Thinking the Unthinkable (Again): Part II

Last week, we published the first part1 of this report looking at how the U.S. and other nations are changing their policies toward nuclear weapons. This is something of a refresh of a report we did seven years ago.2 Since we published this earlier report, we have seen an increase in actual and potential nuclear proliferation. Both the previous and current U.S. administrations are developing new nuclear weapons policies. What spurred this two-part report was the recent false alarm in Hawaii.

Last week, we reviewed the development of nuclear weapons and the U.S. deployment policy from the end of WWII to the end of the Cold War. We offered an analysis of how the theory of deterrence developed over time and introduced the history of the post-Cold War era. This week, we will discuss how the Cold War arrangements have broken down in the post-Cold War world and the nuclear proliferation that has ensued. We will also examine how states will cope with this changing nuclear weapons environment and the evolution of new nuclear doctrines. This will include a discussion on civil defense, nuclear strategy and weapons development. We will conclude, as always, with potential market ramifications.

The Breakdown of the Cold War Order

Nuclear doctrines in the Cold War were eventually based on “Mutual Assured Destruction,” or MAD. However, proliferation has tended to undermine that system. The more countries that have “the bomb,” the harder it is to prevent its deployment. A complicating factor has been the steady withdrawal of the U.S. from the hegemonic role it has maintained since WWII.

Here are the major issues:

The fraying umbrella: During the Cold War, countries under the U.S. or Soviet nuclear umbrellas were highly confident that an attack using nuclear weapons would trigger a similar response from their protector. This status discouraged nuclear powers from using the weapon as blackmail to coerce behavior.

The key element to deterrence was the expectation of response. That certainty is now undermined. First, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the nations formerly under its umbrella could not expect a Russian response. The U.S. was fortunate that the combined diplomatic efforts of American and Russian leaders were able to convince the nations that emerged from the former Soviet Union to refrain from keeping the legacy Soviet nuclear weapons, which prevented further proliferation. However, Ukraine probably rues the decision to give up its nuclear weapons; if it had kept them, it is likely that Putin would not have been as aggressive against the Orange Revolution. The absence of Russian protection is probably why Syria tried to begin a nuclear weapons program that was thwarted by Israeli bombing.

Second, there is growing uncertainty about U.S. nuclear doctrine. For example, would the U.S. risk a Chinese nuclear response targeting the American mainland if North Korea used its nuclear weapons against Japan? If Japan begins to doubt America’s response, it will be inclined to cross the nuclear threshold. A similar problem is developing in the Middle East. If Iran crosses the threshold, would the U.S. risk a nuclear attack against Europe or the American mainland if Iran used nuclear weapons against Saudi Arabia? To some extent, the “nuclear umbrellas” were a form of free riding. The protected nations didn’t have to make the investment into these weapons. However, as the U.S. pulls back from its hegemonic role, the temptation grows to acquire one’s own nuclear deterrence. Nuclear proliferation likely increases the chances that they will be used.