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Nuclear peace is a theory of international relations that argues that under some circumstances nuclear weapons can induce stability and decrease the chances of crisis escalation. In particular, nuclear weapons are said to have induced stability during the Cold War, when both the US and the USSR possessed mutual second strike retaliation capability, eliminating the possibility of nuclear victory for either side. Proponents of nuclear peace argue that controlled nuclear proliferation may be beneficial for inducing stability. Critics of nuclear peace argue that nuclear proliferation not only increases the chance of interstate nuclear conflict, but increases the chances of nuclear material falling into the hands of violent non-state groups who are free from the threat of nuclear retaliation.
The major debate on this issue has been between Kenneth Waltz, the founder of neorealist theory in international relations, and Scott Sagan, a leading proponent of organizational theories in international politics. Waltz generally argues that "more may be better," contending that new nuclear states will use their acquired nuclear capabilities to deter threats and preserve peace. Sagan argues that "more will be worse", since new nuclear states often lack adequate organizational controls over their new weapons, which makes for a high risk of either deliberate or accidental nuclear war, or theft of nuclear material by terrorists to perpetrate nuclear terrorism.
The nuclear peace argument
A nuclear peace results when the costs of war are unacceptably high for both sides. In a two-sided conflict where both sides have mutual second strike capability, defense becomes impossible. Thus, it is the very prospect of fighting the war rather than the possibility of losing it that induces restraint.
In a condition of mutually assured destruction, there are civilian "hostages" on both sides. This facilitates cooperation by acting as an informal mechanism of contract enforcement between states. There are economic equivalents of such informal mechanisms used to effect credible commitment - for example, corporations use "hostages" (in the form of initial setup costs that act as collateral) to deter subsidiaries and franchisees from cheating.
Nuclear weapons may also lessen a state's reliance on allies for security, thus preventing allies from dragging each other into wars (a phenomenon known as chain ganging, frequently said to be a major cause of World War I).
Since the death of civilians is an essential part of mutually assured destruction, one normative consequence of nuclear weapons is that war loses its historical function as a symbol of glory and measure of national strength.
A study published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution in 2009 quantitatively evaluated the nuclear peace hypothesis, and found support for the existence of the stability-instability paradox. The study determined that while nuclear weapons promote strategic stability, and prevent large scale wars, they simultaneously allow for more lower intensity conflicts. When a nuclear monopoly exists between two states, where one state has nuclear weapons and their opponent does not, there is a greater chance of war. In contrast, when there is mutual nuclear weapon ownership with both states possessing nuclear weapons, the odds of war drop precipitously. According to the author:
Unlike conventional deterrence in previous eras, nuclear deterrence is extremely robust because even irrational or unintelligent leaders are likely to recognize the exceedingly high cost of nuclear war. Thus, proponents of nuclear deterrence claim with a high degree of confidence that “the probability of major war among states having nuclear weapons approaches zero”. Scholars who are critical of nuclear deterrence have generally avoided questioning whether nuclear weapons make war less likely. Instead, they usually take one of two approaches.
“Safety critics” warn that the nuclear weapons pose a danger because of accidental detonations and inadvertent escalation. In contrast, “moral critics” argue that nuclear weapons should be eliminated because they violate international law, are immoral, or both. Oddly enough neither safety critics nor moral critics tend to question whether nuclear weapons deter war. To the contrary, (the “safety critic” Scott Sagan) has assumed that nuclear weapons do indeed reduce the chance of conflict, but argue instead that their deterrent value is outweighed by safety concerns and the prospects of more proliferation.
Criticisms of the nuclear peace argument
Critics argue that war can occur even under conditions of mutually assured destruction, for several reasons:
Actors are not always rational; bureaucratic procedure and internal intrigue may cause sub-rational outcomes. Related to and reinforcing this point is that there is always an element of uncertainty. One can’t always control emotions, subordinates, equipment. One has limited information and is faced with high stakes and fast timetables. There are unintended consequences, unwanted escalation, irrationality, misperception, and the security dilemma.
Another reason is that deterrence has an inherent instability. As Kenneth Boulding said: “If deterrence were really stable…it would cease to deter.” If decisionmakers were perfectly rational, they would never order the large-scale use of nuclear weapons and the credibility of the nuclear threat would be low.
However this apparent perfect rationality criticism is countered with, and therefore not consistent with, current deterrence policy, in the document the Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence, the authors detail an explicit advocation of ambiguity regarding "what is permitted" for other nations and its endorsement of "irrationality", or more precisely, the perception thereof, as an important tool in deterrence and foreign policy. The document claims that the capacity of the United States in exercising deterrence would be hurt by portraying U.S. leaders as fully rational and cool-headed, stating that:
"The fact that some elements may appear to be potentially 'out of control' can be beneficial to creating and reinforcing fears and doubts in the minds of an adversary's decision makers. This essential sense of fear is the working force of deterrence. That the U.S. may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be part of the national persona we project to all adversaries."
Some commentators critical of the concept of nuclear peace further make the argument that non-state actors and rogue states could supply nuclear weapons to terrorist organizations and thereby undermine conventional deterrence and therefore nuclear peace, especially with the existence of international terrorist networks seeking access to nuclear sources.
However Robert Gallucci, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, argues that although traditional deterrence is not an effective approach toward terrorist groups bent on causing a nuclear catastrophe, Gallucci believes that “the United States should instead consider a policy of expanded deterrence, which focuses not solely on the would-be nuclear terrorists but on those states that may deliberately transfer or inadvertently lead nuclear weapons and materials to them. By threatening retaliation against those states, the United States may be able to deter that which it cannot physically prevent.”.
Graham Allison makes a similar case, arguing that the key to expanded deterrence is coming up with ways of tracing nuclear material to the country that forged the fissile material. “After a nuclear bomb detonates, nuclear forensic cops would collect debris samples and send them to a laboratory for radiological analysis. By identifying unique attributes of the fissile material, including its impurities and contaminants, one could trace the path back to its origin.” The process is analogous to identifying a criminal by fingerprints. “The goal would be twofold: first, to deter leaders of nuclear states from selling weapons to terrorists by holding them accountable for any use of their own weapons; second, to give leader every incentive to tightly secure their nuclear weapons and materials.”
Proponents of the concept of nuclear peace also counter that nuclear weapons states have managed to control their nuclear weapons even in times of great instability without nuclear terrorism incidents, such as during China's Cultural Revolution and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Another set of arguing points some use to criticize nuclear peace is that there can still be the possibility of the loss of deterrence by the loss of mutual second-strike capability. This could come about from the gain of decisive first strike capability over their adversary or the creation of a nuclear missile shield.
However this argument is countered with the fact that no anti-ballistic missile shield is perfect, and fundamentally all shields are prone to failing during saturation attacks. Moreover SSBN submarines ensure a survivable second-strike capability, due to their ensured survivability, SSBN submarines are seen as the most stabilizing and vital of the three weapons platforms in the nuclear triad.
Moreover, critics also argue that nuclear bipolarity is a special artifact of the Cold War, and that the increased uncertainty of nuclear multipolarity, means that the Cold War-era ideas about the nuclear peace cannot be applied to today's world.
Proponents of nuclear peace retort that nuclear weapons have continued to be a robust deterrent against large scale wars in the modern post-cold war, nuclear mulitpolarity world, as it is argued nuclear weapons are a major factor in the reduction in the frequency and ferocity of the wars fought between India and Pakistan over the kashmir region since both have become nuclear weapons states, with Indo-Pakistani wars and conflicts being frequent and bloody from the very inception of the two regions gaining independence from one another in 1947. With the last such serious engagement being the Kargil conflict of 1999, a year after Pakistan detonated its first nuclear weapon. The conflict abruptly ended when both sides, and the international community at large, recognized that the conflict was escalating into a war and neither adversary would 'win' a war with nuclear weapons, without it being a decidedly Pyrrhic victory.
Proponents and critics alike have also argued that although nuclear weapons contribute to stability at a strategic level, they can encourage smaller instances of instability that are not believed likely to blossom into full-scale warfare. This process is known as the Stability-instability paradox, and is perhaps best exemplified by the small proxy wars (small relative to the possibility of a nuclear exchange) that sprang up during the Cold War between nuclear weapons states, such as the Vietnam and Korean war, and in the post cold war-era, include the kargil conflict.
- Balance of terror
- Deterrence theory
- minimum deterrence
- Minimum Credible Deterrence
- Mutual assured destruction
- Nuclear weapons debate
- Peace through strength
- The Long Peace
- http://jcr.sagepub.com/content/53/2/258.short Evaluating the Nuclear Peace Hypothesis A Quantitative Approach.
- http://belfercenter.hks.harvard.edu/files/uploads/Rauchhaus_Evaluating_the_Nuclear_Peace.pdf Rauchhaus, Evaluating the Nuclear Peace hypothesis A Quantitative approach
- Gallucci, Robert (September 2006). "Averting Nuclear Catastrophe: Contemplating Extreme Responses to U.S. Vulnerability". Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 607: pp. 51–58. Retrieved 28 January 2013.
- Allison, Graham (13 March 2009). "How to Keep the Bomb From Terrorists". Newsweek. Retrieved 28 January 2013.
- Allison, Graham (13 March 2009). "How to Keep the Bomb From Terrorists". Newsweek. Retrieved 28 January 2013.
- Robert Jervis, "The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution: Statecraft and the Prospect of Armageddon", Cornell University Press: 1990
- Scott D. Sagan and Kenneth N. Waltz, "The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed", Second Edition, W.W. Norton and Company: 2002