Peace through Mutually Assured Destruction

Much of the interest of the foreign policy focus today lies in the nuclear proliferation of the Middle East; namely the conflict between Israel and Iran with the latter currently pursuing nuclear capability. In a world where controlling the proliferation has proved to be increasingly difficult, time intensive, and costly, it’s time to consider a new approach to combating the nuclear threat. By examining the proliferation policy as it stands today and peering into where this policy is headed, we can conclude that this model is not sustainable and that we much encourage proliferation if we hope to attain a lasting peace.

Nuclear proliferation today is governed by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which was signed by forty-eight nations in 1968. The stated objective of the treaty according to the United Nations is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, promote cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and ultimately complete disarmament. While the treaty was well intentioned, the status of nuclear proliferation in the world today is a bit of a deliberate ambiguity ploy. While forty-eight nations signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, some states have developed their nuclear technology outside of the Treaty thus undermining its effectiveness in governing proliferation. Countries such as South Africa, Pakistan, India and, if rumors are correct, Iran are examples of countries who pursued nuclear weapon capability outside of the boundaries of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. One of these reasons these countries have been able to get away with this is a result of a loophole in Article IV. Article IV of the Treaty gives non-nuclear states the ‘inalienable right’ to pursue nuclear energy to create an energy source, and as we have seen with Iran, this is a common scapegoat for any nuclear development activity.

In July of 1996, the International Court of Justice responded to a request from the United Nations General Assembly to answer the question, “Is the threat or use of nuclear weapons in any circumstances permitted under international law?” The Courts gave one of the few authoritative judicial decisions that exist in regards to nuclear weapon use, and the response is quite telling of the status of nuclear proliferation. The Court ruled in a split decision that, “… There is in neither customary nor conventional international law any comprehensive and universal prohibition of the threat or use of nuclear weapons as such.” However, the court also stated that the use of nuclear weaponry would violate existing international law applicable in armed conflict and various humanitarian laws but ultimately, the Court wouldn’t conclusively state whether nuclear weapon use would be lawful or unlawful. Crucially, the Court ruled that deterrence under certain circumstances towards a potential enemy wasn’t illegal as well as possession of nuclear weapons, although heavily condemned by United Nation resolutions, aren’t regarded universally as illegal. These two facts will form the cornerstone of the argument for my prescription to be stated in the third section.

In addition to legality, the Non-Proliferation Treaty faces an issue of enforcement. As it is currently set up, the International Atomic Energy Agency is in charge of monitoring various states for compliance with the treaty. Firstly, the International Atomic Energy Agency lacks powers to enforce the treaty and has to approach the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions for any violations that they might find. In addition, a loophole exists for states to withdraw suddenly from the treaty if they believe something has violated the interests of their country. As Professor Shimko points out, North Korea used this out a few years before testing its nuclear weapons program. What does this mean? Essentially, the group that is tasked with enforcing the non-proliferation of these nuclear weapons doesn’t have the power to actually do this and can only report violations back to the UN Security Council. Pair this with the shaky legal ground that nuclear weapon possession already sits on and it becomes clear that Nuclear Non-Proliferation may not only just be illegal, but also next to impossible to effectively and consistently enforce. A closer look at a few case studies further emphasizes this point.

The case of South Africa is an interesting one as they managed to internally develop it’s own nuclear reactor and weapon technology outside of the international eye until it voluntarily decided to dismantle its program. Furthermore, evidence has emerged in recent years that implicates that Israel was involved in either assisting with technology or perhaps selling nuclear weapons whole to South Africa. This is interesting as both of these countries were not signees of the Non-Proliferation agreement and thus were not subject to any oversight. While there was some diplomatic pressure from the United States to stop development of their nuclear capability, South Africa was able to build and test their weaponry without too much interference and they remain a concerning example of nuclear development going on within a state without anyone noticing.

One of the more recent examples of nuclear proliferation working for peace through deterrence is the case of Pakistan versus India. Similar to South Africa, neither of these countries signed the Non Proliferation agreement but managed to both develop nuclear technology and deliverability capability. This development took place during a time of intense conflict between the two sides during the Kargil War after Pakistani soldiers infiltrated and took Indian bases. With the development of nuclear weapons for both sides however, neither side launched a full-scale attack on the other and the once sour relationship between the two has began to thaw. Along the same lines, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was a period of great tension but also peace between the two nuclear super powers. The term ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’ was coined to describe the implications of a nuclear attack by one of the two on the other, as both had the capability to counterstrike regardless of where the other targeted. The gravity of the outcome of a serious conflict between these two superpowers gave way to an understanding of the seriousness and implications of their actions, and the ‘Cold War’ experienced a forty-four year peace that lasted until the metaphorical collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.

The final deterrence example that is revealing of the current status of proliferation in the world today is that of the case of Israel. Israel did not sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but is widely believed to be a nuclear power. Furthermore, there are documents that have emerged within the last few years that seem to indicate Israel did or was willing to supply South Africa with nuclear technology and material. If not for their relative proximity to their interests, this would most certainly be a serious violation in the eyes of the International community and be punished with condemnation and sanctions. However, as stated in Professor Beres’ article for Our Jerusalem concerning nuclear weapons as a guarantor of world peace, Israel maintains a status of deliberate ambiguity regarding their program, which has created an interesting situation in the Middle East for Israel. Israel has been able to have several years of mostly peace as a direct result of the fact they’re the singular nuclear state in the region. While Iran is seeking to challenge this, and Israel is doing just about everything it can to stop it, perhaps as in the case of the United States there will be a chance for adult discourse over solving the Palestinian crisis if there is the possibility of mutual assured destruction.

What does continuing this pursuit of non-proliferation look like down the road? The North Korea example is a perfect example of why this policy isn’t sustainable. While North Korea hasn’t officially been confirmed to have nuclear weapons, it is widely believed that they have the technology to make a reactor and the material to make a few bombs. North Koreas intentions seem to be two-fold however. While there is the deterrence angle, or as it would claim a response to unconfirmed American warheads positioned to the South, there is also a brinksmanship argument with the end goal being economic aid for the country. North Korea has starved for the last two decades or so, and much of the energy and food it consumes comes from international aid, with their nuclear program being the primary bargaining chip. This has led to over a decade of back and forth on the issue with no real non-proliferation by the North, but millions of dollars of aid shipments by the international community. The North Koreans have used our obsession with Nuclear Non-Proliferation to bargain a deal with us to get much needed aid in exchange for small, and hardly permanent, concession in regards to their nuclear program.

As states such as South Africa, Israel, Pakistan, and India have done before, future countries will ultimately be able to develop nuclear technology regardless of what efforts we take to stop them. The only tool that has been proven to work on a global scale in the case of the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as a regional scale, in the case of India and Pakistan, is deterrence through proliferation.

The solution for this issue of containing proliferation is to simply not contain it.  As Kenneth Waltz said in his paper titled “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May be Better,” hypothesizes that the ultimate price of using nuclear weapons will deter a state from using them against another state. Two prominent examples of this are the India versus Pakistan example I cited earlier, and the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Especially in the Soviet/ United States example, the threat of mutual assured destruction deterred either country from starting a war, resulting in a forty-four year icy peace between the two. Arguably, one of Israel’s strongest assets is the fact that it has nuclear capability which has deterred and will continue to deter it’s adversaries from contemplating and substantial military action against them.

With states deciding to move towards nuclear status outside of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, there is also a lack of oversight into the nuclear functions of these newer emerging states. As it exists now, the International Atomic Energy Agency doesn’t have any means to force itself in a state to inspect its nuclear facilities. Rather, it can only inspect those who have signed on which could ultimately further undermine the treaty down the road. The future looks poorly regulated but more worryingly, it looks to be a period where there is limited understanding to the actual capabilities of various countries who decide not to sign on to the treaty. This is really compounded when these states outside of the treaty attempt to share technology with other non treaty member states, such as the Israel and South Africa example mentioned earlier or the attempt by Iran to buy technology from Pakistan in the early 1990’s. It’s just further evidence that the effectiveness of the Non-Proliferation Treaty has declined considerably in recent years and it’s time to look at an alternative solution to the threat of nuclear weaponry.

While current US policy as well as a major part of the Non-Proliferation Treaty center on the idea of reducing nuclear stockpiles to ultimately get to a point of complete disarmament, Professor Beres rightly brought up the question; ‘Is this feasible or even desirable?’ The answer to both is absolutely not. It will be impossible to completely rid the world of nuclear weapons, and such a world without nuclear weapons would remove the threat of destruction to an attacking state and therefore make the nuclear strategic option a very likely and decisive one. Looking back to the cases cited previously where deterrence played a major role in preventing catastrophic war both globally and regionally, the evidence exists to support a wide spread proliferation of nuclear technology and weaponry. Ideally, the weaponry could be available for purchase through the United Nations with the proceeds going to the humanitarian arm of the UN. With each warhead parsed through this system, location services and serial tracking would be utilized to keep track of where and how many nuclear weapons are in a region. This solution is both desirable in that it promotes peace through deterrence as well as feasible, as by using the existing infrastructure that focuses on non-proliferation to instead promote the spread of nuclear technology as well as actual warheads themselves we, could reroute our non-proliferation efforts to meet this new policy of encouraged proliferation.

One argument against such a system is the idea that crazed dictators such as Ahmadinejad would be eligible to receive this weaponry and then use it to go on a military offensive. However Shimko rightly pointed out that both Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin were the radical hardline dictators of their day, and when their respective countries became nuclear, both were perfectly understanding of the gravity of their decisions and were able to exhibit a level of rationality to understand the harsh consequences to their actions. In the case of Mao, Shimko’s description of him as a ‘rouge leader’ followed by adjectives such as ‘unpredictable,’ ‘ideological,’ and ‘fanatical’ is certainly familiar in rhetoric. Many would be eager to point out that this description draws many parallels to the current President of Iran Ahmadinejad, whose country currently poses the greatest threat to non-proliferation. When you look at the threats posed by and the rationality found by those who have come before him however, remembering that the likes of Mao and Stalin also had the ability to deliver these warheads, the threat of Ahmadinejad’s actions becomes much less of an issue.

The other prominent counter argument to encouraging nuclear proliferation is the concern that terrorist organizations or rogue states could acquire them. While the possibility certainly exists, the International Atomic Energy Agency would be working to monitor the proliferation of these nuclear weapons to maintain a profile on their distribution instead of their current function as sort-of watchdogs. The idea that these nuclear weapons will automatically fall into the hands of terrorists is misplaced, as the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 received huge amounts of nuclear weapons into the region as well as the black market.

The issue of how to handle the proliferation of nuclear weapons is one that has been debated heavily since the United States exercised the first, and so far only, use of a nuclear weapon during the final days of World War Two against Japan. Throughout this paper, I have worked to describe how the main governing treaty for nuclear proliferation works today, what direction we are headed in if we continue with the status quo, as well as provide an alternative solution to this never ending cycle that we deal with when we try and contain nuclear proliferation without any real tools to actually do so. Nuclear deterrence has created environments that allowed discourse where non would otherwise be possible, and is a very real and proven tool to prevent conflict in general out of the aforementioned fear of destruction. While many would argue that it isn’t the ideal solution and that a world of full nuclear disarmament would be more attractive, it simply isn’t feasible. Once the crossing of the Rubicon happened with the atomic bomb, there simply isn’t any going back. It is for that reason that we need to implement a policy that creates perspective by promoting nuclear proliferation to perhaps give rationality and an understanding of the fragility of ourselves as a species so we can move forward together.


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