Latest update: January 10th, 2013
Back on September 24, 2009, immediately following a speech by President Obama to the UN General Assembly, the Security Council unanimously approved a resolution supporting “a world without nuclear weapons.” In direct response to this resolution, Obama approvingly exclaimed: “This resolution enshrines our shared commitment to a goal of a world without nuclear weapons.” To be sure, we may assume there was nothing here to indicate anything but a commendable personal commitment to world peace.
Nonetheless, as I indicated in an earlier column, there are substantial logical and intellectual problems with the president’s denuclearization hopes. The core error in Obama’s reasoning concerns an allegedly inherent undesirability of nuclear weapons; that is, the unexamined idea that such weapons are somehow always corrosive and harmful in and of themselves.
Contrary to this nicely intuitive but still sorely-mistaken idea, nuclear arms are not per se destabilizing or “warmongering.” They are not necessarily anti-peace. Rather, in certain identifiably volatile circumstances (and this is something that we should all have already learned from protracted Soviet-American coexistence during the Cold War), nuclear weapons can actually be indispensable to the avoidance of catastrophic war.
It is plausible, of course, that further nuclear proliferation to currently non-nuclear states would be more or less intolerable, and that any such “horizontal” spread should be prevented and contained. Yet there are also certain readily-recognizable nation-states in our decentralized or “Westphalian” world system that could not survive in our global state of nature without nuclear deterrence. Israel is the most obvious and urgent case in point.
Should Israel ever have to face its myriad enemies without nuclear deterrence – even in the absence of any specifically nuclear adversaries – the prospect of catastrophic or even existential defeat could become intolerably high. This is the case whether Israeli nuclear deterrence continues to rest on longstanding policies of “deliberate ambiguity,” or whether Jerusalem begins to move emphatically toward selected forms of “nuclear disclosure.”
If it should ever be left without nuclear weapons, Israel could not long endure. More than any other state on earth, and perhaps more than any other state in history, Israel requires nuclear weapons merely to continue its existence.
Periodically, within the United Nations, Israel’s enemies introduce resolutions calling for a Middle East “Nuclear Weapon Free Zone.”
Should Israel ever be compelled to heed such deliberately destructive and one-sided resolutions, possibly in response to assorted pressures from Washington, it is possible that nothing of any decisive military consequence would stand in the way of certain coordinated Arab and/or Iranian attacks. Ultimately, in all war, as Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz noted, “mass counts.”
Without nuclear weapons, appropriately configured and purposefully recognizable, the indispensable core of Israel’s capacity to deter major enemy assaults could effectively disappear.
With his publicly proclaimed and deeply-ingrained antipathy to nuclear weapons, Obama certainly means well. Still, it is imperative that he now look beyond any too-idealized visions of an improved world order. The same imperative applies equally, of course, to all of his potential successors as president of the United States.
From the particular standpoint of Jerusalem, what is needed intra-nationally is a comprehensive and systematic re-examination of Israel’s core nuclear doctrine. When, sooner or later, Israel is forced to defend its nuclear posture from various and manifestly disingenuous calls to enter a regional nuclear weapons free-zone, the leadership in Jerusalem should already have available a thoroughly lucid and compelling explanation of its correct refusal to join.
Why should Israel remain a nuclear power? In the case of Israel, are nuclear weapons a source of peace rather than war? The following explanation represents a detailed, dialectical and comprehensive answer. Prime Minister Netanyahu should prepare to transmit this very precise answer to Obama, or to his successor, and also to any other national leaders who might still fail, wittingly or unwittingly, to recognize the unique fragility of an imperiled micro-state in the Middle East:
1. Israel needs nuclear weapons to deter large conventional attacks by enemy states. The effectiveness of such Israeli nuclear deterrence will depend, among other things, upon: (a) perceived vulnerability of Israeli nuclear forces; (b) perceived destructiveness of Israeli nuclear forces; (c) perceived willingness of Israeli leadership to follow through on nuclear threats; (d) perceived capacities of prospective attacker’s active defenses; (e) perceptions of Israeli targeting doctrine; (f) perceptions of Israel’s probable retaliatory response when there is an expectation of non-nuclear but chemical and/or biological counter-retaliations; (g) disclosure or continued nondisclosure of Israel’s nuclear arsenal; and (h) creation or non-creation of a Palestinian state.
2. Israel needs nuclear weapons to deter all levels of unconventional (chemical/biological/nuclear) attacks. The effectiveness of these forms of Israeli nuclear deterrence will also depend, on (a) to (h) above. In this regard, Israel’s nuclear weapons are needed to deter enemy escalation of conventional warfare to unconventional warfare, and of one form of unconventional warfare to another (i.e., escalation of chemical warfare to biological warfare, biological warfare to chemical warfare, or biological/chemical warfare to nuclear warfare). This means, in military parlance, a capacity for “escalation dominance.”
About the Author: Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University and the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and strategic studies.
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