miles from Seoul that could inflict hundreds of thousands of casualties in hours, that the U.S. has been content to talk tough to North Korea while enlisting mainland China and a coalition to try to persuade it to play nice. But uncertainty about whether Pyongyang really does have an operational nuke or two is certainly a factor. Iran can hardly have failed to notice.

Iran borders on Pakistan, which has nukes, and Iraq, which once wanted nukes, and is a missile’s flight from Israel, which has nukes. In a world of realists, even beyond the somewhat bizarre sense of prestige that government leaders seem to think possessing nukes confers, it is hardly surprising that – given that they have resources and infrastructure – they would try to acquire them.

Do I look forward to a world in which Iran has nukes? No. But I don’t fear it as much as most people do, and I think most of the fears about how an Iran with nukes would destabilize the world are the far-fetched stuff of late-night bull sessions by college students who have consumed too many beers or funny cigarettes. You can weave semi-plausible story lines about how they would destabilize the region, but greater stability is the more likely outcome.

Does this mean I think dismantling the nonproliferation treaty is more likely to make the world a safer place than a more dangerous place? I rather like the transparency the treaty and the IAEA impose, but on balance, yes.

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