What can we do to prevent nuclear war?
We are three quarters of a century into the nuclear age. Have we yet learned how to live with nuclear weapons? It seems not.
Some take heart from the fact that, after the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there has been no nuclear war. They say, rightly, it would be suicide for the U.S. and Russia to unleash their nuclear weapons.
But we must ask ourselves whether the contending powers actually accept this. If they do not, nuclear deterrence is unstable.
Consider the evidence. It is a dubious form of acceptance of a condition of stable deterrence that leads the opponents to engage in an arms race costing a trillion dollars. Yet that is what they are doing.
In Russian President Putin’s case the big ticket items include new torpedoes capable of making the eastern United States uninhabitable. U.S. President Trump is planning instead space-based lasers, able to burn up incoming missiles.
Why is it so hard to distinguish the supposed equilibrium of deterrence from its opposite, an uncontrolled arms race? The latter description seems more apt.
The two leaders have yet, it seems, to hear the voice of Ronald Reagan who, in his State of the Union Address in 1984, stated that “A nuclear war cannot be won, and must never be fought.” Most informed commentators agree, but military establishments continue to plan for nuclear victory. Their plans contradict the premise on which deterrence rests.
The major powers, the U.S. and Russia with 90 per cent of the world’s nuclear weapons, keep their intercontinental missiles in instant readiness for firing. The reason they do so is that neither believes that the threat of retaliation by itself can be relied on to keep the peace.
Instead, they are preparing to prevail in nuclear war. For this they must be able to fire their missiles before others do. Their policy of “launch-on-warning” offers them the possibility of striking the opponent’s weapons prior to all being fired, thereby weakening the retaliation.
The war-fighting strategy does not end there. In a crisis situation military planners may want the option of launching their ICBM’s preventively, in advance of an anticipated attack. But this pressure to use nuclear assets rather than risk losing them undermines stable deterrence, replacing it with a different scenario more closely resembling a confrontation between gunslingers in a saloon.
There is a further tide in current war-planning eroding the basis for stable deterrence. It consists in the provision, alongside ICBM’s, of weapons with reduced nuclear explosive power, since these can more plausibly be used to initiate nuclear war. This so-called “tactical” use of nuclear weapons was proposed decades ago in Europe, but subsequently rejected when military exercises showed that Europe had been destroyed.
Tactical weapons, with their shorter-range, further shorten warning times. Prevention of escalation to all-out war rests on the dubious assumption that the victims will correctly assess the “limited” nature of the nuclear blow.
The danger of escalation led in the past to the rejection of tactical nuclear war. It led also to a historic bilateral agreement, the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, eliminating these weapons, which could so readily provide the next rung in nuclear escalation. Regrettably, that agreement was recently rescinded, after a 30 year run.
We should ask again, can we rely on the stability of the present and planned nuclear deterrents? Surely not.
We have therefore to pressure the weapons states to move to the posture that many thought already existed; minimum nuclear deterrence. We shall know we have achieved it when there remain only a few nuclear weapons, all of them off alert.
A note of optimism: removing weapons from high alert is readily achieved by separating them from their warheads. China has, to its credit, done this for years past.
Such a minimal and de-alerted deterrent was clearly delineated at the 1960 Moscow international conference of scientists, following discussions in Pugwash, N.S. It is time the world took note.
But we must look further ahead. Deterrence can be made more stable, but never stable enough.
In the long-term, terror will prove an insufficient guarantor of peace. We are bound to prohibit these inhuman weapons, as we have done, by law, in the case of every other means of indiscriminate slaughter.
The obligation to do this stems from a right that is increasingly acknowledged — the right of the people on this planet to exist.
John Polanyi is a Nobel laureate at the University of Toronto who has written widely on the dangers of nuclear war.