Christopher Soelistyo considers the role of nuclear weapons in the age of waning superpowers.
On February 2nd 2019, first the United States, then Russia announced a formal suspension of their obligations to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. This agreement, signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, forbade the US and the Soviet Union from producing, testing or deploying mid-range ground-launched missiles. Borne out of anxiety over the hundreds of missiles that held Western and Eastern Europe at risk throughout the 1980s, this treaty is now destined to become void in six months unless given “underlying issues” have been dealt with in that period.
But what are these issues exactly? President Donald Trump has laid out his reasons for the US exit: the alleged Russian production and testing of a non-compliant intermediate-range missile, and the fact that China is not a party to – and therefore not constrained by – the treaty. US accusations of Russian non-compliance began in July 2014, when the State Department reported Russia had produced and tested a non-compliant cruise missile (the Novator 9M729). As for China, it is public knowledge that it fields at least three variants of intermediate-range missile (the DF-3, DF-4 and DF-21) freely, since it is not part of the treaty. Whether one agrees with Trump’s exit or not, one can see the basic reasons for it – the alleged Russian violation implies the INF has already been de facto nullified. Additionally, China’s increasing assertiveness and economic strength invalidates the US-Russia dual-hegemony.
This raises the question, why would the Trump administration be so concerned about the Russian and Chinese development of new weapons if it can already hold the major cities of Russia and China at risk? Isn’t this sufficient for the deterrence that nuclear weapons were meant for? Moreover, if minimum deterrence was truly the purpose of nuclear weapons from the beginning, then why have all US administrations since Harry Truman, both Republican and Democratic, insisted on possessing nuclear superiority over other states?
This emphasis on superiority from both the US and Russia can be understandably alarming. According to Congressional Budget Office estimates, President Trump’s planned modernisation programs would sink $1.2 trillion into the nuclear force over the next 30 years. At its 1986 peak, the world stockpile included 64,099 nuclear weapons, 63,476 of them belonging to either the US or the Soviet Union, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Given these numbers, it is natural to ask whether maintaining such enormous arsenals is really necessary. Answering that question, however, requires an understanding of the roles of nuclear weapons.
If State A possesses an operational nuclear arsenal, then it cannot be met with an existential challenge from State B – general war, for instance – without State B suffering the consequences of nuclear retaliation (that is not to say an existential challenge is the only case where nuclear weapons could be used, but the other cases won’t be treated here). The devastation inflicted upon State B is dependent on the strength of State A’s nuclear arsenal. For instance, the devastation threatened on the US homeland by China’s current nuclear arsenal is, perhaps, the loss of a few dozen cities on the East Coast. The US, on the other hand, is able to exact far greater destruction on its adversary.
But how may an existential challenge come about? Hopefully, world leaders don’t wake up one morning deciding to unleash nuclear devastation on another country. They may make that fateful decision, however, in the midst of a crisis. In international relations, the term ‘crisis’ is not very rigorously defined, but it can generally be understood as a situation in which there is a dangerously high risk of war between two or more states. This can come about when one state makes a move that is highly provocative to the other, such as placing missiles near enemy territory (Soviet Union vs. United States, 1962), initiating a series of border clashes (China vs. Soviet Union, 1969) or threatening to intervene in a regional conflict that pits the states against one another (Soviet Union vs. United States, 1973). In many cases, one state will “win” the crisis when it achieves its goals at the expense of the other. For instance, during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the US was able to coerce the Soviets to remove their missiles from Cuba, thus winning this particular episode. With this in mind, the case being made here is that possessing superiority in one’s nuclear arsenal increases the chances that one will win international crises when they arise. Let’s see how this works.
We assume States A and B are locked in a crisis in which they have mutually exclusive objectives – if one wins, the other loses. There is a latent probability – a risk – at every point in time that the crisis will suddenly erupt into full-scale war. Each state has the ability to increase this risk by, for example, placing its nuclear forces on high alert or moving its troops closer to enemy positions. For nuclear-armed states, the most effective tool to the win a crisis is the threat to “give in to our demands or we’ll raise the risk of nuclear war for both of us”. By threatening the opponent with nuclear war, it effectively threatens itself with nuclear war. The hope is that the opponent will then decide that winning the crisis is not worth the risk. The prerequisite is that the threatening state does think it worth the risk. The victor, then, is the one who has a larger stake in the crisis at hand and is willing to stomach greater risks of nuclear war to win it (i.e. superiority in the balance of stakes).
There is one element missing here, however: “nuclear war” does not mean the same thing for all states. As was hinted at earlier, China has more to fear than the US when it comes to a nuclear exchange between the two countries. This is because the nuclear balance of power between the countries is skewed by the United States’ overwhelmingly larger nuclear stockpile. Surely, the logic goes, a state would more readily shy away from the risk of nuclear war if it faced the threat of greater destruction. Seen this way, the balance of power is another important determinant for how likely a given state will win a crisis. Moreover, whereas the balance of stakes is crisis-dependant and cannot be predicted in advance, the balance of power can reliably be manipulated. The easiest way to do this is to produce more nuclear weapons.
We are now some way into understanding why nuclear superiority is such a matter of concern for the planet’s original global hegemon – the United States. Obviously, nuclear strength is far from the only component of US dominance, but even today, nuclear weapons are not just a relic of the Cold War; they are still very much in play. This has important implications for any activism that seeks to rid the world of nuclear weapons. To be sure, there are many legitimate reasons for seeking their abolition. On one level, they are the ultimate indiscriminate weapon – shock waves, fireballs and radiation clouds do not discriminate between soldier and civilian (as has been the case with the rise of total wars in the 20th century). On another level, we can question the reliability of nuclear command-and-control systems: the record of near-accidents and false alarms is quite alarming.
I think we would all prefer a world without nuclear weapons, but the road to disarmament seems unclear. If the US were to unilaterally give up its nuclear weapons, this would give a tremendous coercive advantage to Russia and China, a prospect that any US administration would not entertain. If we are to actually disarm the world’s powers of nuclear weapons, we should begin by recognising why they are so strategically important. Persuasive solutions have to start from there.