Pantelis Ikonomou: Deterrence is absurd and risky, disarmament difficult but necessary

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Pantelis Ikonomou, a former IAEA nuclear inspector, writes:

The use of nuclear weapons is at the core of NATO security policy. At the same time, their role continues to increase in the national strategy of all nine nuclear-armed states, both the five Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) (USA, Russia, China, UK and France), as well as the four non-NPT de facto  nuclear weapon possessors (India, Pakistan, North Korea), and allegedly Israel. They all appear committed to retaining  nuclear capacity for the indefinite future by adding new nuclear weapon systems or modernizing the existing ones, pledging at any opportunity that they retain a strong nuclear deterrence.

The rationality of nuclear deterrence is based on two fundamental characteristics of today’s advanced nuclear weapon systems: a) the capability of instantaneous counterattack and b) the immense destruction power they possess.

Thus, an intentional nuclear first strike should not be launched as a pre-emptive surprise attack to destroy the adversary’s nuclear weapon arsenal because the attacker would not survive either. The logical consequence of this reality is that the nuclear capacity of each nuclear weapon possessor establishes the definite deterrence to an adversarial nuclear first strike.

However, as in mathematics so in the nuclear world, there is no second without a first. The No-First-Use nuclear postures of the five NWS plus India include a critical footnote: the right to a pre-emptive nuclear first strike against any armed attack that would threaten their vital security interests, whether nuclear or conventional.

Additionally, two more nuclear first-strike possibilities arise from:

  1. The First-Use doctrines of North Korea (DPRK), Pakistan, and Israel. For DPRK, to pre-empt a regime decapitation. For Pakistan, as a desperate necessity against India’s Kashmir policy, and for Israel, as the strategic national survival choice.
  2. The probability of launching a nuclear weapon by accident, miscalculation, or a malicious/terrorist act. This probability is steadily increasing, as the nuclear arsenals are maintained, modernized, and eventually growing.

The continuously existing possibility of a nuclear first strike, for whatever  cause, will instantaneously trigger a counter response. This makes the possession of nuclear weapons for deterrence only, i.e. for a forced second strike, a dangerous absurdity.

This situation fully reflects a dead-end reality, described in the game theory as the Nash equilibrium. Solving the Nash equilibrium in the nuclear deterrence analogy would require cooperation of the antagonists (an oxymoron condition) yet the only solution: lowering all armed-raised-hands before shooting at each other. In other words, abstaining from the absurdity of being the first attacker, the necessity of being the responder, or the danger of either side committing an error.

Moreover, maintaining weapons for strengthening states’ geopolitical objectives inspires would-be proliferators. While the NPT was in force since 1970, proliferation took place successfully in four non-NPT states: India, Pakistan, DPRK, and allegedly in Israel. Additionally, four more NPT states attempted proliferation: Romania (by 1989), Iraq (by 1991), Libya (by 2003), and “very likely” Syria (by 2011) [re: “Global Nuclear Developments”, by P. F. Ikonomou, Springer 2020, 4.4 Syria 2011-2020, page 55].

History also suggests that nuclear deterrence was again and again ineffective. Common irony: nuclear weapon holders after World War II lost several wars they entered; the UK at Suez (Egypt), France in Algeria, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and the US in Vietnam and Afghanistan. Likewise, the UK and France could not hold on to their colonial possessions despite having nuclear weapons, and the Soviet Union collapsed while sitting on the world’s largest ever nuclear arsenal.

In conclusion:

Nuclear deterrence is dangerous. It does not establish strategic stability, but rather prolongs global uncertainty, maintaining the possibility of two-party nuclear standoffs, single acts of despair and survival, or an accident, error, or terror. Pursuing weapons that  can never be used without destroying your own country is irrational, dangerous, wasteful, and pointless.

Maintaining nuclear weapons for attaining geopolitical objectives inspires would-be proliferators.

Nuclear deterrence without attempting global and complete nuclear disarmament is nothing but a nebulous political stalemate. Global nuclear disarmament is not an easy  process. It cannot be quick, quiet nor cheap. It is an extremely complex task, but it must be pursued before the last human error occurs.



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