Who Are We To Deny Weak Nations The Nuclear Weapons They Need For Self-Defense?
The officer is accompanied by several heavily-armed men and is exceedingly polite. He asks the French farmer if he can come inside. The farmer, with his young daughters hovering nearby, allows him to enter.
The officer tells the farmer he has been tasked with finding a Jewish family that has gone missing. The farmer says he heard they fled to Spain. At that moment, the camera slowly pans to below the wooden floorboards where we see the family trembling in quiet terror.
Why was the Jewish family forced to hide under its neighbor’s floor? Because the French farmer (and the nation who his character symbolized) lacked deterrence.
What is deterrence? The word comes from the Latin deterrere which means, literally, “to frighten away from.” To scare someone away, you need power. The Germans felt comfortable invading France because they knew the French lacked it.
In July 1942, Nazi-collaborationist French police arrested 12,884 Jews, including 5,802 women and 4,501 children and held them captive in a sports stadium. A witness testified:
All those wretched people lived five horrifying days in the enormous interior filled with deafening noise … among the screams and cries of people who had gone mad, or the injured who tried to kill themselves.”
A few days later they were sent to Germany in cattle wagons and became some of the first to die in Auschwitz’s gas chambers. Of the 75,721 Jewish French citizens and refugees in total who were rounded up, fewer than 2,000 survived.
In “Inglourious Basterds,” the scene ends, symbolically, with the French farmer forced to betray his Jewish neighbors. As the farmer weeps, the German soldiers spray machine-gun fire at the floorboards above where the Jewish family is hiding. They kill every member of the family except for the teenage daughter who flees the home that has become a charnel house.
Nuclear Bombs As Weapons of the Weak
How does a weak nation-state like France level the playing field with a more powerful adversary like Germany? By obtaining a weapon capable of wiping out its major cities.
Twice victimized and humiliated by its neighbor, France after World War II set off to build a nuclear bomb that, had it been available before 1940, would have deterred the German invasion.
Can anyone blame France for getting the bomb? Of course not. After all, Germany’s war upon its neighbors resulted in the deaths of 50 million people.
But that didn’t stop the U.S. government from trying to prevent France from building a nuclear weapon. Senior Kennedy administration officials in 1962 described France’s nuclear program as “foolish, or diabolical — or both.”
How could the U.S. deny France the means with which to defend herself? By promising to protect France with its own nuclear weapons through what is called “extended deterrence.”
French President Charles de Gaulle didn’t buy it. He felt that “the United States would not risk New York or Detroit to save Hamburg or Lyons,” noted the New York Times, “if faced with a choice between the destruction of Western Europe and a Soviet-American missile exchange.”
A nuclear-armed France, U.S. officials warned, “could lead to a proliferation of nuclear powers,” reportedRonald Steel in Commentary, “that is, to demands by other allies, especially Germany, for nuclear status.”
The identical argument was later made against China, India and Pakistan, and is now being made against allowing North Korea and Iran to possess nuclear weapons.
The widespread assumption is that the more nations have nuclear weapons, the more dangerous the world will be. But is that really the case?
I don’t ask this question lightly. I come from a long line of Christian pacifists and conscientious objectors and earned a degree in peace studies from a Quaker college. I have had nightmares about nuclear war since I was a boy and today live in California, which is more vulnerable to a North Korean missile than Washington, D.C. — at least for now.
But it is impossible not to be struck by these facts:
- No nation with a nuclear weapon has ever been invaded by another nation.
- The number of deaths in battle worldwide has declined 95 percent in the 70 years since the invention and spread of nuclear weapons;
- The number of Indian and Pakistani civilian and security forces’ deaths in two disputed territories declined 95 percent after Pakistan’s first nuclear weapons test in 1998.
In 1981, the late political scientist Kenneth Waltz published an essay titled, “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better.” In it he argued that nuclear weapons are revolutionary in allowing weaker nations to protect themselves from more powerful ones.
International relations is “a realm of anarchy as opposed to hierarchy… of self-help… you’re on your own,” Waltz explained.
How do nuclear weapons work? Not “through the ability to defend but through the ability to punish…The message of a deterrent strategy is this,” explained Waltz. “‘Although we are defenceless, if you attack we will punish you to an extent that more than cancels your gains.’”
Does anybody believe France should give up its nuclear weapons? Certainly not the French. After President Barack Obama in 2009 called for eliminating nuclear weapons, not a single other nuclear nation endorsed the idea.
All of this raises the question: if nuclear weapons protect weak nations from foreign invasion, why shouldn’t North Korea and Iran get them?
Why Nuclear Weapons Make Us Peaceful
On January 29, 2002, President George W. Bush denounced Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as an “axis of evil.” North Korea was “arming with missiles,” he said. Iran “aggressively pursues these weapons” and the “Iraqi regime has plotted to develop…nuclear weapons for over a decade.”
One year later, the U.S. invaded and occupied Iraq. The ensuing conflict resulted in the deaths of over 450,000 people — about four times as many as were killed at Hiroshima — and a five-fold increase in terrorist killings in the Middle East and Africa. It all came at a cost of $2.4 trillion dollars.
Now, 16 years later, U.S. officials insist that North Korea and Iran need not fear a U.S. invasion. But why would any nation — particularly North Korea and Iran — believe them?
Not only did the U.S. overthrow Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein after he gave up his nuclear weapons program, it also helped overthrow Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 after he too had given up the pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
North Korean President Kim Jong-un may, quite understandably, see his own life at stake: Hussein was hanged and Gaddafi was tortured and killed.
Both hawks and doves say North Korea and Iran must not be allowed to have a weapon because both regimes are brutal, but nuclear weapons make nations more peaceful over time. There were three full-scale wars before India and Pakistan acquired the bomb and only far more limited conflicts since. And China became dramatically less bellicose after acquiring the bomb.
Why? “History shows that when countries acquire the bomb, they feel increasingly vulnerable,” notes Waltz, “and become acutely aware that their nuclear weapons make them a potential target in the eyes of major powers. This awareness discourages nuclear states from bold and aggressive action.”
Is it really so difficult to imagine that a nuclear-armed North Korea and Iran might follow the same path toward moderation as China, India, and Pakistan?
Nuclear weapons are revolutionary in that they require the ruling class to have skin in the game. When facing off against nuclear-armed nations, elites can no longer sacrifice the poor and weak in their own country without risking their lives.
Had Iraq in 2002 been in possession of a nuclear weapon, the U.S. would never have invaded. As such, we should be glad that North Korea acquired the bomb since it guarantees the U.S. will never invade.
The End of Extended Deterrence?
In a 2012 cover story for Foreign Affairs, “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb,” Waltz notes that “nuclear balancing would mean stability.” Why? Because, “It is Israel’s nuclear arsenal, not Iran’s desire for one, that has contributed most to the current crisis.”
Israeli air strikes destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, and destroyed a Syrian reactor in 2007. Wrote Waltz:
Israel’s proven ability to strike potential nuclear rivals with impunity has inevitably made its enemies anxious to develop the means to prevent Israel from doing so again. In this way, the current tensions are best viewed not as the early stages of a relatively recent Iranian nuclear crisis but rather as the final stages of a decades-long Middle East nuclear crisis that will end only when a balance of military power is restored.”
Little surprise that Israeli hardliners responded with outrage to Waltz’s essay. “Some have even said that Iran with nuclear weapons would stabilize the Middle East,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after Foreign Affairs published Waltz’s article. “I think people who say this have set a new standard for human stupidity.”
But was Israel stupid for acquiring the bomb in 1968 to protect itself from its neighbors? No doubt Netanyahu would say no.
How do nuclear-armed nations justify their double-standard on nuclear weapons? Mostly through fear-mongering.
“Those who dread a world with more nuclear states do little more than assert that more is worse,” noted Waltz, “and claim without substantiation that new nuclear states will be less responsible and less capable of self-control than the old ones have been.”
Nuclear-armed nations perpetuate two fictions, the first of which is that they will give up their weapons. They point to the weak language in the 1968 nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which says treaty members will “pursue negotiations” to achieve the goal of “complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”
And yet no nuclear-armed nation in the world is pursuing negotiations with the goal of “complete disarmament.” Indeed, most nuclear-armed nations are upgrading, not downgrading their arsenals.
The second fiction is that nuclear-armed nations will protect their unarmed allies with nuclear weapons.
But ask yourself: would President Donald Trump risk New York for Montenegro (population 643,000) — the newest member of NATO? In July, Trump suggested he was would not, even though the US is obligated to under NATO rules.
And why should Americans risk New York for Berlin when Germans won’t risk Berlin for New York? Just 40 percent of Germans believe they “should use military force to defend a NATO ally if it got into a serious military conflict with Russia,” while 65 percent believe “the U.S. would use military force to defend a NATO ally.”
And they are correct. Sixty-two percent of Americans agree that the U.S. should use military force to defend a NATO ally in a conflict with Russia.
But that commitment to NATO will likely weaken given the lack of European solidarity, Middle East war fatigue, and President Trump’s questioning of America’s role in the Alliance.
Already, a growing number of vulnerable U.S. allies are asking whether they should acquire weapons of their own.
In Germany, a prominent political scientist has called for his nation to get the bomb. “Trump-bashing will only further undermine the U.S. commitment to ‘extended deterrence,’” warned Dr. Christian Hacke, Professor of Political Science at the University of Bonn, in a major essay in Welt am Sonntag, the country’s largest Sunday newspaper (an English version can be read here).
Germany is, for the first time since 1949, without nuclear protection provided by the United States, and thus defenseless in an extreme crisis. As such, Germany has no alternative but to rely on itself.
A nuclear Germany would stabilize NATO and the security of the Western World. But if we cannot persuade our allies, then Germany should go it alone. It may be that just six to eight submarines would insure the security of the German people.”
A similar dynamic is underway in Asia. In the wake of tensions with North Korea, 60 percent of South Koreans today say they want their own nuclear weapons, and 68 percent want to redeploy U.S. tactical nuclear weapons. And now, politicians with South Korea’s leading opposition party are urging their nation’s nuclear armament.
Disarmament and Imperialism
The end of extended deterrence provided by the U.S. to Europe should not come as a surprise. Its temporary nature was foreseen as early as 1962, when André Fontaine wrote in Le Monde: “It is inconceivable, unless we are resigned to an interminable cold war, that Europe forever relies on America for its security and for the orientation of its diplomacy.”
As to be expected, the usual fears are being drummed up against why a militarily-weak nation like Germany shouldn’t get the bomb.
“If Germany was to relinquish its status as a non-nuclear power, what would prevent Turkey or Poland, for example, from following suit?” a former German ambassador to the U.S., wrote in response to Hacke’s essay. “Germany as the gravedigger of the international nonproliferation regime? Who can want that?”
In truth, it’s remarkable the nonproliferation regime has lasted as long as it has.
It made sense for nuclear-armed nations in the 1950s and 60s to try to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. After all, nations weren’t accustomed to the revolutionary new technology, and the likelihood was far higher back then that a weapon could get used accidentally or fall into the wrong hands.
But 60 years later, in a multipolar world where the dominant power, the U.S., has grown tired of its role as global hegemon, the non-proliferation regime is falling apart under the weight of its own contradictions.
The division of the world into nuclear-armed and unarmed nations has long been arbitrary and unfair. Nuclear-armed nations, except for France, hypocritically punished India for decades with trade sanctions for acquiring a weapon.
People rightly worry about accidental or unauthorized use of weapons, such as by terrorists, but nations today safeguard their weapons and materials far better than they did in the past.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States spent $10 billion to help Russia maintain control of and destroy many of its nuclear weapons, and intelligence agencies around the world work together to prevent nuclear materials from falling into the hands of non-state actors.
As for terrorism, why would a nation like Iran go to all the trouble of getting a bomb only to give it to a non-state actor like Hamas or Hezbollah? Not only would doing so risk retaliation from Israel, but the bomb could be used by those groups to gain leverage over Iran itself.
Today, the greatest opposition to the spread of nuclear weapons to weak nations like North Korea and Iran comes from militaristic figures like U.S. national security advisor John Bolton, who advocated the disastrous invasion of Iraq, and who now advocates “the Libya model” for North Korea.
It’s easy to see why. “In a world without nuclear weapons,” a U.S. nuclear weapons designer explained, “the U.S. would have uncontested military dominance.”
In other words, a world without nuclear weapons would be a world where relatively weak nations — like France and Britain before World War II and North Korea and Iran today — are deprived the only power on Earth capable of preventing a military invasion by a more powerful adversary.
Who are we to deny weak nations the nuclear weapons they need for self-defense? The answer should by now be clear: hypocritical, short-sighted, and imperialistic.
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