July 4, 2009

Apes on treadmills

How they ended up with way too many bombs

IT IS partisan. It is biased. It demonises some characters and lionises others without any attempt at balance. And it is written from a perspective the correctness of which the author presumes is self-evident. That said, Richard Rhodes’s Arsenal of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race is an unputdownable book. It is a gripping narrative of how the advent of nuclear weapons transformed military strategy even before the end of the great war that dramatically altered the global balance-of-power. It is a story of how the twentieth century’s two superpowers realised that they couldn’t just stop worrying and live on with so many bombs. By the time Ronald Reagan, one of the book’s heroes, concludes that a “nuclear war cannot be won and hence must not be fought”, the United States and the Soviet Union had not only amassed enough nuclear weapons and delivery systems to destroy the world many times over, but had come close to a nuclear war entailing mutually assured destruction.

Mikhail Gorbachev is the book’s main hero—and a tragic one. He helps save the world (well, put it on the road to being saved) but loses his own job in the process. Side-stepping the usual negotiating routine, he sincerely proposes bold, deep and unilateral cuts in nuclear warheads and missile systems.

Unfortunately, Mr Reagan, his American interlocutor, though a genuine believer in the need to eradicate nuclear weapons, is caught between his diabolically hardline advisors and a delusional faith in a fantastic non-existent technology (the Strategic Defense Initiative, a comprehensive missile defence shield that came to be known as “Star Wars”). The deal doesn’t go through, at least initially, because the hawkish villains in the US security establishment play various tricks to prevent every attempt at a compromise.

Perhaps the biggest of those villains is Richard Perle, whose calculated refusal to yield to a compromise on Star Wars wrecked the 1986 Reykjavik summit. But he is only one of a series of individuals—including Paul Nitze, Albert Wohlstetter, General Curtis LeMay, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney—who goaded on the United States to build, deploy and refuse to reduce deliverable nuclear weapons in their tens of thousands. Mr Rhodes does not entertain the possibility that their motives might have had something to do with a genuinely different way of looking at the world. True, they cleverly use the US political system to promote their policy agenda, but Mr Rhodes can hardly argue that such tactics were the monopoly of the nuclear hawks. Nuclear strategy followed the development and use of nuclear weapons, and in those early years of the Cold War, it would have been reasonable to expect both antagonists to build bombs first and think about what to do with them later.

In Mr Rhodes’s description, the Soviet Union is really a distressed, militarily weak power, always playing catch-up with the United States, and therefore, never really the adversary it was made out to be. In hindsight, he is right. But those who lived outside the Soviet bloc during the Cold War might not have agreed then. Soviet accomplishments, if not Soviet power, impressed many, not least an idealistic prime minister of a newly independent country that had just broken free from British colonial rule. The Soviets might have been playing catch up, but their strategic arsenal was no less serious because of it. No one, for instance, can reasonably argue that the threat from today’s Pakistan and North Korea ought to be taken lightly because they are fragile or failing states.

While it is undeniable that the Cold War arsenals hugely increased the risk of planetary annihilation, Mr Rhodes underestimates the significance of the fact that since 1945, no country has used nuclear weapons, and until Pakistan’s Kargil misadventure, no two countries with nuclear weapons had directly gone to with each other.

Surely, the existence of large numbers of nuclear weapons had something to do with it?

One shortcoming of Mr Rhodes’s book is the exclusive focus on the United States and the Soviet Union—it excludes the motivations, arsenals and policies of the other actors—Britain, France and most importantly, China. Indeed, as history shows, the most dangerous acts of nuclear proliferation were not the placements of Soviet or US nuclear weapons in their satellites, but China’s transfer of nuclear technology, material, warheads and delivery systems to North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, Libya and others.

During the Reagan-era and after, the focus on the reduction of the Soviet arsenal and the security of the warheads in the post-Soviet states came at the cost of action against the China-Pakistan-North Korea nuclear nexus, with damaging consequences for the world today.

Despite its blind spots, Arsenals of Folly does makes a strong case for the nuclear powers to reduce their arsenals, take them off hair-triggers and co-operate to reduce the risks of nuclear war. The time is rife for minimum deterrence. Complete disarmament—even as it provides a hopeful vision for the distant future—is unrealistic in the early twenty-first century geopolitical environment: with big, dramatic shifts in the global balance-of-power on the one hand, and possession of nuclear weapons by regimes such as North Korea, Pakistan and Iran on the other. Great geopolitical shifts are frequently accompanied by great wars. If there is a nuclear disaster, it will be because of these arsenals of folly. But if the early twenty-first century is spared of another Great War it might well be due to the wisely-retained remnants of those self-same arsenals.

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