Welcome to the Club

In discussing Carr’s excellent post with friends, I ended up noting how overrated the nuclear peace theory is.  The theory is that nuclear weapons actually leads to a more stable international system by raising the stakes beyond where rational actors will escalate a crisis to.  This is the realist version of democratic peace theory, but I think it suffers from ignoring the other variables that have produced international peace since the creation of the bomb and ultimately, from being far too risky in practice to justify its limited benefits.

It is undeniable that two countries with nuclear weapons have never fought a war against one another, though the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. frequently contributed material support for whomever happened to fighting against the other one at the time.  However, to give all of the credit for that peace to nuclear weapons slights the amazing progress of international institutions since WWII.  The UN, NATO, WTO, EU, G-8, G-20 et al have created international stability and interdependence, while universal nationalism and sovereignty have necessitated acquiring legitimacy for military intervention.  Most wars in this period have been civil wars or proxy wars, often both.  Even the most glaring counterexample, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, was only possible because U.S. leadership flaunted international institutions philosophically.  As the U.S. has paid dearly for its hubris, it is hard imagine that any other great powers are in a hurry to follow that example.

Instead most powers seek regional hegemony, often through non-military means like Chavez’s oil-money largess or Iran’s philosophical hard-line appeal, and only will use force in their sphere of influence.  Russia’s invasion of Georgia last year was the first time that “Pax Americana” has been broken since the 80’s and even that was minor, strategic and costly.  That China and Taiwan have settled into an uneasy equilibrium, and obviously China is not afraid of the U.S.’s nuclear intervention in Taiwan, points that international institutions and not nuclear weapons are the cause of global stability.

Some might argue that nuclear weapons while not entirely causing the unprecidented global stability, have contributed to it.  Thus, rather than fear the expansion of nuclear weapons, we should embrace new nuclear states.  However, I fear that the truth of nuclear weapons is more like credit default swaps: a tiny dividend now and the unlikely possibility of catastrophe later.  The world has skated dangerously close to absolute calamity a few times, adding more players to this game only increases the probability that eventually something will go wrong.  That North Korea, probably the least rational, democratic or internationally accountable country on Earth now has nuclear weapons should be a cautionary tale for those who like that road to peace.

In fact, I would argue that for a country like North Korea, because the conventional wisdom is that securing the bomb is an absolute prevention against attack, nuclear weapons actually increase bad behavior.  Indeed, since North Korea has publicly announced they had nukes, they have taken American journalists prisoner, threatened to bomb Hawaii and pulled out of the 1953 Armistice.  The thought of a nuclear Iran, in the most strategically important and complicated region on Earth, surrounded by enemies and terrified neighbors and recently proven to be brutal and unresponsive to its citizenry is galvanizing.  Further, this analysis ignores the threat of non-state nuclear weapons, a possibility which becomes far more likely the more nuclear bombs available to fall into the wrong hands.

President Obama’s efforts both as a senator and as president to seek a nuclear free world, however distant that goal may seem, should be celebrated.  We no longer live under the constant threat of annhiliation, but the danger remains.

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