John Mueller on Nuclear Disarmament

The New York Times website has a blog called "Room for Debate," where a bunch of people -- experts in their areas -- write short essays commenting on a news item. (I participated a few weeks ago.) Earlier this month, there was a post on nuclear disarmament, following President Obama's speech in Cairo that mentioned the subject. One of the commentators was John Mueller, Ohio State University political science professor and longtime critic of the terrorism hype. (I recommend his book, Overblown.) His commentary was very good; I especially liked the first sentence. An excerpt:

The notion that the world should rid itself of nuclear weapons has been around for over six decades -- during which time they have been just about the only instrument of destruction that hasn't killed anybody. The abolition idea has been dismissed by most analysts because, since inspection of any arms reduction cannot be perfect, the measure could potentially put wily cheaters in a commanding position.

There may be another approach to the same end, one that, while also imperfect, would require far less effort while greatly reducing the amount of sanctimonious huffing and puffing we would have to endure.

Just let it happen.

While it may not be entirely fair to characterize disarmament as an effort to cure a fever by destroying the thermometer, the analogy is instructive when it is reversed: when fever subsides, the instrument designed to measure it loses its usefulness and is often soon misplaced.

Indeed, a fair amount of nuclear arms reduction, requiring little in the way of formal agreement, has already taken place between the former cold war contestants.

Posted on June 22, 2009 at 1:46 PM • 61 Comments

Comments

Kim Jong IlJune 22, 2009 2:29 PM

Surely, the same argument given by opponents to gun control can also be given for nuclear weapons:
"Nuclear missiles don't kill people. Evil dictators with nuclear missiles kill people."

JRRJune 22, 2009 2:33 PM

I don't personally think that nuclear weapons in the hands of a small country are good for anything but getting your own butt kicked. It's not like the US would nuke North Korea if they nuked Japan; if they used a nuke, I'd think most countries would join in an action to go in and wipe out their military capability conventionally.

The world only puts up with nuclear weapons as long as they're not used. Any government that used one has crossed a clear line, and few would argue that they need to be removed at that point, and we don't need or want to use nukes to do it.

Nuclear weapons simply have no purpose other than terror.

Humberto MassaJune 22, 2009 2:49 PM

"Evil dictators without nuclear missiles also kill people." (M. duvalier)
Normally, only for the definition of "people" that includes their subjects. (/sarcasm)

HJohnJune 22, 2009 2:59 PM

Analogies are usually imperfect, but none the less useful. Imagine two people, each pointing a gun at the other. Clearly, the first person to lay down their gun is at a disadvantage, and he better hope the other person has some restraint.

Nuclear weapons make me uneasy, but they unfortunately exist. That's the reality. I'd rather have them as a deterant than not have them at all given the realities. Now, that is not to say we cannot dismantle any or that we need enough to destroy the entire planet, but the best way in this reality to not have to use them is to have enough of them to keep an enemy from using them on us.

The reason the instrument hasn't killed anybody is because no one who has them cares to lauch first -- either because of their values, or because they know full well the consequences.

kangarooJune 22, 2009 3:00 PM

Other than keeping the system going is a good business. In a fever, the fever causing microbes don't have 401k's biased toward the thermometer industry.

publiusJune 22, 2009 3:17 PM

The nuclear option has not been an option for the US since WWII. So why continue the charade still today? Because the nuclear option remains an option for those wishing to establish themselves in the world pecking order (ie. North Korea, India, Pakistan et al)

Clive RobinsonJune 22, 2009 3:21 PM

@ JRR,

"The world only puts up with nuclear weapons as long as they're not used. Any government that used one has crossed a clear line, and few would argue that they need to be removed at that point"

As far as I am aware one country has crossed that line and nobody has done anything about it...

The simple fact is that Nukes are a membership card to a club.

You only have to look at US "before and after" behaviour with respect to countries that have obtained the nuke capability to understand why they are so desirable.

It is no great secret that the US has tried for many many years to create diplomatic incidents with North Korea, and thankfully the North Korean's have so far not taken the bait.

In Europe we know that oil is running out and so are other forms of fuel derived from vegitation. The simple fact is that all the "green solutions" in the world are not going to meet our energy needs as nations with growing economies.

Therefore in Europe we are looking very seriously at nuclear energy production again, if for no other reason than to meet our carbon reduction requirments without hamstringing the economy.

Other nations who have faster developing economies have even larger energy requirments, there is currently no other method of sustaining the growth other than via nuclear unless we wish to choke to death.

To turn round to a country and say no you cannot independently develop nuclear technology because we do not trust you is to put it mildly hypocritical.

Most of the nations who want to develop their economies have been hamstrung over the past 50-60 years by the behaviour of the US and others trying to ensure "cheap raw resources".

Ask yourself the question which would you rather have dictators with nukes who have a lot to lose by attacking another nation, or terrorists with nothing to lose and everything to gain by attacking the US in whatever way they can?

We in the western world with a small percentage of the worlds population and an enforced monopoly over 80% of other nations resources realy do need to think about what we are doing and why.

The simple fact is we are too technology dependent in the first world and our technology is very fragile at best. Further it can as was seen on 9/11 and 7/7 be easily used against us by people with little skills and not even a great deal of determination.

Tangerine BlueJune 22, 2009 3:27 PM

> six decades -- during which time they have...n't killed anybody.

That's a great fact. But I'm not sure it makes sense to infer that past performance is a good indicator of future events.

For the bulk of those six decades, these nuclear arsenals have been under relatively competent adult supervision.

The latest editions to the nuclear club seem rather less grown-up. Pakistan's gov't was overthrown by its military not too long ago, has profited in the nuclear black market, and the present gov't has a tenous grip over a deeply divided and sometimes well-armed populace. North Korea is actually shooting these things toward us while foaming at the mouth about our destruction.

I hope nobody's ever foolish enough to launch these again, but it seems like it's a good idea to keep some playthings away from certain youngsters.

TAANJune 22, 2009 3:29 PM

Obama is really calling for the un-invention of something. It's a few steps beyond naive. It's dangerously stupid.

HJohnJune 22, 2009 3:30 PM

Clive,

I'm a proud American, and acknowledge we are not perfect. But if the USA were the world's bad guy, as awful as you suggest, I'd have left years ago.

But it is nice of you to admit, finally, that world problems existed before January 2001.

HJohnJune 22, 2009 3:50 PM

@TAAN: "Obama is really calling for the un-invention of something. It's a few steps beyond naive. It's dangerously stupid."
________

I think Obama is a good guy with a good heart, so I try to avoid personal criticisms to the extent possible, but I think the word you use -- naive -- is the best descriptor of his political position on this.

It would be like the police, hating violence, deciding to cast all their guns into the sea. Does anyone believe criminals would do the same? Of course not. It is equally as naive to think that some leading nations (as the OA said, "cheaters") would give up an advantage out of the goodness of their heart.

Kim Jong IlJune 22, 2009 3:52 PM

"Evil dictators without nuclear missiles also kill people."

Further proof that nuclear weapons represent absolutely no danger in themselves.

*heads back to the testing facility*

A nonny bunnyJune 22, 2009 4:01 PM

"The notion that the world should rid itself of nuclear weapons has been around for over six decades -- during which time they have been just about the only instrument of destruction that hasn't killed anybody."

Yeah, but they killed quite a few people four years prior to those six decades.

HJohnJune 22, 2009 4:09 PM

@A nonny bunny: "Yeah, but they killed quite a few people four years prior to those six decades."
_____________

If there would have been a Pearl Harbor, they wouldn't have.

HJohnJune 22, 2009 4:10 PM

@A nonny bunny: "Yeah, but they killed quite a few people four years prior to those six decades."
_____________

If there wouldn't have been a Pearl Harbor, they wouldn't have.


Apologize for the typo before. (the missing "n't" was easy to overlook and made a huge difference).

kangarooJune 22, 2009 4:15 PM

HJohn: I'm a proud American, and acknowledge we are not perfect. But if the USA were the world's bad guy, as awful as you suggest, I'd have left years ago.

Why is everyone so damn oversensitive? Particularly Americans?

It's not about being a bad guy. It's about being the biggest guy on the block. Whoever has all the toys acts essentially the same. It's a function of what you can get away with.

"Russians" are fine people. The Soviet Union was not -- not because the people were good or bad, but because a small number of people had such power over vast numbers of people, and could get away with it. It continued as long as it was self-sustaining.

The US has domestic spying because some guys can get away with it. The only reason pertaining to Americans per-se that I can think of, is that Americans are over-sensitive to criticism, and therefore find it hard to critique this ongoing process. But mostly, it's just historically contingent and has little to do with the US itself -- it's just bad luck that the organizations developed for the cold war are now being turned inward.

HJohn June 22, 2009 4:22 PM

@kangaroo: "Why is everyone so damn oversensitive? Particularly Americans?"
_________

I'm not oversensitive. We are not perfect. But look at the post I was responding to (June 22, 2009 3:21 PM).

In a nutshell: US is the only country to use them and dind't have penalty, North Korea isn't taking the US's bait, other countries have been hamstrung for 50-60 years by the US, etc. etc. etc.

Basically, we're to blame for everything, we're even worse than certain cruel dictators (the ones he said "thankfully aren't taking our bait.).

My proud american post wasn't hypersistitivity towards legitimate criticisms of the US, it was over ad nauseum falsely blaming us for all the worlds ills.

HJohnJune 22, 2009 4:24 PM

@kangaroo: ""Russians" are fine people. The Soviet Union was not -- not because the people were good or bad, but because a small number of people had such power over vast numbers of people, and could get away with it. It continued as long as it was self-sustaining."
_____

I would agree. I would never advocate hijacking a civilian airliner with children on board and crashing it into a building killing innocent people because I dind't like their government. Nor would I justify it. Doesn't matter whether they are Russians, Iraqis, Iranians, Koreans or americans.

I'm not going to debate the misnamed "domestic spying" here.

AnonymousJune 22, 2009 4:25 PM

...genuine voluntary, mutual disarmament of major weapons systems is unprecedented internationally -- and has never ensured peace... anywhere in history.

What possible factual evidence could nuclear-disarmament advocates cite for their theory ?

There are many practical, tactical, and strategic reasons for not acquiring or using nukes... but mystical belief in the effectiveness of disarmament is literally nonsense.

Clive RobinsonJune 22, 2009 4:48 PM

@ HJohn,

"But if the USA were the world's bad guy, as awful as you suggest, I'd have left years ago."

Where would you go?

The issue is as I indicated is First World nations as seen in non First World nations.

The US is by no means the only offender the UK as now is, kind of exported greed around the world for getting on for five hundred years one way or another.

In this endevor they were initialy abley assisted by Spain and Portugal with France stiring it up in the background even today.

Later with the start of the global trading companies such as the Dutch East India Company and others Europeans carved up the globe and it's resources.

The study of the life's work of Cecil Rhodes is very instructive reading on just what tricks where used to subjugate native populations to enable their natural resources to be plundered (remember that over 80% of the worlds diamods are held in the safes of a single company).

Oh then there was the issue of Opium...

It was only in the 19th century that the USA started to get in on the act. However at the start of the 20th century it had more than caught up with Europe in terms of industrialisation with the likes of Henry Ford developing mass production techniques that come the First World War would put it in the dominant position for arms manufacture.

Although the isolationist period that followed effectivly reduced arms manufacture in the USA the advent of the Second World War and Pearl Harbour started it up again with avengence.

Since the second world war the US has exported something like 20 times the armarments of any European nation to other countries. And if I remember correctly dropped more gross tonnage of bombs on Vietnam under Richard Nixon (1973) than had been dropped during the second world war.

It is a matter of record about the US and it's forign policy towards nations like Chile where it tried to bring the nation down at the behest of the US copper industry.

There have been other nations run by dictators where the US has knowingly supported them and their atrocities against their populace simply because it would hold back other political ideals in a region.

It is very difficult for us living in the First World to understand just how the rest of the world see's us.

And it's not just First World Governments that are to blaim, when a major US company like Exxon covers up poor plant maintanence in one of it's subsiduaries which has led to the deaths of people in places like Hong Kong the people there feel resentmant not just against the company but even more so against the country from which the company comes.

And it has been and will remain advantageous for other nations to foster the image of the "great satan" etc for their own ends you only have to look at what has happened in the past week in Iran to see this (in this particular case it was the UK that was singled out).

The US is a fairly easy hate target for many other reasons not least because of it's "democracy" issues.

How do you think the rest of the world sees the US over "free and fair" elections that went the way of Hamas and the US turning around and effectivly saying well your not the people we want to deal with...

You have the US veto being used to block just about every UN vote over Israel and the little stunt recently when Condi Rice negotiated a deal just to have the US delegate at the UN pull it down...

At the end of the day it does not mater a jot if the US/UK/et al are not as bad as the rest of the world sees us, it is what the rest of the world believes either through experiance or what they have been told that matters.

The ImpJune 22, 2009 7:08 PM

These days, there are actually conventional weapons that (when used correctly) rival the destructive power of a nuclear weapon without technically being one (such as some experimental thermobaric weapons). And that's not going into non-conventional weapons (chemical, biological…) that - in principle - were always more potentially lethal (if not destructive) than nuclear weapons - just without the necessary delivery technology while they were in vogue.

Nuclear weapons cost billions to create, billions more to store and billions more still to disarm. Multiplied over sixty years, it's a wonder that they ever made more than 10 each, yet they made many thousands. The stockpiles that most nuclear nations have of these weapons far exceeds the number required to blanket-bomb every square inch of the earth several times over. The kinds of delivery mechanisms developed for nuclear weapons (ICBMs and MIRVs, plus other more exotic variations) would make, say, Agent VX just as lethal or perhaps even more so (but with less property damage, most likely, which may or may not be the point - but since we're talking about enough nerve gas to kill almost every living thing on earth, property damage becomes a bit of a moot point).

The fixation on nuclear weapons - by both those for and against disarmament - are somewhat misplaced. It's not nuclear weapons that should be eliminated - it's the need or desire to use them (both of which have only been barely contained by the lacking nerve to use them). What really is the difference between weapons that can kill a 10 billion civilians and a 100 billion civilians - no-one needs or should have access to weapons that can kill more than a half-dozen civilians (if that much).

ModeratorJune 22, 2009 7:12 PM

Please remember that the topic is nuclear disarmament, not "US: good or bad?"

A non-mooseJune 22, 2009 9:49 PM

If you ever decide to divest yourself of nuclear weapons, don't try selling them on Ebay.

David ThomasJune 23, 2009 1:02 AM

If we collectively declare nukes off limits, cheating only matters if someone is able to hide a large number of nukes. A state secretly possessing a few warheads is actually not a significant issue, because they will be unable to use them for fear of obliteration (by conventional means) by the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, if we've stockpiles of nukes, it only takes one accident (or incident) to do a whole lot of damage to mostly a lot of perfectly innocent people. Have you heard of Stanislav Petrov, who literally saved the world by disobeying orders back in the Cold War? Do you remember fairly recently, when the United States Air Force *accidentally* flew live nukes over the US? There will be more mistakes, more near misses, and that's not even taking into account deliberate attacks.

You think our luck will hold out? Obama's position is far from naive.

Clive RobinsonJune 23, 2009 1:10 AM

@ Imp,

"The fixation on nuclear weapons - by both those for and against disarmament - are somewhat misplaced."

Nukes are just the latest in a very very long line of "shock and awe" weapons.

They are supposadly the iron fist in the velvet glove of diplomacy.

I think it was the Rand Corperation that came up with the term "Mutualy assured destruction" (MAD) to describe what the stock piles of nukes where for.

What is less well known is that nukes are actually not that difficult to make once you are beyond a certain point in refining the raw materials. Most of what you need to know was published in the 1970's in "Project Y, The Manhatan District..." and the Encyclopedia Britannica.

What was left out was the design of the "golf ball" or "initiator" which plays a very large part in determaning the yield of a device.

Also that the US nukes unlike those of the Soviets contained so many safety devices to stop them going critical (accidently or if they where stolen) that they where unlikly to actually work reliably.

The US did the world a great service after the break up of the USSR/CCCP by going and tracking down and buying up the stock piles of raw materials left in the old soviet states.

A nonny bunnyJune 23, 2009 2:03 AM

@HJohn
"If there wouldn't have been a Pearl Harbor, they wouldn't have."

Only because they wouldn't have been drawn into a war with Japan. That's like saying if Gavrilo Princip hadn't shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand the Germans wouldn't have used mustard gas in WWI. I'm not really convinced by such counterfactuals.
If the war hadn't been close to over in Europe by then, they might have used it there. (After all, the race for the atomic bomb started to beat the Germans getting there first.) There really wasn't, at that time, any reason not to use nukes. And it's not like they couldn't flatten a city without one either.
Up to two decades later they even considered using nukes in large construction projects (e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... ). They weren't seen in such a bad light as they are now.

But anyway, the point was that if you extend those 6 decades by a fraction, then nukes were used; by whom and why are irrelevant.

YosiJune 23, 2009 2:25 AM

@David Thomas

>> A state secretly possessing a few warheads is actually not a significant issue, because they will be unable to use them for fear of obliteration (by conventional means) by the rest of the world.

What a load of crap. What "rest of the world"?! Who will fight (and die) when Iran will nuke let's say Saudia? Except of oil issue, who cares? Who cares if African state X will slaughter all the people in state Y to risk his life over it?

Nobody want to mess with nuclear state. That's why Iranian want it so badly, so they can tell US: "cut your crap, we do as we please".

For same reason Israel will not disarm: so no nutpick will attempt to bring in "international forces".

A nonny bunnyJune 23, 2009 3:49 AM

@Yosi
"What a load of crap. What "rest of the world"?! Who will fight (and die) when Iran will nuke let's say Saudia? Except of oil issue, who cares? Who cares if African state X will slaughter all the people in state Y to risk his life over it?"

If nukes are involved, I think people would care. Because you can't assume they'd stop there.
Better to shove a dozen cruise missiles in every hole that even looks like a nuclear missile silo and send in planes to control the air space, so you can shoot down any missiles that might still be launched.
And those measures don't even really risk anyone getting killed; it's just push-button warfare.

YosiJune 23, 2009 4:58 AM

@nonny bunny

>> If nukes are involved, I think people would care

Of cause they would. They will care not to get involved. Nobody want to be next. You can observe this behavior in Europe where people sucking to Muslims so badly instead of throwing them out.

>> Better to shove a dozen cruise missiles
Do you have any idea how match cruise missile cost? Or how many countries have one?

Countries will think not twice, but twenty times before attacking nuclear state. You don't want to take a chance of "one more nuke left"; and since you can never know, there's always chance.

Nuclear weapon is very powerful weapon that eventually will find its way into more and more countries as progress continue. It will be used eventually as every other weapon invented so far.

FowlJune 23, 2009 5:29 AM

I think everyone is too caught up in the destructive power.

My problem with nukes is the radioactive fallout. Sure you've killed x people and destroyed facility y, but you've also irradiated the atmosphere amongst other things.

The pure destructive force is completely replaceable using far less expensive(!) means. Without the side effects.

BillJune 23, 2009 5:35 AM

@'Just let it happen'

In terms of nation states, Frederic Bastiat argued "When goods do not cross borders, soldiers will"

So 'just let it happen' is arguably saying 'let's trade'.

But what does N.Korea have that I want, cabbages? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Clive RobinsonJune 23, 2009 5:48 AM

@ Imp,

"These days, there are actually conventional weapons that (when used correctly) rival the destructive power of a nuclear weapon without technically being one (such as some experimental thermobaric weapons)."

Thermobaric weapons are actually talked up by the press a lot without much understanding of what they are and the significant limitations of them.

Effectivly a thermobaric weapon contains a mixture of two or more high explosives with an additional metal fuel component in an arangment sometimes called a SFAE or SFAX (sold fuel air explosive).

Unlike a conventional "iron bomb" they do not exploit the "shrapnel effect", but use a mixture of high energy fast rise shockwave (baric) and high volume high temprature effects (thermo).

They generaly have a three stage sequence consisting of a very high impulse detonation of very short duration which is used for generating an armour piercing penetration etc, a longer secondary explosion which causes the metal fuel to be dispersed which then explodes as a conventional Fuel Air Explosive (FAE/FAX) creating a very high temprature burn over a considerable volume.

The use of thermodaric weapons which attracted the recent attention of the media is the US BLU-118/B in Afganistan against tunnels. Effectivly in this form they are a new style "bunker buster", with a secondary effect of consuming the oxygen in the tunnel/bunker and creating significant overpreasure which can then lead to a secondery "vacuum" effect.

Although new to US/UK forces thermobaric weapons have been used befor by the Russian armed forces and where developed from the FAE/FAX weapons they used in Afganistan.

They are very effective at destroying close built up places such as cities, however the "vacuum" effects will often cause significant civilian casualties in bomb shelters.

They are of limited use on open battle fields where more conventional iron or FAE/FAX are better suited.

AriJune 23, 2009 5:57 AM

I'm much more pessimisitic than John Mueller. He believes that nuclear weapons will be gradually discarded as more 'useable' weapons take their place and the costs of nuclear weapon maintenance grow.

I would say that the USA's last regime pushed the world into the opposite direction: the axis of evil consisted of those countries who could be potentially bullied into submission. Would you see a similar position taken against Pakistan (even though Al Quaeda are probably based somewhere within its borders)? Or similar rhetoric levelled against Russia for its activities in Chechnya or South Ossetia? Probably not, and other countries know why.

The race to create a credible threat (perhaps just a handful of nuclear weapons which might possibly work) has been evident in Iran and North Korea. They realise that that threat is the best way to avoid the fate Iraq met at the hands of the USA.

Let's not debate here who is evil and who is good. The problem is that international pressures are encouraging countries who feel threatened by the current world powers to find ways to protect their state. And one of those ways is to convince the world that they have nuclear weapons they will use.

So the USA may reduce their store from 10,000 missiles to 5,000 missiles. But that makes no difference to the security of the planet. 10 nuclear bombs held by a small insecure nation o the other hand...

"We will all go together when we go
All suffused with an incandescent glow
When the air becomes uranious, we will all go simultaneous
Yes, we all will go together when we go"
(Tom Lehrer)

Jeroen HellingmanJune 23, 2009 6:17 AM

I want to take strong exception with the claim that nuclear weapons didn't kill anybody during the last six decades: The threat they imposed helped to sustain a criminal regime for decades. The resources used to develop and maintain them (in the many billions of dollars) have taken away resources that could be used to improve health care and education, and could have saved millions of people. The mining of uranium, and the spilling of nuclear waste has caused a lot of suffering, and the tests themselves have also not been harm-free.

georgeJune 23, 2009 7:53 AM

"during which time they have been just about the only instrument of destruction that hasn't killed anybody"

Not forgetting nuclear accidents, test shots in Nevada and other parts of the world where military members were told to stand or squat in trenches, only to die of cancer in later life, and of course the ones we dropped on Japan.

Noble_SerfJune 23, 2009 8:07 AM

It is fine when elected officials talk about a vision that includes no nuclear weapons while knowing the major powers who have them will keep them for a good long while.

RobertJune 23, 2009 8:15 AM

"In terms of nation states, Frederic Bastiat argued 'When goods do not cross borders, soldiers will'

So 'just let it happen' is arguably saying 'let's trade'."

Russia and France were the biggest trade partners with Germany just before the war started, so Mr. Bastiat is pretty much full of it.

SeedsJune 23, 2009 8:18 AM

"The notion that the world should rid itself of nuclear weapons has been around for over six decades -- during which time they have been just about the only instrument of destruction that hasn't killed anybody."

As Tangerine Blue noted ("I'm not sure it makes sense to infer that past performance is a good indicator of future events"), this first sentence is a classic inductive fallacy. To borrow Bertrand Russell's analogy, the chicken that has been fed for its entire life could use the same logic to assume that the farmer will never arrive with a hatchet, instead of grain.

We've come tantalisingly close to nuclear war several times during the three decades under consideration - perhaps a better analogy would be a man playing Russian roulette. After 5 "clicks" is it reasonable for him to assume that he will never lose?


- Search for "operation giant lance" for some thought-provoking articles on the risks of nuclear sabre-rattling. I certainly don't believe that politicians are always rational actors, and so it's hard to believe that MAD is enough to indefinitely prevent the use of nuclear weapons.

bobJune 23, 2009 8:32 AM

I think the 6-decades issue makes a good point. Add up all the people who've been killed by conventional or chemical weapons during that time. You would be hard pressed to get enough living people in one place that even the "Tsar Bomba" would be able to outdo that.

But I would point out that nuclear weapons are a cheap way to defend yourself - at least compared to the cost of keeping a large enough standing army that a large country, India and China come to mind (not saying they intend to; simply that they could), could not simply drown you in numbers of conventional troops.

@Clive - someone from the UK has no leg to stand on talking about other nations being imperialist.

caseyJune 23, 2009 8:50 AM

The function of a known weapon is to change negotiations. The purpose of a hidden weapon is to be used. I actually think that sabre-rattling indicates an intent and desire for self-preservation. If it was discovered that North Korea (for example) had a WMD and had not bragged about it, I would be more disturbed.

The benefit of reduction is that it decreases the chance of accident or theft of the weapon system. The one thing I would try to enforce is limiting the sale of weapons. Once you sell a weapon system you lose the ability to claim defense as motivation.

Clive RobinsonJune 23, 2009 8:51 AM

@ Yosi,

"Do you have any idea how match cruise missile cost? Or how many countries have one?"

It realy depends on what you mean by a "cruise missile"

Essentially all they are is a delivery mechanism similar to a remotly operated plane, or pilotless aircraft on autopilot.

The first such weapon was the German V1 with a one tonne payload. It was not very accurate it used an "air log" and gyro compass. But it certainly would have been effective against London if the UK had not rounded up all the German spies and then reported back fake drop points, therby causing the Germans to change the drop points away from London.

You could probably build a working system using a second hand light aircraft and of the shelf auto pilot / GPS that would be capable of carrying around a 200Kg payload for less than 20,000USD.

BillJune 23, 2009 8:57 AM

@bob

'@Clive - someone from the UK has no leg to stand on talking about other nations being imperialist.'

bob's logical fallacy: Ad hominem

BillJune 23, 2009 9:08 AM

@robert
'Russia and France were the biggest trade partners with Germany just before the war started, so Mr. Bastiat is pretty much full of it.'

If you mean WWII then Germany had hyperinflation in 1923 compounded by the great depression in 1929. Neither good for the flow of goods, and the socioeconomic pressures fuelled the rise to the Nazi party. The goods stopped, the soldiers crossed.

AnonJune 23, 2009 9:38 AM

I read that debate, and thought Mueller was closest to the mark, but I think he misses the incentives small countries might have to go nuclear, and the risk of some kind of accident (or theft, or whatever) resulting. It's not the most likely way for lots of folks to die, but the toys are big so it deserves serious consideration.

Countries can't rationally use strategic nukes in a multi-power world; he gets that part. But small countries can still pursue nukes for regional power or in the hope that big countries will try and bribe them out of it. That increases the chance that nukes will be *irrationally* used by folks who stole them or because a country incorrectly detected an attack or whatever.

Part of the solution (and also a solution to a lot of regional conflict) is to make sure most of the power is in the hands of a large, stable regional nuclear power that doesn't want any other countries in the region to go nuclear, and part is detailed on-the-ground antiproliferation work.

We in the US should unilaterally vastly shrink our nuclear program, because there's little strategic value in being able to blow the world up twice rather than once, and we're spending some serious cash on the program right now. Good luck getting that through Congress, of course. Most powers with more than a few nukes should shrink their programs, too.

Perhaps the risk of an accidental or irrational detonation is so small that the expense of the nuclear programs dwarfs the actual threat; I'm sure Bruce thinks that's true, and it may be. It's also true that less newsworthy things (AIDS, malaria) and unanticipated events are more important.

But global and regional situations can change a lot in 10 or 50 years, foolproof nuke controls are never foolproof, and nukes have in fact killed nearly 200,000 people already (take that al Qaeda). I'm not waiting for the apocalypse to arrive at any moment, but I think antiproliferation is a wise thing to spend on.

AnonJune 23, 2009 10:00 AM

For more perspective on my last comment, consider that AIDS has killed ten times as many people as nuclear weapons (and, of course, is actively killing people *now*, unlike nukes), malaria is killing probably a million people yearly, diarrhea maybe more than that. That doesn't change that antiproliferation is a better use of cash than proliferation since it could stop accidents and irrational use of weapons, but it does change how you look at nuclear issues compared to other, less puzzling problems.

And I want to know how Bruce's laptop sale turned out.

David ThomasJune 23, 2009 10:13 AM

@yosi
"Do you have any idea how match cruise missile cost? Or how many countries have one?"

Countries need some sort of deployment system for nukes to be used, anyway - and conventional payloads are significantly cheaper both in terms of dollars and PR. It takes a few more of them to do *equivalent* damage, but I really don't know that we need to in order to present a credible threat against anyone who would use a nuke. Even without their nukes, Ohio-class submarines can each deploy 154 ballistic missiles - I would think that could make someone's day most unpleasant, without putting a single US soldier's life on the line (which isn't to say that's the best option, but it's an option).

DavidJune 23, 2009 11:21 AM

The reason for the earlier use of nukes is the nature of the war going on: one of total conquest. These haven't been all that common among developed nations historically. (There's no reason to think that any of the current nuclear powers, except Israel, would have been attacked with intent to conquer without nukes.) It would be extremely expensive to try to conquer even a small nuclear power.

That's why countries like Iran and North Korea want nukes: it's not so much being in a club as it is being secure from conquest. The US conquest of Iraq in 1993 probably made this seem more important, particularly since the large Iraqi conventional forces were unable to stop it. Unfortunately, it's the more unstable nations that feel more threatened, and therefore the ones that are going to want nukes.

For my personal security, I'm not all that worried about reasonably developed and stable nuclear powers, since they know what they have to lose if they use their nukes. I'm worried about the less stable governments who might launch something out of something other than dire necessity, or let a few nukes slip into the hands of terrorists.

In this context, disarmament is irrelevant. It's not that hard for a country to acquire nukes, and a country isn't likely to acquire them because they feel threatened by current nuclear powers (see the Falklands/Malvinas war of1982 - while Britain's nuclear subs played a part, the British nuclear arsenal played none). It's likely that countries will do some partial disarmament for cost reasons alone, but that doesn't change much.

So, the real danger from nuclear proliferation is from unstable countries that want to avoid being conquered. I don't see much that can be done to stop them from wanting nukes, so it would be good if we could keep them from getting them.

MarkJune 23, 2009 11:45 AM

"I hope nobody's ever foolish enough to launch these again, but it seems like it's a good idea to keep some playthings away from certain youngsters."

What about, rather than hypocritically telling other nations they can't have what we already do, we move to complete our own domestic missile defense system so that conventional nuclear warheads carried by ICBMs no longer pose a threat to us? This is one of the few (only?) modern defense projects that actually makes any sense, and it's on the chopping block.

(sarcasm)But by god Europe needs us to build one for them! Think of all the Polish!(/sarcasm)

"But what does N.Korea have that I want, cabbages? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?"

I don't know. But when we refuse to even talk to them, we're the ones who look like children. The thing we should NOT do is give them "aid" (read: bribes) when they say they're going to do what we want. Even if we can't buy anything from them, at least talk to them and let them buy our stuff. It can't hurt.

BCSJune 23, 2009 12:05 PM

One strong point is that nukes have a finite shelf life and are very costly to rebuild. If the value of having them is less than the cost of maintaining them, people will sooner or later let them fall into disrepair.

@JRR (the first guy to voice the view here): any intelligent (and sane) person can tell that nukes are not offensive weapons. Any country that used them as such would soon find themselves at war with the whole rest of the world by any means the world could. The point of nukes (and part of the point of most any weapon) is to make the price of victory for your opponent to high.

A very similar argument can be made for citizens carrying concealed firearms: I can't think of a single situation where any society should put up with a citizens carrying a gun and planning on using it as an offensive weapon yet we (I'm in the US), for the most part, allow some people to carry guns for defensive reasons.

DavidJune 23, 2009 3:53 PM

@Mark: What makes you think a reliable missile defense system is feasible? How about a system to defend the US against nukes carried by other means (ships, trucks, containers, whatever)?

I doubt we can get a 90% effective defense system, and that's not good enough against an attacker with ten nukes.

RogerJune 23, 2009 4:37 PM

"Indeed, a fair amount of nuclear arms reduction, requiring little in the way of formal agreement, has already taken place between the former cold war contestants."

To be more precise, a massive amount of unilateral nuclear disarmament was initiated by George H. W. Bush, the French and UK joined in, and after several false starts the Russians started joining the party in the mid-1990s. The US currently has fewer active warheads that it did at any time since the 1950s, and all production facilities have either been shut down, or converted to dismantlement facilities under international supervision.

With the exception of China, all the major nuclear powers are already doing it; the big mystery is why it has been so poorly publicised that people are still writing papers suggesting that we should start.

MarkHJune 24, 2009 7:02 PM

@HJohn, who wrote "Imagine two people, each pointing a gun at the other. Clearly, the first person to lay down their gun is at a disadvantage..."

Not so clearly, or at least, it's not clear to me. To take the analogy a bit farther, the person who lays the gun down first now has a hand (or both hands, type of gun not specified) and some attention free, that the person still holding the gun does not.

The one who puts the gun down first (in this analogy) is able to cultivate crops, attend to family and health, and do all sorts of business better than than the one still holding the gun.

Remember, a gun is not armor, that in itself can protect you from the adversary's bullet. You can use it shoot the other person preemptively, or you can hope to shoot the adversary after you yourself are shot...

If the "big picture" is that shooting you will impose a cost to your adversary in excess of any possible benefit, putting your gun down makes good sense.

Peter MillerJuly 15, 2009 1:57 AM

I'm quite amazed that no one has mentioned that there is a nuclear armed country in the world that has abandoned their weapons, South Africa.

Why not research the effects on the country for following this decision and see if any worthwhile lessons can be learned.

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