Thursday, December 27, 2007

What Some Nobody Thinks

CKR was kind enough to ask me to participate in an inter-blog conversation on nuclear weapons policy. My first impulse was to decline; much smarter people than I have studied this problem for many, many years, and there’s absolutely no chance that I’m going to come up with any insights they’ve missed.

On the other hand, there’s something to be said for trying to clarify what I think, and why I think it, even if it ultimately benefits no one but myself. (Also, I have a charge to keep: if woefully uninformed people refrain from grappling with the great problems of our age, the Blogosphere as we know it will wither and die.)

Unless your name is Richard Perle or Dick Cheney, your goal is probably nonproliferation now and disarmament…someday. In order to model good behavior, encourage transparency, and win concessions from other countries, it makes sense to reduce our nuclear stockpile to a minimum that would still deter “rational” states from launching a first strike (with some sort of surplus included to allow for redundant targeting, malfunctions, and so forth).

Three or four hundred nuclear weapons would be adequate for this purpose, I think. I should add that I’ve never been entirely convinced that our stockpile prevented attacks by rational governments, who'd presumably have other compelling reasons not to launch a first strike. But there’s lots of room for debate here, and since total unilateral disarmament is a nonstarter in many circles it’d be counterproductive to insist on it.

The threat of reprisal can’t reliably deter irrational attacks, and may even make them more likely. (If a well-heeled fundamentalist cult can wipe out two or more cesspools of urban depravity by detonating one bomb, why shouldn’t they?) Looking at the threats we currently face, it seems pretty clear that nonstate groups like AQ are preeminent, both in terms of seeking nukes, and in being willing to use them regardless of consequences.

Which is pretty much what one would expect. As the excesses of globalization inspire national, ethnic, and religious identities to assert or reassert themselves, mutual assured destruction becomes less a threat than a promise: God will know his own.

Fortunately, the threat of nuclear terrorism seems to be pretty small (though perhaps not as small as it seemed a couple of days ago). And it can probably be staved off indefinitely through diplomacy and cooperation, as well as aggressive - in the sense of competent and thorough - nonproliferation and interdiction measures. (If it can’t, that’s too bad, because we really don’t have any other plausible tools in the shed.)

The NPT loophole for “peaceful” use seem to be me to be flawed (and not just because I’m one of those dirty fucking hippies who’d prefer to see people using solar-thermal power). If we’re serious about nonproliferation, we ought to discourage the construction of new reactors, period.

Since that’s probably not going to happen, I’d go along with the idea of an international fuel bank. (But I can’t help adding that we might have more carrots to offer nuclear-leaning nations if we’d devoted our considerable national resources to alternative energy technologies a few decades back.)

An important part of strengthening what Robert G. Spulak gratingly called “the nuclear stigma philosophy” would be to give up our strategic ambiguity in regards to first use, nuclear response to chemical attacks, and so forth, and acknowledge that the most serious threats we face are from accidents, or being provoked by terrorists into overreaction (i.e., into doing their bidding). At the risk of sounding utopian, I think that a leader worthy of the name could and would explain this to the public, and be understood.

The really difficult step is to realize that nuclear weapons aren’t representative of our power, but of our vulnerability. In particular, the alleged obligation to retaliate – to indulge in ambiguously retributive violence simply because it’s expected - ties our hands, limits our options, and may ultimately put us precisely where our enemies (foreign and domestic) want us.

There's earnest talk of the need for a new and improved military deterrent, but I suspect that this concept of deterrence is very close to being outmoded; it's our military superiority, after all, that's driven the present trend towards drastic forms of asymmetrical warfare. In this sense, the "freedom" we're spreading militarily and economically is the freedom to act without being constrained by the fear of death. This problem can't be solved by force.

I’m not na├»ve enough to think that this view of things is likely to catch on (though I don't think it's as unlikely as someone like Frank Gaffney might argue). In the meantime, I do think it’s necessary to delegitimize (redelegitimize?) nuclear reprisal, especially in the event of a terrorist attack. While it may be impossible to override the demand for retaliation, we’ll have a much better chance if we collectively recognize the point at which our power is, or becomes, our weakness.

The supreme obstacle, as I see it, is that the defense industry and its political sockpuppets benefit simultaneously from overdramatizing the problems we face, and overstating our ability to solve them by building new weapons systems - nuclear and otherwise - and launching new wars. In addition to undermining democracy and bankrupting the country, promoting this giddy blend of panic and overconfidence gives enemies like AQ an opportunity to set our own power in motion against us through various forms of information warfare and symbolic attack. Without serious new restrictions on defense-industry lobbying, profiteering, and the privatization of conflict, nonproliferation will remain a much harder road than it has to be.

(Illustration by Jules White.)

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