The taboo against the use of nuclear weapons is fading as newer nuclear powers consider whether to use them as they would any other tools of war.
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By David B. Kanin
The Economist recently (March 7-13) ran a cover story warning of a “New Nuclear Age.” It provided useful facts and analysis of Cold War-type nuclear theorizing, the scale of existing arsenals and goals of prospective nuclear weapons states. It told the sad tale of the tattered non-proliferation regime and of the faltering effort to get the US to set an example by scrapping its nuclear forces (as if anyone is paying much attention to American examples any more). The article came just before Russia’s President Putin told audiences of a contrived “documentary” that he considered ordering a nuclear alert as his forces prepared to recover the Crimea.
The traditional geostrategic image presented by the article and play-acted by Putin probably does not reflect how nuclear weapons actually will be used. Going forward, the threat of nuclear war more likely will be that one or more partners in dangerous dyads will use nuclear weapons as part of a more “conventional” use of force. To understand the danger of nuclear war it is necessary to stop thinking in terms of a “red line” or any concept that treats these immensely destructive things as conceptually distinct from the other weapons people continue to kill each other with in organized violence that is anything but obsolete.
The match-ups most likely to produce nuclear weapons use are North-South Korea (or North Korea-US), Iran-Israel, and Pakistan-India. Depending on the physical and political outcome of the first use since 1945, and in the absence of the sort of global management the US and former Soviet Union once provided, a second or third use could follow the first.
North Korea is the only one of the countries mentioned that both possesses some sort of nuclear weapons capability and rattles its cage like it intends to shoot something at someone. It remains unclear how workable is the North’s weapons design, but it appears that perhaps the nastiest and least effective regime on the face of the earth is beginning to realize it could well eventually face the existential decision of whether to shoot off nuclear fireworks as it collapses, or to just collapse.
The key point here is that a prospering, rising China might be getting tired of Pyongyang’s antics and might realize that it need not to worry so much that a Korea unified under Seoul’s auspices would turn out to be an ally of the United States. China’s share of South Korea’s trade is rising, and the two countries share a strong distaste for Japan’s renewed taste for nationalism. The process of unifying Korea would be costly and could eventually produce a rich and active player in regional security, but however it turned out create a major improvement north of the 38th parallel.
American decline plays into whatever happens in northeast Asia in two ways. First, South Korea has less need of an American lead, and Washington’s weaker influence on Japan’s regional policies arguably leaves China as a more reliable security partner. Second, North Korea could perceive an opportunity to jawbone a dysfunctional US national security elite.
If faced with internal unrest (that more likely means disputes among the top tier of civilian and military officials than some sort of uprising from below), the North could give the US an ultimatum in which it would threaten to launch Nodong 2 ICBMs against the US homeland unless Washington pulls its troops out of South Korea. Sure, the North would face the threat of annihilation, but if the regime comes to believe it is being abandoned by China and gobbled up by its fraternal enemy its masters could come to believe they have nothing to lose, and that the threat of nuclear war might lead Washington finally to open the bilateral dialogue Pyongyang has sought for so long.
The Iran-Israel dyad is the one that has gotten the most attention lately. It is clear the United States and European Union see their nuclear talks with Iran as the only chance for some sort of success in a region where their declining stature and inertial diplomacy have produced nearly nothing. Even the once-touted Western intervention in Libya has led only to civil war and state collapse on the Iraqi/Syrian model. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, demonstrating what is a general lack of respect in the Middle East for the US and its foreign policy, dropped by to tell the US Congress a truth—Iran has succeeded in moving the West to a position in which any agreement would only provide warning of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability, not stop it.
Iran is following the example of its Israeli enemy by simultaneously developing a nuclear weapons program and an ability to plausibly deny it. This sticks Israelis with the latest in a series of strategic ironies. Their founding generation disregarded religion as a political factor and created political conditions under which now nothing can be done in Israel without much feuding between secular and religious parties and between hardline settler enthusiasts and their opponents within both camps. The Jewish state’s strategists disregarded Islam as a strategic actor, and so helped create HAMAS as a counter to Yassir Arafat’s PLO. You can see how that has worked out. Now, the Israeli decision to quietly develop and deeply nuclear weapons has supplied a blueprint to a regime that might well some day engage with them in a nuclear exchange.
In my view, Pakistan is the most likely of the second-tier nuclear powers to use its arsenal in combat. Islamabad knows it cannot defeat its Indian enemy in a conventional war. It also blames India for its own internal problems and for unrest in Afghanistan. Like North Korea, Pakistan faces the real possibility of systemic collapse. Unlike North Korea, Pakistan believes—with reason—it has a more advanced and more potent nuclear arsenal than its adversary. A belief in their nuclear superiority could lead Pakistani decision makers to refuse to swallow another conventional military defeat.
The Pakistan-India dyad also is prone to possible miscalculation. The two countries have been to the brink a number of times, for example after Pakistan-based militants attacked the Indian parliament in 2001 and stormed Mumbai in 2008. Kashmir remains an open sore. India’s far brighter economic prospect deepens Pakistan’s frustration. Washington’s flirtation with New Delhi over the past few years and frictions with Pakistan over US military action in Afghanistan (and drone attacks inside Pakistan itself) very likely has convinced Islamabad that China is a more dependable ally than is the US. In addition, Pakistan knows as well as anyone that China is the rising power—and that China does not share the Western concern about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capability.
There is no point predicting the exact scenario under which one of these disputes involving nuclear or soon-to-be nuclear weapons states might lead to the use of nuclear weapons. The point is that the dynamics involved in these relationships threaten to trump the Cold War legacy of the norm against using nuclear weapons. Once used, “The Day After” might not be as cataclysmic as postulated in Dr. Strangelove, but it would still be terribly destructive and deeply disorienting to the survivors. It would not be a bad idea if governments and would-be responders begin to give that Day After some thought.
David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).