The Long Read: Nuclear weapons are obsolete

Nuclear weapons have proved to be strategically obsolete in a number of ways since the end of the Cold War. They have failed to deter attacks on nuclear states, and are unusable against the contemporary threat of terrorism. Furthermore, they are no longer necessary to prevent war between many of the world’s nuclear powers. This has largely come as a result of a change in the relationships between the world’s great powers during the process of globalisation. The change in relationship has led to an irrelevance of nuclear weapons in war aversion, and while strategic stability and mutually assured destruction theories claim peace is maintained by the ‘guaranteed suicide’ of using nuclear weapons, it is apparent that escalation to total war, conventional or otherwise, is equally unacceptable as a deterrent. Nuclear weapons, then, have become strategically obsolete.

Before exploring the obsolescence of nuclear weapons in strategy, that strategy must be understood. Liddell Hart claims that strategy ‘is to co-ordinate and direct all the resources of a nation, or band of nations, towards the attainment of the political object of the war – the goal defined by fundamental policy’. However, with the destructive capability of nuclear weapons, there is difficulty in applying this to any policy other than complete destruction or capitulation of the enemy. In coherence with this, Alexander Haig, US secretary of state, took the stance that nuclear weapons and total war were so devastating that they ‘make deterrence our highest objective and our only rational military strategy’. As such, the strategy that nuclear weapons have been applied to has ensured their continued non-use and has ultimately been the policy of maintaining peace through deterrence.

With this in mind, it is apparent that in the contemporary world this has failed and continues to do so. The effectiveness of a deterrent is based on the costs of its use and credibility of the threat. With the destructive power of strategic nuclear weapons, an aggressive state should therefore consider the cost of invoking a nuclear retaliation as too high, particularly when their objective is limited. Indeed, Charles Glaser claims that even the slightest credibility of such a threat would deter an aggressor. However, nuclear weapons have proved a failure at deterrence, particularly in the post-Cold War world. Nina Tannenwald has introduced a constructivist reason for this– a taboo – in which the international community’s revulsion towards the use of nuclear weapons has resulted in their delegitimization and total non-use since 1945. While, as non-events, the wars potentially prevented by a nuclear deterrent are difficult to monitor, it is evident that nuclear weapons have failed to achieve their strategic objective of deterrence on multiple occasions.

As a consequence of the destructive power of these weapons and the resultant rejection of their use by the international community, many nuclear states, including the US and China, have refused to use them against unequipped states. One major implication of this is that the nuclear deterrent is completely ineffectual when considering non-nuclear aggressors, as they are aware of the reluctance to use them. A. J. Edwards argues that nuclear threats ‘manifestly lack credibility’. This has been demonstrated numerous times, one example being Argentina attacking Britain in 1982. This illustrates the weakness of the deterrent and therefore the strategic obsolescence of nuclear weapons. A more poignant point, however, is that this tradition of non-use has extended to other nuclear states, with India and Pakistan clashing in 1999 and 2001. While these conflicts did remain limited, with limited objectives, escalation could have occurred and it nonetheless demonstrates how the mere existence of nuclear weapons is no longer a credible or effective deterrent. As such, nuclear weapons have clearly reached strategic obsolescence.

Contemporary nuclear states are clearly unprotected by their nuclear arsenals, particularly against non-nuclear aggressors. However, these are not the only potential aggressors that pose a threat, and most recently the dominant concern for many Western governments has been terrorism. Nuclear weapons have proved impotent against this, and the deterrence theory has not matched the change in threat to these states. While the tradition of non-use also applies here, multiple other factors have rendered nuclear weapons useless to deter terrorism. The first is that, not only are nuclear states reluctant to use nuclear weapons, but the weapons are poorly suited to non-state enemies.

Bernard Brodie makes the point that strategic bombing, using nuclear weapons, has become all too efficient. While he is referring to interstate war, it can be applied with greater potency here – terrorist groups are clandestine and hidden within a civilian population. Furthermore, they often work in cells and transnationally, making them difficult to target. A strategic, or even tactical, use of nuclear weapons would therefore prove both devastating to an innocent state or civilian population, and largely ineffectual at damaging the terrorist network. Even considering the use of nuclear devices in this scenario sounds unthinkable, and this places terrorists outside the bounds of deterrence strategy. With no credibility at all, terrorists face far less of a potential cost when attacking nuclear powers than expansive states would, and there is little incentive for them to refrain from aggression. This clearly shows that nuclear weapons are strategically obsolete.

Indeed, they even provide a greater threat to states such as the US, with the possibility of terrorists obtaining such weapons. With proliferation of nuclear weapons across the world, there is a fear that they may fall into terrorist hands. This is a particular concern for Pakistan and Iran, with unstable regimes and active terrorist networks. With the wider knowledge and access to nuclear weaponry, there is a greater chance of this occurring, and as Tannenwald states, terrorists are not constrained by the same norms and taboos as developed states, meaning they would use such devices. As a result of proliferation, then, nuclear weapons may provide terrorists with a genuine ability to threaten even nuclear states, yet can provide no deterrence. If nuclear weapons cannot match the changing demands on defence, then they must be deemed strategically obsolete.

While the current strategic requirements have rendered nuclear weapons obsolete, it is possible that the new, globalised world has rendered them irrelevant. Elbridge Colby claims that strategic stability – reducing incentives to strike first and ultimately ensuring that both states would be ‘mutually vulnerable’ to destruction in all out nuclear war – prevented conflict, through deterrence, from breaking out during the Cold War. However, globalisation and shifting attitudes have pushed nuclear weapons to become irrelevant, and ultimately obsolete. John Mueller claims that during the Cold War, it was not nuclear deterrent that prevented the outbreak of armed conflict, but war weariness and the superpowers’ contentment with their power. This can be applied to the contemporary balance of power, with globalisation leading to greater incentives to maintain the status quo, particularly for the USA and China. Along liberal theoretical lines, Frank Harvey claims that economic cooperation and interdependence reduces the relative benefits of conflict, as many resources are already available and war would end lucrative trade. In a globalised world economic interdependence is a significant bar on conflict, and as a result, there is little need for a deterrent. Neither China, Russia nor the USA would substantially benefit from any war with the other, and the possession of nuclear weapons, therefore, is unnecessary and irrelevant.

In addition, there is growing evidence that, contrary to realist theories of power seeking states and military expansion, there is a growing movement towards war weariness and neutrality; several states, such as Holland, Denmark and Sweden have actively chosen permanent neutrality. Growing neutrality, coupled with economic interdependence resulting from globalisation, means that there is little or no need for a nuclear deterrent, as war itself has become so unlikely. This reality is evident among the great powers too, with China actively supporting non-intervention in the UN, and Western reluctance to commit troops, or to resist Russian interventions, since the Iraq war in 2003. It appears then, that interstate war is becoming a rarity among developed nations, and that nuclear powers are unlikely to need their weapons in the future. With the hostile attitudes towards war and the new, globalised world order, the threat of armed conflict between the major powers is minimal, eliminating the need for a strategic deterrent, and therefore rendering nuclear weapons obsolete.

To summarise, nuclear weapons have been made strategically redundant by three key factors. The first is their failure to act as an effective deterrent against non-nuclear states. According to constructivists such as Tannenwald, the abhorrence towards nuclear weapons has led to a taboo and their non-use, eliminating the credibility of the deterrent and therefore making them strategically obsolete. Second, in the contemporary world, non-state actors, and particularly terrorists, pose a significant threat that cannot be met by strategic bombing or nuclear deterrence. Finally, while non-nuclear states have proved undeterred by nuclear weapons, the major powers have turned to non-intervention and neutrality in a world of globalised economic interdependence. As such, war itself has become a rarity between developed nations, and there is little threat of armed conflict between them in the future. As a result, there is in fact no need for a nuclear deterrent at all, making them strategically useless. Nuclear weapons, then, fail as a deterrent against non-nuclear states and terrorists, while they are unnecessary in preventing an already unlikely war between nuclear states. It is clear from this that they are certainly strategically obsolete.

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