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Debunking the "Dangerous World without Nuclear Weapons" canard
posted 29 January 14 by Ward
The Geneva Centre for Security Policy--which pretty accurately describes itself as "impartial, inclusive, influential"--has published a new report, "Security in a World without Nuclear Weapons: Visions and Challenges." It is an interesting presentation of diverse views on what concrete steps are necessary for making a world free of nuclear weapons a reality. They asked me to contribute the first essay "Stable at Zero." Here's a short excerpt:

"The first impact that diminished desirability would have on a nuclear-weapons-free world is that it would make it much less likely that anyone, including a madman, would strive to build nuclear weapons. Rather than being the most powerful, most desirable weapons ever made, nuclear weapons would be regarded as dinosaurs – an evolutionary dead end. Why would you want to put your efforts into extinct technology? But even if a madman decided for some reason to cheat and build a nuclear arsenal, the challenges of getting any workable advantage from such an arsenal are surprisingly many and daunting.

Imagine a world in which a treaty has been signed banning nuclear weapons. Once a madman builds a nuclear arsenal, what happens next? The day after any declaration that a state possesses nuclear weapons or intends to build such an arsenal, every former nuclear power (and possibly some states that were not nuclear powers, but have the capacity to build such weapons) would likely begin all-out efforts to rebuild their nuclear arsenals. And once that process begins, the time before working arsenals are ready for use might be as little as three to six months. How would it be possible to gain any workable advantage during that short time?

Many people assume that a nation with nuclear weapons could make any demand on an unarmed world and be obeyed. But history is littered with examples of states faced with having to choose between possible annihilation and surrendering their way of life that chose to risk annihilation. Hope is a powerful human emotion and threats with nuclear weapons could well be met with defiance and war rather than capitulation.

And opposition might be spurred by a number of practical considerations. Firstly, several states possess intercontinental missiles with the capability to reliably destroy targets on the far side of the world. If the cheater’s arsenal were discovered, a disarming first strike by the US, Russia or China with conventionally tipped intercontinental missiles would be a real possibility.

Secondly, a cheater would likely face not one adversary, but several large world powers. In the event of war, how would a cheater handle this situation?

The most striking example, of course, is Carthage, but there are any number of ancient examples, as well as the cities in Central Asia (Samarkand, Urganch, Merv, Bokhara, Herat and others) that were given a similar choice by Genghis Khan.

This is a particularly important because it is generally accepted that the chances of building an arsenal of more than 100 nuclear weapons without being caught are very small. But 100 nuclear weapons would hardly be sufficient in a war waged against one world power, much less three or four.

So while the image in our minds of a madman with the bomb may be frightening, the practical reality is considerably less problematic."

Edited by David Atwood and Emily Munro, it includes a number of interesting essays and is well worth reading. You can download it here.