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  Global Views
Atomic Weapons: To What End?
What Are Nuclear Weapons Good for?
By Bennett Ramberg

Nuclear explosion over Hiroshima, Japan in 1945

Reflecting on the atomic bombing of Japan in World War II, Harry Truman gave this answer: "I regarded the bomb as a military weapon and never had any doubt that it should be used," adding, "When I talked to Churchill he unhesitatingly told me that he favored the use of the atomic bomb if it might aid to end the war."

Nonetheless, since the bombing of Hiroshima 60 years ago on Saturday, the United States and other nuclear-armed nations have demonstrated considerable resistance to repeating Truman's decision, despite the many crises and conflicts of the Cold War and beyond. Each president, however, continued to build, modernize or otherwise maintain weapons that would dwarf the explosive power of the devices that obliterated Hiroshima, and three days later, Nagasaki.

But to what end? This anniversary should be a time of public reflection.

In its Nuclear-Posture Review of December 2001, the administration of George W. Bush provided its answer. Calling nuclear weapons an adjunct to conventional forces, the Pentagon said that the arsenal functioned to assure allies, while it dissuades, deters and, if necessary, defeats adversaries. With the hindsight of decades, we now are able to test whether the Pentagon's first three objectives make sense.

Fortunately, since the Japanese bombings, there has been no additional test of the fourth.

"Assurance" seeks to prevent America's allies from going nuclear. The strategy: Military alliances backed by a U.S. atomic commitment. The premise: Any proliferation - even among allies - increases the risk of nuclear war.

Despite two notable failures (Britain and France), Washington's nuclear assurance claimed important achievements: Through the Cold War, Germany, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan - all nuclear candidates - abstained from developing weapons in no small measure because the American bomb underpinned the alliance. Though threats by North Korea and China recently tempted the latter three to reconsider their nonproliferation commitment, American pledges continue to provide them with reassurance.

"Dissuasion" strives to intimidate adversaries from "pursuing threatening capabilities," the review said. Here, too, the historic record is mixed.

The strategy failed to prevent North Korea from going nuclear, and even after Iraq's Osirak reactor was attacked by Israel in 1981, it did not stop Saddam Hussein from seeking to develop nuclear weapons through the 1980s.

On the other hand, there has been a recent success, the agreement by Libya to abandon its own nuclear program. It recalls the decision Egypt made years ago to avoid Israeli pre-emptive nuclear action.

Nuclear "deterrence," which, the review says, involves reinforcing the United States' ability to keep adversaries' high-value targets in its sights, has had the greatest impact in preventing crises or tamping down conflicts between nuclear-armed states.

Mutual nuclear fright tempered Soviet-American actions during the crises in Berlin, in Cuba and in the Middle East in 1973; the same holds true for the 1969 Chinese-Soviet border skirmishes and the 2001-2002 India-Pakistan confrontation after the Kashmir separatist attack on India's Parliament.

Today, North Korea believes that its own nuclear capacity deters the United States.

The bomb, however, did not prevent non-nuclear-weapons states from taking on or resisting nuclear adversaries. North Korea invaded the South even though the United States used nuclear threats to prompt China to halt hostilities.

North Vietnam and the Afghan mujahedeen not only stood up to their superpower foes, but beat them. Likewise, Hezbollah chased nuclear-armed Israel out of Lebanon. Elsewhere in the region, Egypt was unbowed in the lead-up to the 1967 war with Israel and, with Syria, remained so in the 1973 war. Then there was Saddam Hussein's Iraq, which irreverently stood up to Washington in 1991 and 2002. Finally, Moscow discovered how hollow nuclear weapons could be in keeping its empire and ultimately the Soviet Union itself intact.

This history of the atomic age suggests that nuclear weapons never became a foolproof way to scare adversaries toward a permanent peace - as some had hoped - nor did they become the inevitable destroyer of nations that others feared.

In the absence of disaster, nuclear nations have grown increasingly comfortable in the belief that they can "game" the bomb to enhance security. But this notion should be cold comfort in light of nuclear crises that came within a hairsbreadth of ending in nuclear catastrophe.

Then there remains the ever-present possibility of accidental nuclear war because of failures of command and control or intelligence. Still, with the exception of nations that do not anchor their security in nuclear defense - for example, Ukraine, Belarus and South Africa, which gave up their bombs after changes in government - the weapons will probably populate arsenals around the world for another 60 years and beyond.

That said, there remains at least one significant caveat: nuclear terrorism.

Should terrorists have their nuclear day, people around the globe will declare "enough" and demand an end to the bombs that history bequeathed.

(Bennett Ramberg was a policy analyst at the State Department from 1989 to 1990.)
LOS ANGELES What are nuclear weapons good for?

Reflecting on the atomic bombing of Japan in World War II, Harry Truman gave this answer: "I regarded the bomb as a military weapon and never had any doubt that it should be used," adding, "When I talked to Churchill he unhesitatingly told me that he favored the use of the atomic bomb if it might aid to end the war."

Nonetheless, since the bombing of Hiroshima 60 years ago on Saturday, the United States and other nuclear-armed nations have demonstrated considerable resistance to repeating Truman's decision, despite the many crises and conflicts of the Cold War and beyond. Each president, however, continued to build, modernize or otherwise maintain weapons that would dwarf the explosive power of the devices that obliterated Hiroshima, and three days later, Nagasaki.

But to what end? This anniversary should be a time of public reflection.

In its Nuclear-Posture Review of December 2001, the administration of George W. Bush provided its answer. Calling nuclear weapons an adjunct to conventional forces, the Pentagon said that the arsenal functioned to assure allies, while it dissuades, deters and, if necessary, defeats adversaries. With the hindsight of decades, we now are able to test whether the Pentagon's first three objectives make sense.

Fortunately, since the Japanese bombings, there has been no additional test of the fourth.

"Assurance" seeks to prevent America's allies from going nuclear. The strategy: Military alliances backed by a U.S. atomic commitment. The premise: Any proliferation - even among allies - increases the risk of nuclear war.

Despite two notable failures (Britain and France), Washington's nuclear assurance claimed important achievements: Through the Cold War, Germany, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan - all nuclear candidates - abstained from developing weapons in no small measure because the American bomb underpinned the alliance. Though threats by North Korea and China recently tempted the latter three to reconsider their nonproliferation commitment, American pledges continue to provide them with reassurance.

"Dissuasion" strives to intimidate adversaries from "pursuing threatening capabilities," the review said. Here, too, the historic record is mixed.

The strategy failed to prevent North Korea from going nuclear, and even after Iraq's Osirak reactor was attacked by Israel in 1981, it did not stop Saddam Hussein from seeking to develop nuclear weapons through the 1980s.

On the other hand, there has been a recent success, the agreement by Libya to abandon its own nuclear program. It recalls the decision Egypt made years ago to avoid Israeli pre-emptive nuclear action.

Nuclear "deterrence," which, the review says, involves reinforcing the United States' ability to keep adversaries' high-value targets in its sights, has had the greatest impact in preventing crises or tamping down conflicts between nuclear-armed states.

Mutual nuclear fright tempered Soviet-American actions during the crises in Berlin, in Cuba and in the Middle East in 1973; the same holds true for the 1969 Chinese-Soviet border skirmishes and the 2001-2002 India-Pakistan confrontation after the Kashmir separatist attack on India's Parliament.

Today, North Korea believes that its own nuclear capacity deters the United States.

The bomb, however, did not prevent non-nuclear-weapons states from taking on or resisting nuclear adversaries. North Korea invaded the South even though the United States used nuclear threats to prompt China to halt hostilities.

North Vietnam and the Afghan mujahedeen not only stood up to their superpower foes, but beat them. Likewise, Hezbollah chased nuclear-armed Israel out of Lebanon. Elsewhere in the region, Egypt was unbowed in the lead-up to the 1967 war with Israel and, with Syria, remained so in the 1973 war. Then there was Saddam Hussein's Iraq, which irreverently stood up to Washington in 1991 and 2002. Finally, Moscow discovered how hollow nuclear weapons could be in keeping its empire and ultimately the Soviet Union itself intact.

This history of the atomic age suggests that nuclear weapons never became a foolproof way to scare adversaries toward a permanent peace - as some had hoped - nor did they become the inevitable destroyer of nations that others feared.

In the absence of disaster, nuclear nations have grown increasingly comfortable in the belief that they can "game" the bomb to enhance security. But this notion should be cold comfort in light of nuclear crises that came within a hairsbreadth of ending in nuclear catastrophe.

Then there remains the ever-present possibility of accidental nuclear war because of failures of command and control or intelligence. Still, with the exception of nations that do not anchor their security in nuclear defense - for example, Ukraine, Belarus and South Africa, which gave up their bombs after changes in government - the weapons will probably populate arsenals around the world for another 60 years and beyond.

That said, there remains at least one significant caveat: nuclear terrorism.

Should terrorists have their nuclear day, people around the globe will declare "enough" and demand an end to the bombs that history bequeathed.

Bennett Ramberg was a policy analyst at the State Department from 1989 to 1990

The above article is from The International Herald Tribune.




 

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