What happens when a nation gets nukes? Sixty years of history suggests an answer.
Summary: The drive for war comes from hawks’ terrifying forecasts of what a nuke-armed Iran will do. Similar warnings were made in the past about today’s nuclear powers. What does history tell us? Eight in a series; at the end are links to the other chapters.
“The US is almost certain to be the first superpower to need to launch strategic weapons (particularly if not exclusively, in response to some galloping disaster in Europe).”
— Colin S. Gray (strategy expert, Hudson Institute), letter to the New York Times, 11 October 1977
- They’ll use nukes! (“they” = our enemy due jour)
- The history of nukes — risky but so far a stabilizing force
- Examples: India/Pakistan, North Korea
- Other posts in this series
- For more information
- Other posts about Iran
(1) They’ll use nukes! (“they” = our enemy due jour)
A commonplace of the atomic era are warnings by hawks that our enemy due jour will attack first with nukes (ignoring that our behavior was often equally aggressive). This simple if baseless technique kept hysteria high during the Cold War. For an example of confident wild guessing of that period see “Why the Soviet Union thinks it could fight and win a nuclear war“, Richard Pipes (Prof Russian History at Harvard), Commentary, July 1977.
Similar warnings about Iran do the same today. But the Soviet Union was a large power wielding terrifying weapons whose application nobody understood. Now we repeat that history, but with a small and poor nations — whose conventional military power is inferior to Israel’s, and nothing compared to ours.
(2) The history of nukes — risky, but so far a stabilizing force
(a) Nuclear Weapons as a stabilizing element
Despite the hawks warnings, some geopolitical experts saw that nuclear weapons would limit war. One of the first was Bernard Brodie in The Absolute Weapon (1946). And so it has proven to be, as he explained in “The development of nuclear strategy“, International Strategy, Spring 1978:
The notion that in an extremely tense crisis, which may include an ongoing theater war, any useful purpose is likely to be served by firing off strategic nuclear weapons, however limited in number, seems vastly to underestimate both the risks to the nation and the burden upon the person who must make the decision. Divorced from consideration of how human beings actually behave in a crisis, it fits Raymond Aron’s definition of “strategic fiction”, analogous to “science fiction.”
(b) Fears that other nations (not us) will use nukes irrationally
The claims that Iran will irrationally use the bomb repeat similar fears concerning China, India, and Pakistan. Martin van Creveld describes the actual history of nukes (so far) in the conclusion to Nuclear Proliferation and the Future of Conflict (1993):
Nevertheless there seems to be no factual basis for the claims that regional leaders do not understand the nature and implications of nuclear weapons; or that their attitudes to those weapons are governed by some peculiar cultural biases which make them incapable of rational thought; or that they are more adventurous and less responsible in handling them than anyone else.
… An even more critical reason why regional leaders tend to be at least as careful in handling nuclear weapons as those of the superpowers is the fact that many of these countries are quite small, adjacent to each other, and no separated by any clear natural borders; often they share the same local weather systems and draw their water fro the same river basin.
… Much of the literature on proliferation appears to be distorted, ethnocentric, and self-serving. it operates on the principle of beati sunt possedentes (blessed are those who are in possession); like the treaties to which it has given rise, its real objective is to perpetuate the oligopoly of the “old” nuclear powers. To this end regional powers and their leaders have been described as unstable, culturally biased, irresponsible, and what-not. To this end weapons seen as stabilizing in the hands of the great powers were suddenly described as destabilizing when they spread to other countries.
In practice, the leaders of medium and small powers alike tend to be extremely cautious with regard to the nuclear weapons they possess — the proof being that, to date, in every region where these weapons have been introduced, large-scale interstate warfare has disappeared. … This has been true even when the weapons have been few in number; even when delivery vehicles and methods of command and control were comparatively primitive; even when very great asymmetries existed in the forces of both sides; and even when the entire process was covert rather than overt.
… the virtual disappearance of large-scale interstate warfare from the regions in question does not mean that they are going to be free of armed conflict … The rise in these regions of Low Intensity Conflict represents the sound tactician’s response to nuclear proliferation. If one cannot bear one’s enemy in a straightforward contest, one can seek to undermine him.
(3) Examples: India/Pakistan, North Korea
(a) Fears that India and Pakistan will nuke each other (14 years later no nukes used)
“Nuclear Anxiety, the Rivalry: South Asian Arms Race: Reviving Dormant Fears of Nuclear War“, New York Times, 29 May 1998 — Excerpt:
In a matter of weeks, covert nuclear programs in India and Pakistan, rivals who have three times gone to war, have turned into an open nuclear arms race, raising alarms about what comes next — and where. Diplomats and arms control experts see this arms race as particularly dangerous because Pakistan and India, unlike the United States and Russia during the cold war, have not held serious negotiations over outstanding problems for decades or concluded agreements that reduced the number of weapons aimed at each other.
These experts now fear that Pakistan and India could be drawn into a nuclear war over Kashmir, a territory that has been in dispute since the two countries gained independence in 1947.
… ”We are at perhaps the most dangerous period since the beginning of the nuclear age — with the exception of the Cuban missile crisis,” said Thomas Graham, a former negotiator for the United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency who is now president of the independent Lawyers’ Alliance for World Security.
(b) North Korea
“Iran and the Nuclear Paradox“, Robert Farley, World Politics Review, 16 November 2011 — Excerpt:
Existing nuclear powers fear that new entrants will act unpredictably, destabilize regions and throw existing diplomatic arrangements into flux. These predictions almost invariably turn out wrong; nuclear weapons consistently fail to undo the existing power relationships of the international system.
The North Korean example is instructive. In spite of the dire warnings about the dangers of a North Korean nuclear weapon, the region has weathered Pyongyang’s nuclear proliferation in altogether sound fashion. Though some might argue that nukes have “enabled” North Korea to engage in a variety of bad behaviors, that was already the case prior to its nuclear test. The crucial deterrent to U.S. or South Korean action continues to be North Korea’s conventional capabilities, as well as the incalculable costs of governing North Korea after a war. Moreover, despite the usual dire predictions of nonproliferation professionals, the North Korean nuclear program has yet to inspire Tokyo or Seoul to follow suit.
The DPRK’s program represents a tremendous waste of resources and human capital for a poor state, and it may prove a problem if North Korea endures a messy collapse. Thus far, however, the effects of the arsenal have been minimal.
(4) Other posts in this series
- Is the War on Terror over (because there are no longer two sides)?, 3 September 2008 — Rumors of covert ops by us against Iran, including aid to terrorists
- Iran’s getting the bomb, or so we’re told. Can they fool us twice?, 16 January 2009
- Iran will have the bomb in 5 years (again), 2 January 2010 — Forecasts of an Iranian bomb really soon, going back to 1984
- About the escalating conflict with Iran (not *yet* open war), 4 January 2012
- Have Iran’s leaders vowed to destroy Israel?, 5 January 2012 — No, but it’s established as fact by repetition
- What do we know about Iran’s nuclear ambitions?, 6 January 2012 — US intelligence officials are clear: not as much as the news media implies
- What does the IAEA know about Iran’s nuclear program?, 9 January 2012 — Their reports bear little resemblance to reports in the news media
- What happens when a nation gets nukes? Sixty years of history suggests an answer., 10 January 2012
- What happens if Iran gets nukes? Not what we’ve been told., 11 January 2012
- Status report on the already-hot conflict with Iran – and the looming war, 12 January 2012
- Continuity and dysfunctionality in US foreign policy (lessons for our conflict with Iran), 13 January 2012 — Insights about today from Cold War strategist Colin Grey
- What the conflict with Iran teaches us about modern State-to-State war, 16 January 2012
- Has Iran won a round vs. the US-Israel?, 17 January 2012
- Is Killing Iranian Nuclear Scientists Terrorism?, 19 January 2012
(5) For more information
- “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Better“, Kenneth Waltz, Adelphi Papers #171 (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1981) — Events of the past 30 years have impressively validated his theory!
- “Evaluating the Nuclear Peace Hypothesis – A Quantitative Approach“, Robert Rauchhaus (Prof of Political Science, UC Santa Barbara), Journal of Conflict Resolution, April 2009
- “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons and International Conflict – Does Experience Matter?“, Michael Horowitz (Prof of Political Science, U Penn), Journal of Conflict Resolution, April 2009
- Recommended: Debunking Myths About Nuclear Weapons and Terrorism“, Stratfor, 29 May 2009
- “How do states act after they get nuclear weapons?“, James (Prof Political Science, Berkeley), The Monkey Cage, 29 January 2012
(6) Other posts about Iran
For the full list see the FM Reference Page Iran – will the US or Israel attack Iran?
- Stratfor’s analysis of US reasons for invading and occupying Iraq , 4 March 2008
- More post-Fallon overheating: “6 signs the US may be headed for war in Iran” , 18 March 2008
- A militant America, ready for war with Iran , 6 May 2008
- ISIS: “Can Military Strikes Destroy Iran’s Gas Centrifuge Program? Probably Not.”, 8 August 2008
- Is the War on Terror over (because there are no longer two sides)? Part 1, 3 September 2008 — Rumors of covert ops by us against Iran.
- Update on the prospects of war with Iran, from Stratfor, 6 September 2008
- “Iraq Endgame” by George Friedman, 22 August 2009
- Stratfor: “Two Leaks and the Deepening Iran Crisis”, 7 October 2009
- This is how a nation thoughtlessly slides into stupid wars, 25 July 2010
- America takes another step towards war with Iran, towards the dark side, 3 September 2010