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Prof. Paul Bracken - The Second Nuclear Age - A New Look at Arms Control and Counterproliferation

Thank you very much Uzi, and I want to say how honored I am to be here today.  This is a very prestigious group and it’s particularly fun to see some old friends that I haven’t seen in years and to meet new ones as well.  I’ve spoken to many of you and I’m sure I’ll meet many more through the rest of the week.


When we were discussing with Uzi Arad, Tommy Steiner and some of the others who organized this conference, they asked me what title I would like to use and I developed this title: “The Second Nuclear Age” – A New Look at Arms Control and Counterproliferation”.  By “The Second Nuclear Age”, all I mean is the spread of nuclear weapons after the end of the Cold War in 1991.  But the term that may cause some sparks of interest is the “new” in New Look.  Is it possible to come before an audience of this stature, scholars and researchers and say anything new?  Is it possible for Paul Bracken to say anything new that you haven’t heard about the spread of weapons of mass destruction?


If I were to tell you that this is a bad thing, everyone would agree with me, but it wouldn’t be very new.  But by new, I mean in a couple of senses- it’s new in the sense that instead of asking will the United States try to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons (the answer is yes, we will try to do that.  Will Iran seek nuclear weapons?  We don’t know, but my answer would be yes). I’m asking a different question here.  What does it mean if Iran gets nuclear weapons?  What does it mean if North Korea and others get nuclear weapons? 


I’m going to explore the question of what living in a second nuclear age is, when best efforts to prevent major countries from getting these things have, unfortunately, not proven successful.  Well, what does it mean?  Secondly, I think it’s new in that I’m not going to take local trends of say, the new, current Bush theme, the National Security theme, will they be consistent on Iran and nuclear policy.  I’m going to take a broader look of 10 years into the future, 10 years into the past.  And finally, it’s new in the sense that I think we need to appreciate where we have come from and not just speculate about the future. 


It is remarkable to me how I have not been able to find a single book that looks at the “first nuclear age” and asks the question: what did we learn about deterrence and arms control in this age?  What did we get right?  What did we get wrong?  Surely we must have learned something between, say, 1948 and 1991.  And whatever your views of deterrence and arms control, surely some of it must have been proven useful, other parts were probably not useful.  But I have yet to see that summarized in one simple collection.  So that is going to be the backdrop. 


Let me just switch now to what I think some characteristics, particularly structural characteristics, are of this thing called the second nuclear age: the spread of weapons of mass destruction after the end of the Soviet American competition of the Cold War.  And I would say there are several distinctive characteristics and I’m offering these in an academic sense.  Not that they’re good or bad- I’m trying to be disinterested in the outcome, at least for the present.


First of all, it strikes me that this is what we call an end player game.  That said, in the North Korean crisis, if North Korea had nuclear weapons, so does China and so does the United States.  In the first nuclear age, I can’t think of a single instance where you had more than a two-player game.  It’s true that the French and Brits had nuclear weapons, but I think it’s fair to say that at no time did they play a very important role.  They never entered into a crisis.  And that could be very different with respect to the Middle East. Surely if Iran were to get nuclear weapons, other countries may have nuclear weapons in the area and the United States would have nuclear weapons.  So it’s an end player game in which the number of interactions can be extremely complicated. When we have played exercises at universities – what’s different about a two-player game and a three- or four- player game?  Well, not to get too technical, but the information flows and signals begin to swamp and make communications extremely difficult.  The complexity goes up in a geometric fashion with the number of players.


Now, I think the second issue which is different between the first and second nuclear ages is that -and this is bad news it seems to me all around– is that nuclear weapons and biological weapons, in my view for the moment, part of the second nuclear age – they’re cheap.  It’s cheap to build them and this makes them more attractive.  It makes it more attractive because if you were a country such as North Korea or Iran, the thought of constructing conventional forces to damage the United States or to damage the United States homeland, while not impossible, are very very difficult.  The damage exchange ratio is not likely to be very good.  Not so with nuclear weapons, which may be moving towards becoming something like a commodity.  This also means that countries may run down their conventional forces.  If you look at the defense budgets many of the rising nuclear powers, they’re running their conventional forces into the ground to put them into these special nuclear programs.


Third difference is the cultural differences.  I’m not here as an American to say that one culture is superior to another.  This is the part of the presentation that when I give at American universities, graduate students really jump on me because they seem to be implying that I’m saying America has a better strategic culture.  I mean it in the following sense:  by strategic culture, all I mean is the attitudes and beliefs about, say, nuclear weapons.  It’s just that – attitudes and beliefs.  I don’t think Iran is getting nuclear weapons or North Korea is trying to obtain nuclear weapons for cultural reasons.  I think they’re trying to get nuclear weapons for what everyone who takes a course in Political Science 101 would well understand: it keeps the United States off your back or at least  gives you the best hope of doing that. 


But once they have them, I would argue, cultural differences could be considerable.  Let me just give one example.  I’ve looked through all of the first nuclear age confrontations between Moscow and Washington, from the Cuban Crisis to the Berlin Crisis and even going back earlier than that.  In none of them did you have a million people in Red Square in Moscow or on the Mall in Washington screaming for the blood of the other side.  Screaming for American decision makers not to back down in the face of the insults that the other side had given them.  I find it quite imaginable, quite likely in fact, that in a tense crisis between the United States and North Korea, or between Japan and North Korea, or between Israel and Iran, that you would find a million people in downtown Tehran whipped up into the politics of hysteria.  And leaders may say that they can control these mob sentiments coming up from below, but we know that that’s not always the case.  So I’m not saying their strategic cultures are better or worse.  I just want to make the point that they’re different and mass culture in the United States never had any impact on how the U.S. handled a nuclear crisis. And I would say the same thing about the old Soviet Union.  It was handled by an elite group at the top.  Quickly, second mover advantages – many of these countries can develop know-how because it has been developed courtesy of my tax dollars at research laboratories in the United States. 


And finally, a major difference between the first and second nuclear ages, I think, is terrorism.  That is to say, at no time in the first nuclear age was there a threat that terrorists would exploit the crisis; either as agents of one of the superpowers or as independent forces trying to provoke the intensification of a crisis.  Ask yourself what the likelihood would have been, the impact, if at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, on October 17, 1962, when Secretary of Defense McNamara has said in his memoirs that the crisis was spinning out of control, what would have been the impact if two jetliners had crashed into the capital on the Pentagon?  What would be the impact of that happening in a tense crisis between India and Pakistan?  It’s not hard to say it would be very destabilizing.


So my final aspect of terrorism is that it increases the likelihood of what I would call either surrogate or catalytic warfare, trying to provoke intensification or even possibly, in the case of the United States shortly after 9/11, when we were subjected to what could be called anonymous warfare.  And the Anthrax, biological attacks, which were never announced by any group taking credit for it, we didn’t know who it was and this really intensified this extraordinary time if you were in the U.S. in 2001 and 2002. 


Okay, with those structural features, let me share with you some of the thoughts that I’ve had. There’s a great historian at Yale who died recently, Robin Winks, and he would always challenge his students at the end of a talk, always put in a section called “So what?”  “What difference does all this make?”  “What’s practical about this?” or “”Is this an abstract academic exercise?”


So, the second point of my talk will be called “So what?”  Again, the context here is not should we prevent Iran and North Korea from getting nuclear weapons.  What happens if they get them anyway, despite our efforts?  So what does it mean to actually live in, rather than merely prevent, the second nuclear age?  I’ve a couple of points I would make here and that is in the second nuclear age, deterrence-only strategies are not likely to work.  In the second nuclear age, deterrence strategies only are not likely to work.  I say this because there is a view in the United States, particularly in academic circles, that the world will become more stable if more countries get nuclear weapons.  There will be a mutual standoff and nobody would be crazy enough to rock the boat. 


In other for a I have indicated my opinion, and it’s only that this is the view that can only be held by a tenured professor of political science, preferably at one of the so-called better universities in the United States.  Moreover, it’s an interesting proposition that deterrence-only strategies won’t work in the second nuclear age.  To say that they did work in the first nuclear age, as you know, will get a very complicated answer.  It means going back and looking at the various crises which, at the time, did not look like it was all a big game. To talk to military officers as I have throughout my career -as you know I started out in this business riding around in B-52 aircraft with Strategic Air Command pilots-  they were convinced that they were going to go and attack the Soviet Union. 



I think deterrence-only strategies will work most of the time.  If Iran gets nuclear weapons, most of the time, people in the Middle East, in Israel and other countries, really have nothing to worry about.  But that’s the rub – it has to work all of the time.  It has to work in an intense crisis.  It has to work in a context where countries will learn how to use weapons of mass destruction without detonating them.


Now I have a list here, which we can go into later, in a coffee break, of 15 ways to use nuclear weapons without detonating them, that is without bursting them.  You can manipulate the risk of war. If you’re North Korea, you can manipulate the risk of selling these technologies to others, further eroding the world non-proliferation regime.  You can break an arms control agreement – one of the games being played at the current time between China and the United States is that China has made a threat through back channel mechanisms, that if the United States goes ahead and deploys her anti-ballistic missile system, something I personally support, China will declare the suspension of her no first use statement, no first use of nuclear weapons.  So we have to think all of these things through. My point is, you have to really recognize if deterrence will work all of the time.  So what?


Well, I think what we need to do is to construct escalation options and packages because if you let one side or another get away with “using” nuclear weapons by nibbling, by making conventional warfare possible and then threatening to go nuclear if they lose, you’re eventually going to  have that eventuality arise. 


Let me give you an interesting statistic.  There have been 50 books that I’ve been able to find on deterrence in the post Cold War era, written after 1991.  I have found 50 books, edited volumes.  I cannot find a single book that looks at escalation options in the post Cold War era. Because our focus in the West, in the United States, has been on deterrents, making things not happen, stability – not thinking through the painful exercises of what you would do in the event.


Third thing I think is likely is a new prospect and possibilities for arms control.  Now, arms control is something we haven’t heard much about.  As you know, the Arms Control Agency was incorporated into the U.S. State Department in the late 1990’s and recently, the Undersecretary for Arms Control changed his title to Undersecretary for Non-Proliferation.  Think of arms control in the United States today in the way Enron stock was in 2001, 3 cents per share.  You can buy arms control for about 2 cents a share now.  It has lost major constituencies in the Congress and even in the academic community, although there are some who still espouse it as a central mechanism. 


I think that arms control is going to come back in a big way, in a redesigned form.  But it won’t come back as a Trojan Horse for disarmament, that is, a list of weapon systems that people seek to ban on the path to global disarmament, as it sometimes appeared in the 1990’s.  But arms control will come back with a very thorough integration with national security policy.  Let me just give a couple of possible examples.  Should the United States declare no first use of nuclear weapons?  If the United States should make that declaration, should go on to imply that any such pledge of no first use will be followed by a guaranteed second use against any country which used nuclear weapons? 


What about missile defense as part of a system of security guarantees?  That needs to be thought through. There’s a whole world of arms control that needs to be thought through.  So let me just conclude by saying that there’s a lot of very rich subjects that haven’t been thought about when we look at the narrow scope of how do we stop Iran from getting these weapons.  And I’ll conclude on what I think is a major need, speaking from my perspective as an American, that at the moment what the United States needs, more than anything else, is political and moral justification for programs that today have only a military rationale.  Arguing these issues which I’ve been discussing in narrow military terms is not going to be adequate for the challenges of the second nuclear age.


Thank you for your attention.

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