Why are nuclear weapons so persistent?

Why are nuclear weapons so persistent?

Patrick Morgan: I want to thank the organizers for inviting me to come. I’ve learned a lot from participating with others in the program up to this point. I’m going to just talk very briefly about a problem which has preoccupied me for a very long time, and that is why nuclear weapons have been so durable, so persistent. I once argued, and have argued on and off, “Well, maybe someday we’ll outgrow nuclear weapons,” and I thought we were making some progress in that regard in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War, but it’s clear we are not outgrowing them very fast if we’re outgrowing them at all.

So, I have thought about this quite a bit, and I can list what I think are the reasons that nuclear weapons persist, and I’ve formed five categories of reasons. And so I’ll talk about each of those.

First of all, I’ll talk about broad security reasons having to do with the nature of the way security has been approached in the overall international system; secondly, what I might call the image, or psychological dimension; third, political dimension; fourth, a more strictly military dimension; and then finally, what might be called a foreign policy category of reasons.

But they overlap. These are not exclusive categories at all. They overlap and interact. We’ll start with the first one, and there I would remind you of something which was true throughout the 19th century, and that was, much of the international politics of the 20th century  had to do with inadequate outcomes from the end of great wars.

This was true after World War I, and appallingly so, in the end. It was certainly true after World War II, and to a lesser extent, it has been true after the Cold War. That is, one of the reasons that nuclear weapons persist is because we did not manage to incorporate Russia and China into the Western-dominated post-Cold War global system. That is, they were left in a situation in which they felt uncomfortable.

They feel threatened. They feel their security is insufficiently guaranteed. There were efforts to do this, and some of those efforts were very sincere, but they were not sufficiently effective, and not simply because they’re failures in trying, but failures at the other end as well on the part of the Russians and the Chinese. I can go into details about that, but I think you understand my point generally.

A second kind of failure was that the end of the Cold War meant, in effect, the rise of the West, a substantial escalation in the power of the West. That is not universally considered good. There are numerous countries who find, to this day, that a very threatening thing. Structurally, it’s a very threatening thing, see. That’s very difficult to do something about. This is true in North Korea. This is true in Russia and China. This is true in Iran, and there are other countries that I could mention.

Next, we fail to make any progress on a set of key conflicts that have been driving proliferation of nuclear weapons. The India/Pakistan conflict. No progress in that area really seriously, and the result is, since the end of the Cold War, the emergence of two new substantial nuclear weapons capabilities.

And the conflict in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel and the rest of the world, Israel and Iran — I don’t have to spend any time talking about that, either, and how that has helped to stimulate further development of Israel’s nuclear weapons plus a nuclear weapons program in Iran, plus consideration of the possibility of having to have a nuclear weapons program in several other states. So, that’s a kind of very fundamental, almost structural kind of problem that we’ve had to live with.

Secondly is the psychological dimension. This is one that is popular enough I don’t have to spend a lot of time on it. It’s well known that some of the pressures for developing nuclear weapons, some of the pressures for keeping nuclear weapons, are largely in terms of certain states feeling that this is crucial for their having a certain status, stature and role in international affairs.

It is very difficult to imagine the French saying, “Ending all nuclear weapons would be great.” It is very difficult to expect the Chinese to say, “Getting rid of all nuclear weapons would be just fine.” Because there would be people saying, “One of the ways in which we are able to try to have some influence on things that, in the broad sense regionally and globally, affect our affairs is that we have a stature associated with having nuclear weapons.”

This is, in part, behind the drive for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. It is very much a part of what’s going on in the drive by Iran in the direction of developing nuclear weapons and so on. This is, in part, a structural sort of problem, as you can see as well, but it is also a psychological dimension, which is very difficult to figure out how to deal with. This is not an easy thing to deal with.

Next comes a political dimension, and in the political dimension I would cite the following things. And there’s an overlap here, because a concern for status, influence, having a voice, having a seat at the table, is very much a political motivation, in part. But I would stress in the political area the fact that I see no really strong domestic political consensus in various states around the world that nuclear weapons have to be done away with.

There is a consensus of being nice to not have them, but the idea that we must make sacrifices, take risks, expend enormous effort on behalf of that, is not something that’s at the top of political agenda. I don’t think it’s the central concern anywhere in terms of national public opinion.

It’s clearly not the central concern in the sense that you’d have some consensus behind it of government bureaucracies in the nuclear-armed states. You get elements in the armed forces in the United States who couldn’t care less about continuing with nuclear weapons, and you’ve got other sections of the military that are very much committed to retaining them. You got sections in the American bureaucracy in other areas which are very strongly committed of getting rid of nuclear weapons and big sections that are not.

I think that’s true in France, I think that’s true In India, I think that’s true in Russia, I think that’s true in China. There is I think no strong consensus behind the idea of getting rid of nuclear weapons on the part of political elites. Not just in the nuclear powers but in a number of other countries that are interested in extended nuclear deterrence. Or who are interested in living within the kind of international system security management that the major states provide.

If you start down that road all of a sudden you turn over a rock when it comes to people saying, “I’m not so sure that I like…”. You see, it’s not a consensus on that. It is not something you can announce and everybody will sign on the dotted line and show up and be willing to work hard.

Next, is the strictly military dimension. The last speaker did a wonderful job of laying out the arguments that are made for why nuclear weapons are still important, still necessarily, we can’t do without them. And I would just summarize that – a feeling that nuclear deterrence works! It works. It does something and that something is good.

All I can say about this, since I have long since decided that nuclear deterrence is a very, very dangerous thing and I wish people did not think it worked, is that we can not convincingly, across the board, say, “It doesn’t work”. That’s the trouble. It would be nice, for that purpose, if we had had two or three nuclear wars. That would convince us all right. Herman Kahn used to say, “Everybody thinks nuclear deterrents is a good idea and the first time it fails everybody will agree that it is a disastrous idea.” Well it takes something like that unfortunately to get a consensus on this matter.

Especially, as Marianne Hanson mentioned, among military people or other people preoccupied with security affairs. They quite often will simply say, “Nuclear weapons prevented World War Three.  They’re still preventing World War Three.” I don’t believe that’s true. I say two things:

  1. I sure as hell wouldn’t want them to turn out to be right. In other wards if the argument they make is essentially, “Do you want to risk the fact that were right?” That’s not an easy argument to answer because…
  2. the burden of history supports them.

We have a situation today in which the great powers (this has already been pointed out) seem very unlikely to go to war with each other. Seem very unlikely to have conflicts that would lead them to think about going to war with each other. That has not been typical international politics.

So one of the arguments you get – if you’re me and you’re at these meetings and you’re saying, “Look we don’t have a relationship with the Chinese and Russians anymore that invites unlikely war and certainly not a nuclear war.” Their response is, “How do you know that will last? How do you know that will last?” So its not easy to tell people that we should take the risk. That this kind of world is going to continue to exist or that eliminating nuclear weapons will, in fact, ensure that it will continue to exist. That’s difficult. It’s a hard sell.

Finally there is the foreign policy to mention. One of the things that’s been most disheartening for me as a international relations specialist and a person concerned about excessive reliance on nuclear weapons and deterrence is that there has not been a solid consensus of the states, among foreign policy elites, about how seriously to take nuclear proliferation and what to do about it. We have not been able to get that.

The way that I like to put it is – connection with American foreign policy just to start with. For too many governments, too often, when a proliferation problem emerges, something else is more important. That something else that stands in the way of dealing with them. You’ve got a problem with North Korea. The Chinese agree this is a problem. The Chinese agree something ought to be done. The Chinese tell the North Koreans they don’t want them to have nuclear weapons.

If you say to the Chinese, “Well then, let’s force that.” What’s more important to the Chinese – the principle of national sovereignty.  The Chinese worry about the general long term consequences of adopting the view that when a bunch of countries decide that something is unacceptable, you can violate sovereignty to do something about it. “North Korea,” the Chinese will say, “are a sovereign nation entitled, if they want, to have nuclear weapons.” That’s more important.

For years the United States really knew, suspected that Pakistan was developing nuclear weapons. Would the United States forthrightly confront Pakistan about this? It would not. What was more important? Defeating the Russians in Afghanistan which required Pakistan’s help. There is always something for somebody that’s more important.

For a number of smaller countries in the world the existing nuclear regime is unacceptable and it is all right for other countries to want to develop nuclear weapons to help off-set the power of those big countries. Something is more important than defeating proliferation, than actually taking big risks. My argument would be, in short then, we are going up against something that is not just misguided information.

People are addicted, inertia, and so on. We are confronting a network of reasons why nuclear weapons persist that are very scary in terms of their impact. So nuclear weapons are dribbling along. They are coming down, down, at a much too slow a pace, much too slow a pace. We are up against something very tough in trying to change that. It is not going to be easy. It’s wrong to think that it is only a matter of just pointing out nuclear weapons aren’t useful anymore; we don’t need them; nuclear weapons are terribly dangerous; nuclear weapons can have catastrophic environmental effects; and so on. This cluster of reasons stands in the way and they won’t just disappear.

About Patrick Morgan

Patrick Morgan holds the Thomas and Elizabeth Tierney Chair in Peace & Conflict Studies at the University of California, Irvine.

He presented this speech at a public forum on nuclear disarmament, Who Will Stop Nuclear Next Use? The forum was organized by the Nautilus Institute at RMIT. It was held on Sunday 20 September 2009 at RMIT Storey Hall.