America Is Preventing Nuclear Attacks in All the Wrong Ways

Professor at MIT
Nuclear weapons are an odd conundrum for the world (and indeed the human species) as of late. Remnants of WW2 and indeed the Cold War, they're mostly used now as a kind of insurance policy for the safety of a country. It's like keeping a loaded gun. And like guns, America (no surprises here) has a whole lot of them and (just like a gun) they don't want anyone they don't like to have them. America is even willing to have preventative wars so that other countries don't develop nuclear weapons; which in turn breeds resentment and even more countries that resent us... who then in turn develop more nukes. It's a vicious cycle. And it may not end well. The Charles Koch Foundation aims to further understanding of how US foreign policy affects American people and societal well-being. Through grants, events, and collaborative partnerships, the institute is working to stretch the boundaries of foreign policy research and debate by discussing ideas in strategy, trade, and diplomacy that often go unheeded in the US capital. For more information, visit
  • Transcript


Barry Posen: Now, the present American grand strategy basically says nuclear weapons can only be possessed by countries that we like and they cannot be possessed by countries that we don’t like so if countries we don’t like try and get nuclear weapons we will move heaven and earth to stop them. That’s the basic story. As a codicil to that we basically would prefer that no other countries get nuclear weapons either because it just complicates our lives.

Now, in a perfect world it would be nice if there were no other nuclear weapon states except the United States, but there are already several other nuclear weapon states other than the United States. We've learned how to live with other nuclear weapon states. And if you look at the kinds of policies that it takes to keep other powers from doing in their national security interest inside their own borders with their own money what it is they conceive as being necessary for their national security, to try and dictate to them what they can and cannot do is a big job and you need a hegemonic position to be able to do that. You need decisive crushing military superiority and you may even need to be able to invade them. And if you look at the arguments about Iran and about North Korea as they’ve unfolded over the last ten years and as they’re being discussed today, the question lurking in the background all the time is if you can’t get them to negotiate away these capabilities, which they seem to want for their own reasons, you should be willing to fight a preventive war. Not a preemptive war, not attacking them before they attack you when you think they’re getting ready to attack you, but attacking them now because you think there might be a problem later and you would rather not deal with it so you’re going to have war now to avoid some kind of war later. And this seems pretty good if the war is cheap, but the wars are not cheap because rubbing out another countries nuclear weapons turns out to be a big job. You’ve got to destroy factories, laboratories, you’ve got to wreck their economy, you’ve got to keep the economy squeezed, you have to kill people or kidnap them, scientists, engineers. If you want to prevent a moderately technologically advanced country, and here we’re talking about North Korea, which is really nothing special, from getting this old technology of nuclear weapons it’s now an all the technology is not a mystery, you really needed to be able to get your hands around their neck and squeeze it and keep squeezing.

So the question is how many times with how many places are you willing to do this? How often are you willing to wager preventative wars? How many countries do you want to be in a constant this kind of relationship with? These are the questions you have to ask. Now, I would like to have an honest debate about this with the United States. I don’t think we even have an honest debate because the way the debate is happened is it would be very bad if they got nuclear weapons; we have to do something about it. "All options are on the table." What kind of euphemism is all options are on the table? War is on the table. Well, what kind of war is on the table? How many wars are on the table? What is the likelihood of success? What are the unintended consequences of wars to prevent nuclear proliferation? These are questions we should debate, we should ask, we should answer. Now my problem with nuclear weapons is rather different, I believe that America knows how to deter countries that have nuclear weapons. Countries that have nuclear weapons are not going to attack the United States because if they do we’re going to annihilate them. It will be very sad for us, it will be even sadder for them. They’re mostly small nuclear powers, we are a great and large nuclear power. The whole thing would be very, very, very sad and tragic and it’s easy for the other side to know how tragic it’s going to be because our nuclear forces are not a secret. We have 1,500 warheads on a variety of delivery systems and we can wreck pretty much any country in the world. That’s the residual of our Cold War force and we are getting ready to spend a trillion dollars modernizing that force to keep it tip-top shape. I think deterrence we can do so what do I worry about? I worry about not nuclear weapons in the hands of states, but nuclear weapons that are not in the hands of states. I worry about nuclear weapons that are lost, nuclear weapons that are stolen, nuclear weapons that are poorly aligned [?], nuclear weapons that are sold off the back of trucks. So what do you do about that? Well, people who believe in the not proliferation story will say well this is just another reason to prevent more states from getting nuclear weapons. I say yes but what about the states that already have nuclear weapons including some that I’m guessing don’t really have very terrific controls?

So my view is our nuclear policies is directed at the wrong thing and the wrong problem, what we want to do is make sure that nuclear weapons that are in the hands of states remain in the hands of states. Any state that has nuclear weapons we should be talking to them about best practices to ensure that nobody sells, nobody steals, nobody loses, nobody breaks. This requires a lot of application, a lot of organization. To be a responsible nuclear power is hard work. It took us a long time to learn how to do it. We’ve actually in the past taught others how to do it. This should be the thing that we focus on in the world from the nuclear weapons problem because once nuclear weapons are not in the hands of states and in the hands of individuals or groups then deterrence becomes hard because a radical group, a terrorist group, a millennial group, and I don’t mean the generation I mean people who imagine some magic moment where history is going to be transformed, they you can’t deter. They’ve gotten nothing that they value that you could threaten to retaliate against. Countries have many things they value that you can threaten to tolerate against. These groups may have nothing that you can retaliate against so it’s very important to keep nuclear weapons out of their hands.