Carol Cieri
One Lady, Three Continents, Many Ideas

Look at the Optics: Why Nuclear Weapons Matter

Professor John Mueller published an article on the latest edition of Foreign Affairs (November/December 2018) arguing that nuclear weapons have not contributed neither to the improvement of security nor to the threats posed to states ever since their creation. On the contrary, “nuclear hysteria” has prevented countries from foreseeing and managing more reasonable threats. What Mueller does not consider is the inherent correlations between the so-called “hysteria” and the importance of nuclear weapons. The constructivist claim that ideas shape the world, may be even truer about nuclear proliferation.

During the Cold War, scholars and policymakers alike, with very few exceptions (notably George Kennan), got it all wrong. Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union were ever prepared to start a nuclear war. The USSR, according to Kennan himself, was not planning an invasion of Western Europe, regardless of NATO’s nuclear capabilities. Similarly, despite much talk on the matter, no terrorist organisation today is close to beginning their own nuclear program, and there are no prospects for a nuclear confrontation in sight between any two countries. So why should we talk nuclear altogether? Israel seems to be the perfect case study for the relationship between nuclear norms and proliferation practices. Interestingly, Israel never went on record stating its nuclear capability, but ever since 1969 has adopted the policy of “nuclear opacity”. Let us look back at what that entails, and why a country that never claimed nuclear capability (while never refuting it either) explains to the world why a nuclear arsenal is a nation’s most potent deterrence. According to all sources but the government, the Israeli nuclear program began in the late 1950s-early 1960s with French contribution and scientific support. By the late 1960s, as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was completed, the United States insisted for Israel to join. Israel notably refused, and in an alleged secret meeting between Prime Minister Golda Meir and US President Richard Nixon, Israel adopted the doctrine of “nuclear opacity”: Israel would not confirm nor deny having the bomb, allowing it to maintain sufficient deterrence vis-à-vis adversaries, without creating the need for the Arab states – namely, Egypt – to develop nuclear programs of their own in response. Israel has maintained such a posture ever since. The one country that remained vocal about Israel’s nuclear program and insisted to be allowed to develop their own for self-defence purposes was Iran after 1979, although it is important to notice that the Iranian nuclear program was initiated under the Shah and was initially interrupted by the Ayatollah, only to be started once again when it had become clear that other regional powers, not only Israel but Iraq as well were developing WMD arsenals. The alleged nuclear capability of the Jewish State has not prevented Iran from fomenting terrorist organization, shipping military material to Hamas and Hezbollah, and inciting violence against Jews. Nonetheless, it has given Iran and Israel the advantage of being on the same level playing field, both with regards to each other and with the global powers, most notably the United States. Israel’s nuclear opacity did not manifest its supposed advantage in preventing adversaries from developing their own, nor did it restrict military action against it: the Yom Kippur War took place four years after “opacity” had begun, and yet the Arab States dared to attack Israel. 

The advantage of the Israeli nuclear capability, and the Iranian one in response, stems from its symbolic value. Israel has acquired the title of a responsible nuclear state across the board, and is thus regarded by the Western allies as a symbol of nuclear restraint although not nuclear forbearance. Israel has been able to voice their support for the NPT times and again and be taken seriously, as it called for nuclear capability solely in pursuit of self-defence in desperate situations. According to this last principle, it never committed itself to the Treaty itself. Yet, Israel was able to gain an important seat at the CTC and NPT tables, being able to vocally explain the reasons for its own doctrine. Politically, this was a win: Israel was now at the same level of the major nuclear powers, without having the burden of disarmament over its shoulders, and still retain the moral argument for other countries’ nuclear forbearance. All coupled with their own ability to voice their security grievances. No other state has ever been given such an opportunity, and it was solely because of the very specific status that nuclear opacity gave it. The same constructivist value of nuclear weapons is true for North Korea. Ever since information started flowing about their WMD capability, they have become a top priority on the US security agenda. For North Korea and Iran alike, the nuclear programs are bargaining chips of great weight. It allows them to sit at the table with the United States, Russia, and China and have an equal say. It allows them to ask for inducements. North Korea constantly asks for energy and humanitarian supplies in turn for halting their nuclear program, Iran is interested in economic inclusion. Both regimes are struggling to keep the domestic support high while internal policies fail their populations. Nonetheless, from an outlook, up to this point it could be said that Mueller’s argument that nuclear weapons do not serve hard security interests seems to stand.

Let us look at another perspective: security in a broader sense. As much as autocratic regimes are able to keep a hold on their population vis-à-vis adversities, there is arguably no dictatorship in the world that has not fallen because of popular demands for it. Dictators just do not relinquish power out of their free will. Ayatollahs are not expected to do so either. And yet, there is an inextricable link between human security (freedom from harm, but also access to food, clean water, energy and so on) and good governance. And when human security is lacking, so the government is failing their citizens. Thus, when resources are scarce and the political environment is not conducive to international agreements to allow free flow of goods and services, as is the case of an autarchic dictatorship, the people are discontent with their dictator’s performance: his or her power is at stake. Germany prior to World War II is a perfect example: isolated on the continent, their currency hyperinflated, and the other powers still exerting considerable pressure on their economy through war reparations, Germans did not know where to look for resources that would allow them to thrive. Hitler gave them the answer: Lebensraum, the forceful occupation of the agricultural plains of Czechia, Poland and Ukraine, and the industrial basin on the Rhineland. Pre-Nazi Germany did not seem to have an alternative to keep their economy going, but North Korea and Iran do. Instead of going on offensive wars of conquest against their neighbours for pillage and plunder, and to incorporate their economic capabilities, the two so-called rogue states have undertaken a different path: nuclear diplomacy. Sitting at a roundtable with China, the US and Russia (either together as in the case of the DPRK or only one or two of them as in the case of Iran) has proved to be an effective way to gain economic relief while avoiding war. 

Hence, although a nuclear war has never been in sight, and will most probably never be, the lack of nuclear diplomacy may have very well prompted poor and disgruntled nuclear states to conquer and pillage their neighbours in a desperate bid to take over their economies. Negotiations on disarmament and arms control have not been effective to prevent the very reason for their existence, Iran and North Korea are not interested in the least to terminate their nuclear programs, but they have been an important contribution to regional security in allowing the two to have a way out of what could have been – and could still be in the future – a conventional war of economic conquest. There is no doubt that in the case either one attacks its neighbours the United States would very soon find itself sending troops abroad, but if the attacker is Iran, Israel could be very well facing an enemy it does not want to fight. 

About the Author
Carol Cieri is an MA candidate in the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University. Her academic interests focus on the challenges posed by terrorism, both domestically and abroad, and the international implications of the Arab-Israeli conflict. She earned her BA from IDC Herzliya in July 2018, majoring in Counterterrorism and Middle East.
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