Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Obama’s Nuclear Naivety

The problem is not nuclear weapons per se, but who has them.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

The Obama administration has celebrated its recent efforts to sign a nuclear-weapons accord with Russia and the hosting of a nuclear non-proliferation summit in Washington — all silhouetted against grandiose promises to seek the end of all nuclear weapons on the planet. But from all this, what real progress exactly have we made toward ensuring a world safer from the specter of nuclear annihilation? Aside from the wording of proposed treaties and proclamations, what are the larger philosophical assumptions behind the new utopian approach to non-proliferation?

First, nuclear weapons per se — regrettable though they may be — are not exactly the problem. None of us is terrified that a democratic Britain, France, Israel, or India possesses them. While we might prefer that major autocracies like China and Russia were not nuclear, we do not at present fret about a first strike from either, given that both are invested in, and profit from, the global system of trade and commerce — and, in their more aggressive moments, are subject to classical laws of deterrence.

Second, if any state is intent on mass murder, there are chemical and biological mechanisms that might be cheaper and more accessible than nuclear weapons. Far more people have been killed by machetes since Hiroshima and Nagasaki than by nukes, but we could hardly have stopped the violence in Rwanda by a worldwide ban on edged weapons. The utopian wishes to ban the six-shooter; the realist, the gunslinger.

So the problem is not nuclear weapons, but who has them — in particular, the degree to which an autocratic, renegade country seeks them either to threaten rivals, or to blackmail the world. We worry a lot about a nuclear Pakistan, are especially disturbed over a nuclear North Korea, and are terrified that Iran may well become nuclear. Their nuclear status earns them undue attention, money, and even deference from the United States — which they might not have garnered had they not been actual, or at least potential, nuclear powers.

So if we are to have a summit on non-proliferation, we should either insist that Iran and North Korea are there, or ensure that their outlawry dominates the agenda. Anything else is merely a photo-op, the equivalent of the grandstanding federal functionary citing the harmless, mostly law-abiding citizen for his misdemeanor while he timidly ignores the felonies of the dangerous hard-core criminal.

Third, an ancillary to nuclear non-proliferation should be strong support for democratization. A world of 20 or so nuclear powers is scary; a world of 20 or so dictatorial and autocratic nuclear powers is terrifying. The Obama administration has loudly caricatured the supposed neoconservative fantasies of George W. Bush, but at least the Bush administration grasped that the promotion of constitutional government was of value in discouraging first use of nuclear weapons.

In this context, it is especially regrettable that we have recently reached out to the dictatorship in Syria, despite its proven record of supporting terrorism and the spread of nuclear missiles while trying itself to obtain a nuclear program. President Obama’s failure last spring and summer to support the Iranian dissidents was even more regrettable; the end of the theocracy is the only real way, short of the use of force, of increasing the likelihood either that Iran will not obtain a bomb, or that a future democratic government might, South African style, give up nukes that a prior regime had obtained.

Finally, the Obama administration is talking of eliminating nuclear weapons entirely. Unfortunately, I cannot think of a single deadly new weapon that ever disappeared by fiat. The Greeks at times tried to forbid the use of missile weapons; they later lamented the arrival of torsion artillery. Crossbows and then harquebuses were condemned by medieval and later European churchmen. Poison gas was supposedly never to reappear after its ghastly use in World War I.

All such utopian efforts failed for the simple reason that nations are sovereign entities and there has never been an effective international cop to enforce such well-meaning edicts. To expect nuclear weapons to vanish because of an international accord would be like supposing that the Articles of Confederation could bind and regulate the behavior of early American states, or that the League of Nations could save Abyssinia or Manchuria.

Instead, what restricts the use and effectiveness of deadly weapons systems historically has been both deterrence and new defensive technologies. If one state were to acquire an army of harquebusiers, they might be deterred from employing them in aggressive fashion, but only if convinced that their adversaries had an even larger army with better fiery weapons. Hitler refrained from using gas against enemy combatants because he feared reprisal in kind, not the long arm of the authorities in Geneva. And he most certainly did use Zyklon B against European Jewry because he felt neither fear nor shame in its usage.

What contributed to the ineffectiveness of catapults was not condemnation from infantry generals, but much broader, stone-faced, packed-earthen fortifications. In other words, given the general imperfectibility of human nature, what will prevent a nuclear rogue state from annihilating its foes is either that it fears even greater retaliation, or, barring such deterrence, that an effective anti-ballistic missile system renders its arsenal nearly ineffective.

Any universal agreement barring the use of the bomb by existing nuclear powers is as likely to be honored by the majority of law-biding nations as it is to be broken by the minority of dangerous, lunatic states. True, international protocols could some day be collectively enforced by democratic states, but not through the promised participation of the world community at large, despite their protestations of global ecumenism. For confirmation of that pessimistic appraisal, simply review the membership rolls of the various U.N. commissions on human rights.

All that is not to say that the United States, either unilaterally or with its Western allies, should forswear the attempt, through force if need, to bar non-constitutional states from acquiring nuclear weapons at all costs. A nuclear Iran poses a myriad of dangers well beyond the specter of its first use of the bomb. More likely, Iran’s agenda is to acquire nuclear weapons, and then increase the frequency of its promises to seek the annihilation of Israel — hoping insidiously and incrementally to wear down the Israelis to either appease Tehran or emigrate to safer places.

A nuclear Iran would be analogous to the lunatic homeowner with a huge personal arsenal who periodically threatens his neighbors with terrible retaliation should their leaves drift over his property — without necessarily intending to spray anyone with machine-gun fire. Who wishes to try to keep up property values, or even to live, in such a neighborhood?

This administration has developed a bad habit of talking tough and bullying friendly constitutional states while reaching out to hostile and bad-acting dictatorships. In general, that is unwise foreign policy. In terms of nuclear politics it is dangerous beyond belief.

©2010 Victor Davis Hanson

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture.

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