Michael KreponMultiple Choice Quiz

Quotes of the week:

“Changes in technology…are eroding the foundations of nuclear deterrence.” – Keir Lieber and Daryl Press, “The New Era of Counterforce”

“A powerful taboo against the use of nuclear weapons has developed in the global system” — Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo

OK, readers: take out your pencils. (Am I dating myself?)

Here is this week’s multiple-choice exam: Which of the above quotes reflects reality?

A. Lieber and Press
B. Tannenwald
C. Both

If I am grading this quiz, the correct answer is “C” – all of the above.

How can these contradictory assessments both be right? Because the dictates of nuclear deterrence strategy and arms control norms coexist. This perpetual tug of war occasionally has been disabling for treaty making while occasionally producing uncommon achievements. Despite the ups and downs, strangely concurrent trend lines have emerged: the most crucial arms control norms have gotten harder to break while nuclear warfighting capabilities have advanced.

If this sounds confusing, so be it. If irony is not your cup of tea, drink something stronger. Arms control and nuclear deterrence are necessary partners until nuclear-armed rivals figure out that the weapons they hold so dear have no worth as instruments of warfare. In the meantime, while they sharpen swords too dangerous to use, the norm of no use remains fundamental to extending the nuclear peace.

Looking solely through the prism of domestic politics, the conditions for constructive friction between deterrence strategists and arms controllers is most likely to result in extraordinary successes when a deeply conservative Republican in the White House locks horns with pro-arms control Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill. When a Democratic President contends with strong Republican opposition in Congress, the results typically range between modest-but-useful accords to utter frustration.

The tug of war between deterrence strategists and military planners with arms controllers is never won. Those who have invested great powers in nuclear weapons – powers that extend well beyond their destructive capacity — will continue to seek escapes from deterrence while the norm of no battlefield use gets stronger every day that a mushroom cloud doesn’t appear.

Unless and until deterrence dies, killing the norm of no use with it, contrary trend lines aren’t fatal. The longer the norm of no use is extended, the more likely it is for arms control to revive. It just won’t look the same.

Since deterrence repeatedly fails and since arms control treaties have been sloughed off, there is no surety on either front. The nuclear peace remains fragile even as the norm of no use is extended. The threshold against the use of nuclear weapons could be crossed tomorrow or the day after because serious crises lie ahead. But yesterday was a success and today is looking pretty good, too.

Three-quarters of a century and counting of no use is an astoundingly impressive track record, one that we can build upon. Because of this track record, no battlefield use is the hardest norm for any national leader to break, regardless of personality type, nationality, religion, ethnic origin and blood-stained record of human rights abuses.

The second hardest nuclear norm to break is no testing. The nuclear enclaves in the United States, China, Russia, India and Pakistan would presumably like to resume testing, but if one resumes, others will, too. Whatever gains might be achieved by a resumption of tests could easily be nullified by the cascade of testing to follow. As long as these calculations apply, the norm of no testing is reinforced, whether or not the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty enters into force. Consequently, nuclear enclaves will have to make do with experiments.

Yes, I know: Team Trump asserted there have been whispers of testing above the Arctic Circle. Because the U.S. intelligence community has previously been wrong in its assessments on such matters, I’m reserving judgment while awaiting the Biden administration’s first noncompliance report.

Then there is North Korea, the only state to have tested in order to achieve and demonstrate military capabilities since 1998. Norms create outliers. Every subsequent North Korean test has reaffirmed its outlier status. Nobody wants to join a club over which North Korea presides. The norm of no testing abides.

The third hardest nuclear norm to break is proliferation. Joining the club of states that possess nuclear weapons is a significant challenge, thanks to the norm of nonproliferation and decades of hard diplomatic work attending to it. One hundred and eighty-five states have been persuaded not to join this club. Five (South Africa, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Libya) have voluntarily disarmed, and two (Iraq and Syria) have had this choice made for them by force of arms. Attempts to join this club can prompt rivals to follow suit and result in sanctions and exclusion from international commerce, strained relations with major powers, and the possibility of military strikes.

For these reasons, the pace of proliferation has always been slower than anticipated and the number of states that have chosen to acquire the Bomb has always been fewer than predicted. But some states will always hedge their bets. What’s different now is that these states are friends, strategic partners, and in once case – Turkey – a strained ally of the United States.

Whether new states seek the Bomb or remain many steps short of acquiring one depends on what happens with Iran. Many assume that Iran’s theocratic leaders will seek to cross this threshold. To those inclined toward worst cases, I would submit two counterfactuals.

First, during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein used poison gas on a massive scale. Iran didn’t retaliate in kind, at least in my searches of open sources. (Please correct me if I’m wrong on this.) Second, Iran’s leaders agreed in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to verifiable limitations well below bomb-making capabilities for fifteen years or more. A nation hell bent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction typically doesn’t agree to wait very long, let alone fifteen years or more.

It just might be possible that Iran’s theocratic leaders aren’t strong believers in weapons of mass destruction. Since there are many counter-indicators, I’m reserving judgment on this hypothesis, as well. My point here is that the norm of nonproliferation is easy to undermine and yet hard to break.

Because there can be no assurance that key norms will be extended indefinitely, deterrence strategists will continue to seek escape in the event that the nuclear threshold is crossed. One means of escape is through effective defenses against ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads. This costs large sums and promises the possibility of success only against rudimentary threats in very modest numbers. But rudimentary missile threats don’t stay that way.

While defenses against ballistic missiles improve, advances in offenses improve more. This avenue of escape from deterrence continues to be deeply unpersuasive – except in Moscow, where trades in offensive reductions in return for constraints on missile defenses are always on the table.

The second avenue of escape from deterrence is by means of improved abilities to target opposing nuclear forces. (See Lieber and Press, et. al.) Because technology supports counterforce targeting and because these advances are ongoing on several fronts, nuclear competition doesn’t rest, even in the one instance of the four nuclear-armed rivalries where numerical limitations are in place.

Rivalry is by definition a two-way street. Since the pain of loss can be so great if rivalry leads to warfare and if warfare leads to the crossing of the nuclear threshold, deterrence strategists ultimately defeat themselves while trying to defeat an adversary.

Nuclear-armed rivalries make norms essential. Norms provide for guardrails and stabilization measures that deterrence alone cannot achieve. Extending the three key norms of no use, no testing, and nonproliferation remain fundamental because of the escapists among us.