The hubris and arrogance of the nuclear-armed states leaves the world exposed to the risk of sleepwalking into a nuclear disaster. The case for nuclear weapons rests on a superstitious magical Realism that puts faith in the utility of the bomb and the theory of deterrence. Here are four myths about the utility of nuclear weapons.
Myth one: The bomb ended the second world war
The belief in the utility of nuclear weapons is widely internalised owing in no small measure to Japan’s surrender immediately after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Yet the evidence is surprisingly clear that the close chronology is a coincidence. Hiroshima was bombed on 6 and Nagasaki on 9 August. Moscow broke its neutrality pact to attack Japan on the 9th and Tokyo announced the surrender on 15 August. As Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, professor of modern Russian and Soviet history at the University of California Santa Barbara, professor of modern Russian and Soviet history at the University of California Santa Barbara, persuasively argued in The Asia–Pacific Journal in 2007, in Japan’s decision-makers’ minds, the decisive factor in the unconditional surrender was the imminent Soviet entry into the Pacific war against the essentially undefended northern approaches. They feared the likelihood of the Soviet Union as the occupying power unless Japan surrendered to the US first.
Myth two: The bomb kept the peace during the Cold War
The big territorial expansion of the former Soviet Union across central and eastern Europe came in the 1945–49 years. The US held an atomic monopoly in this period. During the Cold War, no evidence exists to show that either side had the intention to attack the other at any time, but was deterred from doing so because of nuclear weapons held by the other side. Other possible explanations for that long peace include West European integration and West European democratisation.
After the Cold War, the existence of nuclear weapons on both sides was not enough to stop the US from expanding NATO’s borders to Russia’s borders, stop Russia invading Ukraine last year, or prevent NATO from rearming Ukraine. The more or less constant US–Russia nuclear equation is irrelevant to explaining the shifting geopolitical developments. We have to look elsewhere to understand the ongoing rebalancing of US–Russia relations.
Myth three: Nuclear deterrence is 100 per cent effective
Some profess interest in nuclear weapons in order to avoid nuclear blackmail. Yet there is not one clear-cut instance of a non-nuclear state having been bullied into changing its behaviour by the overt or implicit threat of being bombed by nuclear weapons, including Ukraine. Nuclear powers have accepted defeat at the hands of non-nuclear states rather than escalate armed conflict to the nuclear level (Vietnam, Afghanistan) and nuclear-armed Britain’s Falkland Islands were even invaded by non-nuclear Argentina in 1982.
Nuclear weapons cannot be used for defence against nuclear-armed rivals either. Their mutual vulnerability to second-strike retaliatory capability is so robust for the foreseeable future that any escalation through the nuclear threshold really would amount to mutual national suicide. Their only purpose and role, therefore, is mutual deterrence.
Nuclear weapons did not stop Pakistan from occupying Kargil in Kashmir in 1999, nor India from waging a limited war to retake it. Nor do nuclear weapons buy immunity for North Korea. The biggest elements of caution in attacking it are its formidable conventional capability to hit the heavily populated parts of South Korea, including Seoul, and anxiety about how China would respond.
In order to deter a conventional attack by a more powerful nuclear adversary, the weaker state must convince its stronger opponent of the ability and will to use nuclear weapons if attacked. If the attack does occur, however, escalating to nuclear weapons will worsen the scale of military devastation even for the side initiating nuclear strikes. Because the stronger party believes this, the existence of nuclear weapons will induce extra caution but does not guarantee immunity for the weaker party. If Mumbai or Delhi was hit by another major terrorist attack which India believed had Pakistan connections, the pressure for some form of retaliation could overwhelm any caution about Pakistan having nuclear weapons.
Myth four: Nuclear deterrence is 100 per cent safe
The world has so far averted a nuclear catastrophe as much owing to good luck as to wise management, with the 1962 Cuban missile crisis being the most graphic example. The number of times that we have come frighteningly close to nuclear holocaust owing to misperceptions, miscalculations, near misses, and accidents is simply staggering. For nuclear peace to hold, deterrence and fail-safe mechanisms must work every single time. For nuclear Armageddon, deterrence or fail-safe mechanisms need to break down only once. This is not a comforting equation. Deterrence stability depends on rational decision-makers being always in office on all sides: a dubious and not very reassuring precondition. It depends equally critically on there being no rogue launch, human error or system malfunction: an impossibly high bar.
A prospective Russia–NATO/US war is only one of five potential nuclear flashpoints, albeit the one with the gravest consequences. The remaining four are all in the Indo–Pacific: China-US, China-India, Korean Peninsula, and India-Pakistan. A simple transposition of the dyadic North Atlantic frameworks and lessons to comprehend the multiplex Indo-Pacific nuclear relations is both analytically flawed and entails policy dangers for managing nuclear stability.
The geostrategic environment of the subcontinent, for example, had no parallel in the Cold War, with triangular shared borders among three nuclear-armed states, major territorial disputes, a history of many wars since 1947, compressed timeframes for using or losing nuclear weapons, political volatility and instability, and state-sponsored cross-border insurgency and terrorism.
The case for nuclear weapons rests on a superstitious magical Realism that puts faith in the utility of the bomb and the theory of deterrence. The extreme destructiveness of nuclear weapons makes them qualitatively different in political and moral terms from other weapons, to the point of rendering them virtually unusable. Like the emperor who had no clothes, this might well be the truest explanation of why they have not been used since 1945.
The hubris and arrogance of the nuclear-armed states leaves the world exposed to the risk of sleepwalking into a nuclear disaster. Remember, people are not aware of their actions while they are sleepwalking.
The risks of nuclear weapons proliferation and use by irresponsible states, most of whom are in volatile conflict-prone regions, outweigh realistic security benefits. A more rational and prudent approach to reducing nuclear risks would be to actively advocate and pursue the minimisation, reductions, and elimination agendas for the short, medium, and long terms identified in the Report of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.
Ramesh Thakur, a former UN assistant secretary-general, is emeritus professor at the Australian National University, Senior Research Fellow at the Toda Peace Institute, and Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. He is the editor of The nuclear ban treaty: a transformational reframing of the global nuclear order.
The Dr. H.V. Evatt Foundation publishes the Evatt Journal. Volume 21, published in April, was a special issue on ‘90 Seconds to Midnight’, referencing the famous Doomsday Clock from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, edited by Casey Thompson and Huw Phillips. The Toda Peace Institute’s Senior Research Fellow, Professor Ramesh Thakur, who contributed a chapter, was a panellist at the launch of the journal in Canberra on Thursday 1 June. This is the text of his initial remarks. Republished from Toda Peace Institute June 6, 2023