Last week on a remote Australian island, I had the privilege of spending time “on the beach” — so to speak — with Nobel Economics laureate Thomas Schelling, whose thinking on nuclear deterrence shaped the international security environment we enjoy today. Expecting to find the wizened strategist downcast on the subject of nuclear proliferation, I instead found an outlook as optimistic as my own.
Speaking to a World Economic Forum retreat, Schelling admonished everyone to remember just how effectively nuclear deterrence has worked over the past six decades. No state, he noted, that has developed nuclear weapons has ever been attacked by another state. Moreover, no state armed with nuclear weapons has ever attacked another state similarly armed.
Think about that.
America, the first nuclear state, is the only one ever to use them: twice on Japan to end World War II. Justified? As the child of a World War II navy veteran who would have participated in America’s inevitable invasion of the Japanese mainland, I’ll pass on that one.
But what has the world witnessed since that initial demonstration effect?
America, as Schelling noted, could have employed nuclear weapons in its subsequent wars but did not. Nor did the Soviets. Instead, both sides, after the close call of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, moved inexorably — and to a great extent with Schelling’s wise input — toward an understanding that nuclear weapons are for having and not using. Due to the equalizing threat of mutually assured destruction, these devices cannot win wars but only prevent them.
The same logic has held all these decades for powers as diverse as the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan and Israel, with North Korea stepping up to the plate and Iran on deck.
Thus, we have survived the Democratic bomb and the Totalitarian bomb, as well the Capitalist bomb and the Communist bomb. In religious terms, we’ve survived the Christian and atheist bombs, the Confucian and Hindu bombs, and the Islamic and Jewish bombs.
Somehow, despite all the irrationalities ascribed to each new member, the logic of nuclear deterrence holds fast.
Will anything change when Iran’s Shia bomb squares off against Pakistan’s Sunni bomb and Israel’s Jewish bomb? Objectively no, although in its numerical infancy, Tehran’s initial nuclear capability will make a tempting target for a nervous Tel Aviv and a trigger-happy Washington.
Since conventional invasion is unthinkable following America’s difficulties in far smaller Iraq and because conventional bombing alone can’t rid Iran of its nuclear capabilities, both Israel and the U.S. face an equally unthinkable choice: going nuclear to prevent Iran’s nuclear capability. That gets us back to Schelling’s basic point: get a nuke and permanently rule out invasion.
Whether we care to admit it or not, Iran’s already achieved a sloppy, asymmetrical form of deterrence. Tehran doesn’t need to field nuclear weapons to maintain this deterrence.
Like Japan, it can simply stop its nuclear efforts at a point from which weaponization can be achieved within a short time frame — a “break this glass in the event of imminent threat” capability.
So what does Iran’s achievement mean for the world? Arguably, something very good.
Again, remember the history cited by Schelling: Soviet nukes balanced American nukes, and those powers never dared to wage war with one another, despite all the loose talk about wiping each other off the map early on. The same was true for China versus the U.S.S.R,, America versus China, China versus India, India versus Pakistan, and the French versus the Brits.
Okay, I included that last one just for historical completeness.
But the history is undeniable: highly unstable two-state standoffs were — in each instance — stabilized, no matter the nature of the “ancient hatreds” or the incendiary rhetoric flowing from leaders.
As for the notion that such thinking will only lead to every state wanting nukes, I’ve been hearing since I was a little boy that the world is only a few years away from two to three dozen nuclear states. Decade after decade passes and we’re still under one dozen.
Israel’s long-standing monopoly on WMD in the Middle East has not brought it any security. Today, Israel’s sup-porters tell us that Iran’s nuclear capability will pose an existential threat and they’re right.
All I can say is, Welcome to the club and get ready to negotiate for real.