Who needs nuclear weapons?

Philip Towle

  • Without the Bomb: The Politics of Nuclear Non-Proliferation by Mitchell Reiss
    Columbia, 337 pp, $35.00, January 1988, ISBN 0 231 06438 1
  • Deep Black: The Secrets of Space Espionage by William Burrows
    Bantam, 401 pp, £14.95, January 1988, ISBN 0 593 01342 5
  • Democracy and Deterrence: The History and Future of Nuclear Strategy by Philip Bobbitt
    Macmillan, 350 pp, £29.50, March 1988, ISBN 0 333 43537 0

It is ironic but quite likely that, if US-Soviet relations continue to improve, the fear of nuclear weapons spreading to more states will loom ever larger. Partly, this will only be a question of appearances: solve one problem and others which seemed minor occupy more attention. But in any case the spread of nuclear knowledge will continue inexorably. Furthermore, it may be that some states will feel less confidence in the nuclear guarantees given to them by the super-powers, and thus that they have to have their own nuclear weapons, if détente becomes firmer.

Mitchell Reiss’s thoughtful analysis of the political and strategic reasons why states decide to acquire or to reject nuclear weapons is therefore timely. It is worth emphasising that far more states which have the ability to produce nuclear weapons have chosen not to do so than have made the reverse decision. Officials, serving officers and national leaders in neutral Sweden considered the issue at great length in the Fifties before eventually deciding not to ‘go nuclear’. Reiss shows how the different elements in the bureaucracy, as well as the international environment and the defence implications, all played their part in this decision. South Korea’s renunciation of nuclear weapon was more directly strategic. By buying some of the equipment needed for nuclear weapons in the Seventies, Seoul forced President Carter to reverse his decision to remove US forces from the peninsula. But it is clear that the ‘nuclear option’ remains open and might be realised if the US ever became isolationist. Unlike Korea, Japan is one of the Great Powers, but Tokyo also decided to remain dependent on the USA rather than to develop nuclear weapons. The Koreans might change their minds out of desperation, the Japanese out of the determination to complete their super-power status by acquiring the one status symbol they currently lack.

Yet Japan would bring status to the nuclear club, not vice versa. The prestige value of nuclear weapons has declined or disappeared. Certainly in 1945, and possibly twenty years later, nuclear weapons seemed at the forefront of technology. If a state had such weapons, this was proof that it was a world leader. But the fact that three technological laggards – Britain, the USSR and France – and two Third World states – China and India – have exploded nuclear devices may have hastened the decline in their prestige. They are certainly not very obvious symbols of success. Is the man on the Lagos omnibus impressed by the Anglo-French nuclear forces or by the fact that the omnibus was made in Japan and his radio in Taiwan or Hong Kong? Nuclear weapons seem more like battleships in 1942, or cavalry regiments in 1916 – symbols of conservatism rather than of the ‘white heat’ of technology. The advances in military science in recent years have been in terms of the accuracy of missiles and aircraft rather than in nuclear warheads.

Not only do nuclear weapons not bring much prestige, but they have failed to cause political change. Instead, they have helped preserve the status quo in Europe and elsewhere. But that is precisely the point: to date, they have been conservative rather than dynamic. Is this because the nuclear weapon states are themselves conservative, or because the weapons exert a paralysing influence upon their leaders? The historian of strategy, looking back, will see this as the age of Mao Tse Tung and Giap rather than Bernard Brodie and Herman Kahn. It was Mao and Giap who transformed the face of Asia, while Brodie, Kahn and the other American nuclear strategists could find no way of bringing nuclear power to bear in order to change the world. Would it alter the face of South America or Africa if Brazil, Argentina or South Africa became overt nuclear weapon states? It seems unlikely. South American economic problems would remain, and so would South African racial ones. It is even doubtful how much the military situation would change. Britain would not abandon the Falklands nor the Black Africans their desire to overthrow the South African Government through guerrilla warfare and insurrection.

Information and the effort to acquire it can help shape the world, though not always in ways states intend. The US desire to assess the extent of Soviet military progress led to the shooting down of Garry Power’s U2 spy aircraft in 1960, and to a massive deterioration in US-Soviet relations. But Power’s aircraft was soon supplemented with the spy satellites whose development William Burrows traces. Today, they can photograph every part of the world in minute detail. They are assisted by more and more powerful computers which can use the photographs to ‘produce three-dimensional images of extraordinary depth and clarity: bridges spanning the Volga, the smokestacks of Sverdlovsk and SS-19s being readied for tests at Tyuratam’. Yet one should no more exaggerate the impact of reconnaissance than of nuclear technology. The Soviet radar at Krasnoyarsk, which caused such concern in the USA because it seemed to breach the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, proved much less impressive once Mr Gorbachev invited Americans to walk round it than it had seemed from outer space. Similarly, what use was all Burrows’s technical wizardry when an old US satellite picked up flashes over the South Atlantic in September 1979? Was it a South African or South African-Israeli-Taiwanese test or a meteorite? Most probably it was a meteorite, but the technology did not provide a clear answer.

The central strategic dilemma, according to Philip Bobbitt, is posed, not by nuclear proliferation to minor powers, but by US efforts to guarantee the safety of other countries, and particularly the Europeans. Would they really risk New York for the sake of Hamburg, and are nuclear weapons thus ceasing to be effective even at preserving the status quo? The answer to the second question is: probably not. But Bobbitt is unsure. He is not much happier about what he rightly sees as one alternative, the development of much larger and more effective European nuclear forces. As of July 1988, however, his anguish wears a slightly dated air. The main political and strategic problems over the next few years would seem likely to stem from instability in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. When the colonial powers were driven from South-East Asia, the Vietnamese once more began to advance into Kampuchea as they had been doing for centuries before the arrival of the French. When the British left Cyprus, the key problem became relations between the Greeks and the Turks. Colonialism freezes history: remove colonialism and history starts again where it had left off perhaps decades before hand. Our main problem in the Nineties may thus be helping to play down or manage the bitter historic antagonisms between Poles and Hungarians, Bulgarians and Turks, Serbs and Albanians.

Whether or not nuclear weapons spread rapidly or slowly, the world is gradually becoming more multipolar because of economic and political change in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Our strategic concerns may appear as historical curiosities to our successors. Hours of thought and hundreds of articles were devoted in the Twenties and Thirties to the possibility that foreign airliners might suddenly drop bombs on innocent and unwary civilians in London or some other great city below. Could the League of Nations overcome the problem by taking over all airliners? So at least some people imagined. Airliners have grown in size and numbers far beyond the expectations of our predecessors, yet none has been used so far in a sneak attack of the type feared. Will the fear of nuclear proliferation seem equally quaint in 2050, when statesmen have come to ignore these weapons, which bring neither prestige nor the ability to change events? Or will the Third World countries prove much more willing to use them to force change than the nuclear weapon states have been so far?