Two years ago this month in Prague, US President Barack Obama put forward his visionary idea of a world free of nuclear weapons. A year ago, a new strategic arms treaty between Russia and the US was signed in the same city. Now the worldwide wave of support for a full ban on nuclear weapons, or “nuclear zero,” is being transformed into a debate about nuclear deterrence. Indeed, the four US strategists who first called for “nuclear zero” — Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn — have partly backtracked, and are now calling for an end to the doctrine of “mutual assured destruction,” or MAD.
Unfortunately, their suggestions on how to accomplish this are unclear. Their only concrete proposal is asymmetrical cuts of tactical nuclear weapons by Russia and the US, but tactical weapons are not a serious threat to anybody. Moreover, Russia is not interested in significantly reducing this part of its nuclear arsenal. It needs such weapons to compensate psychologically for NATO’s preponderance — a reversal of the Cold War epoch — in conventional forces. More importantly, Russia considers these weapons insurance against the possibility of Chinese conventional superiority.
I firmly doubt the need to dispense with deterrence. After all, it worked successfully for decades: the unprecedented geostrategic, military and ideological confrontation of the Cold War never escalated into open, head-to-head warfare. The existence of nuclear weapons also curbed the conventional arms race.
The most important function of nuclear weapons during the Cold War — though little spoken of at the time — proved to be “self-deterrence.” Of course, each side considered itself peaceful and would not admit that it, too, had to be deterred, but the danger that any conflict could escalate into a nuclear confrontation prevented reckless and dangerous behavior on both sides on more than one occasion.
With communism’s collapse and Russia temporarily disabled, self-deterrence softened and the US ran off the rails as the global hyper-power. It behaved in ways that would have been unthinkable before — for example, its attacks on Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq. The latter two wars have been politically self-defeating for the US, in addition to costing it trillions of dollars. The US is no less militarily powerful nowadays than previously, but it does not look so strong to the wider world.
Nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction would be passe only if we assumed that we — people, countries and humankind at large — had become so ideal and humane that we no longer needed self-deterrence. However, unfortunately, we are not such people, and nuclear weapons have played — and -continue to play — a civilizing role in international relations: Their use would be so horrible that we tailor our behavior accordingly. As a result, we have little fear of World War III nowadays, even though unprecedentedly rapid changes in the global balance of power are creating classic conditions for unleashing it.
After all, the mere possession of nuclear weapons, even if aimed at each other, does not turn countries into enemies. Russian and Chinese strategists assume that part of their countries’ nuclear potential may be targeted at the other side, but this does not spoil their remarkable bilateral relations; on the contrary, it improves them. Russia, with its formal nuclear superiority, has no serious fears regarding China’s military buildup.