Thursday, April 23, 2009

Stop worrying, Obama, learn to love the Bomb

April 23, 2009

Disarmament is a noble goal but atomic arsenals are now key to stability

By William Choong

DURING my postgraduate studies in Canberra, I had a friend who was so enamoured of nuclear weapons, he even had a coffee-table book with high-resolution photographs of various nuclear detonations. When he secured a lectureship after finishing his doctorate, Stephan wanted to stick a poster of a large mushroom cloud on his office door. It was disallowed, for various reasons.

In the overall scheme of things, Stephan's mushroom cloud fetish is morally insane. Nuclear weapons, after all, are expressly designed to destroy billions of people. At the same time, he was also politically sane, since he strongly believed that nuclear weapons were not inherently evil, but stabilising weapons.

The opposite applies to United States President Barack Obama's recent proposal for a nuclear-free world: it is morally sane, but politically insane since it rejects the notion that such weapons can bring stability.

This does not mean that the proposal is not laudable. Mr Obama joins a distinguished company of notable abolitionists such as Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the nuclear bomb, Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell, as well US elder statesmen George Shultz and Henry Kissinger. Unlike most other anti-nuclear advocates though, Mr Obama is also infused with a good deal of realism. Speaking in Prague earlier this month, he noted that a nuclear-free world would not be realised quickly, even in his lifetime, but that it will take lots of 'patience and persistence'.

But like other noble goals - such as world peace, say - Mr Obama's proposal is normatively desirable, but operatively impossible. This is because nuclear weapons - now more than 60 years old - cannot be disinvented.

Suppose we nevertheless give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume that a whiff of Obama magic so wows the world that he convinces everyone, from Moscow to Pyongyang, of the virtues of nuclear disarmament. Disarmament would still face two major hurdles.

To begin with, it would have to be implemented by the five great powers - the US, Russia, China, France and Britain - as well as second- and third-tier powers comprising Israel, India and Pakistan, as well as Iran and North Korea. The typical response to any American proposal for disarmament would be 'yes, sure, but you go first'. Even if the US commits to drastic disarmament (unlikely), the rest will not follow suit, given the relationships among their arsenals: China's arsenal, for example, is linked to Russia's; India's to China's; and Pakistan's to India's.

Let us assume, again, that in the best-case scenario, the countries involved somehow manage to give up large chunks of their arsenals, such that the total number of nuclear weapons is zero or approaching zero. Paradoxically, the dash to zero will throw open Pandora's Box. A nuclear-free world will inevitably be a 'nuclear-prone' world: one or more countries will be tempted to seek a strategic 'break-out' by amassing nuclear weapons, leading to destabilising arms races. Argues Colin Gray, a prominent strategist: 'Given that the principal nuclear 'secrets' are secrets no longer, even a supposedly nuclear-free world would be a world wherein (a) the country that concealed a handful of weapons could be a winner, and (b) nuclear rearmament races would be a reality.'

Ultimately, the push for disarmament is not technical, but psychological. For a long time, nuclear-armed countries have considered nuclear weapons to be indispensable trump cards. Jonathan Schell, who sparked off the nuclear disarmament movement in 1980s, argues that the world's nuclear dilemma arises from 'bombs in the mind'. But that, unfortunately, is a mental construct that will persist even after nuclear weapons are got rid off.

This does not mean that Mr Obama's quest should not be attempted. If the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, Mr Obama's best shot is to seek the reduction of Russian and American stockpiles to around 1,000 warheads each. In 2002, both countries agreed to reduce their arsenals to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads each by 2012. Both Mr Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev have agreed on the possibility of more ambitious cuts.

In the meantime, Mr Obama should depend on the Cold War-era concept of deterrence, and its associated stability. Deterrence received a bum rap after the Cold War, but its potency lies in its simplicity. The threat of mutual assured destruction (or MAD) is a line that no country has yet crossed. Distinctions between conventional and nuclear weapons have blurred, but the latter still retains a critical edge. As Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling puts it, nuclear weapons have the ability to wreak destruction 'in a moment, at the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet' - and thus concentrate minds wonderfully.

Herman Kahn - the famed nuclear strategist and gallows humour specialist - once advised against over-emotionality on the issue of nuclear weapons and seeing the weapons as the enemy of humanity. He wrote in Thinking About The Unthinkable In The 1980s: 'The objective of nuclear-weapons policy should not be solely to decrease the number of weapons in the world, but to make the world safer - which is not necessarily the same thing.'

Mr Kahn was said to be the inspiration behind Dr Strangelove, a 1964 black comedy about a madcap American general who launched a first strike on the Soviet Union. The film is now basic 'reading' in universities around the world. Its most potent lesson: Amid the madness of using nuclear weapons - the author of the book on which the movie is based committed suicide, for fear of nuclear war - nuclear weapons can still engender stability. In this sense, they should be loved, not loathed.

Perhaps Mr Obama might be heartened to know that an alternative title of the movie is: How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

[We cannot go back. We need to deal with reality in the most realistic manner.]

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