How I learned to stop worrying and live with the bomb

Neither terrorists nor rogue states like North Korea are likely to use nuclear weapons. Here's why

By Michael Lind
October 13, 2009 11:08AM (UTC)
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President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize has been justified by some because it draws attention to the goal he endorses of ridding the world of nuclear weapons. I share that goal, but not because nuclear weapons are uniquely horrible -- if you're a victim, it makes little difference whether you're killed or maimed by nuclear weapons or conventional weapons, which sometimes can create lingering illnesses and poison the landscape, too. I support the abolition of nuclear weapons because, if it were successful, it would lock in the advantages of the small number of great powers like the U.S. that are capable of building and maintaining first-class conventional militaries.

The goal of American liberal internationalism, since the days of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, has been what Wilson called "a community of power" -- a great power concert whose members collaborate to keep the peace. This is different from the conservative vision of unilateral U.S. hegemony. But whether you think the law should be enforced by a posse or a single sheriff, you want the law officers to be better armed than the law-breakers.


Superior conventional forces are the weapons of the rich. Only the most advanced industrial states can afford to build world-class conventional military forces, and paying for them is much easier if an economy is large and dynamic. This is good news. Countries with large and dynamic economies tend to have relatively rational if not necessarily democratic governments and to be committed to the geopolitical status quo. Nazi Germany, rich but irrational, committed suicide in a short period of time, and the Soviet Union eventually fell apart because its economy could not support its massive conventional and nuclear forces. Today's rapidly developing China is far more prudent and responsible than Mao's China.

Nuclear weapons, by contrast, are weapons of the weak. They can be acquired by regimes that, because of poverty or ideology, are incapable of developing the world-class economy needed to support world-class conventional forces. It is easier for North Korea to build an atomic bomb than a fleet of aircraft carriers.

We should support the total abolition of nuclear weapons, then, for practical strategic reasons. It would reinforce the military primacy of the U.S. and what Theodore Roosevelt called the "civilized" great powers. In the early years of World War I, the U.S. and Britain denounced submarine warfare by Germany, not because it was uniquely horrible (the official reason) but because it weakened the British Fleet and the ability of the U.S. to reinforce Britain in a war (the actual reason). Today the U.S. and other great powers -- including, perhaps, China, India, Russia and Brazil, acting as partners in a future great-power concert -- can deter regional aggressors and undertake necessary interventions most effectively if their near-monopoly of conventional military force is unchallenged by weapons of mass destruction.


Alas, it isn't going to happen. As long as relatively poor and weak regimes like Iran and North Korea feel endangered, they will be motivated to obtain the cheap deterrent -- nuclear weapons -- rather than the expensive deterrent -- first-rate conventional forces. That is precisely what Israel, Pakistan and India already have done. And even if every nuclear weapon on the planet were dismantled in the near future, the growing use of nuclear energy for domestic power production will ensure that many countries would be able to build new nuclear weapons in a hurry, if they felt a strategic need to do so.

So a nuke-free world -- as desirable as it would be, for strategic reasons, from an American perspective -- is probably not in the cards, as long as some weak and worried countries think that nukes enable them to deter attack by other nations on the cheap. That being the case, how alarmed should we be by the possibility that states or stateless terrorists will use nuclear weapons?

Since the 1970s, I have been reading nonproliferation experts who write solemnly that in the next decade there is a 20 percent or 50 percent or 100 percent chance that an atomic bomb will go off in a major city. Decade after decade, they tell us that a city will be incinerated within a decade, and it never happens. Should they get credit for averting the disaster by motivating countermeasures with their predictions? Maybe. On the other hand, maybe they are like the Texan deer hunter I know who wears an amulet to ward off elephants in the woods. When somebody points out that there are no elephants in Texas, he replies: "See? It's working." 


A more plausible reason why atomic bombs haven't been used in war since Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that they are pretty much useless except as deterrents. Israel's possession of nuclear weapons since the '60s didn't prevent the Arab states from attacking it in 1973 and hasn't stopped Iran and Syria from waging a proxy war against it by arming Hezbollah. America's conventional forces have more intimidating effect than our nuclear arsenal, which nobody expects us to use except in retaliation.

(If even then; it's by no means clear that we could, or should, respond to a nuclear first strike with tit-for-tat mass murder rather than morally discriminating conventional war against the attacker. A conventional superpower like the U.S. should consider unilaterally renouncing the use of mass-casualty nuclear weapons not only in first strikes but also in retaliation.) 


Genuine great power status today requires massive, expensive conventional forces. Iran would be much more alarming if instead of trying to obtain nuclear weapons it were building up a first-rate navy, a long-distance air force and an enormous army capable of occupying one or more of its neighbors. The fact that it is not doing so suggests that the nuclear weapons capability it evidently seeks is for deterrence, not offense.

What about stateless terrorists? As Michael Krepon recently pointed out, "Terrorists have had a hard time getting their hands on nuclear weapons. Although governments and enterprising freelancers have sold missiles and centrifuges, there is no reliable evidence that they have auctioned off nuclear weapons to wild men they can't control. More good news: It would be very hard for a terrorist group to build a nuclear weapon on its own without being discovered in the process. Terrorists could acquire enough nuclear material to make a dirty bomb, which would use conventional explosives to spew radioactive material, but they could actually do much more damage with automatic weapons."

Krepon's point about automatic weapons is well taken. Why should a terrorist go to the trouble of trying to smuggle a nuclear bomb into the U.S., when it is easier to spread mass panic with guns, backpack explosives, suicide bomber belts or truck bombs? I've never understood why we devote so much attention to the remote threat of loose nukes, rather than worrying about more immediate threats like loose planes, loose guns, loose grenades and loose fertilizer. At an academic conference on U.S. foreign policy a few years back, I was one of two people in a working group who voted to urge the government to stop all terrorists from entering the U.S. whether they planned to use weapons of mass destruction or conventional weapons. Shouldn't we want to stop terrorists who overstay their visas and then rent U-hauls to make truck bombs? We were voted down by the majority, who wanted the recommendation to focus only on WMD.


I think of it as the mutant factor. Weapons that conceivably could produce a ravaged landscape populated by cannibal mutant zombies -- atomic bombs, lab-created pandemics -- are far more frightening than dynamite and small arms, even though the latter are more likely to be used. The scenarios for mass casualty terrorism sometimes appear to have come out of Hollywood science fiction and thrillers. At another discussion, when I was asked what I thought of one expert's hypothetical scenario in which jihadists infiltrated cosmetic factories to poison their products, I replied, "That's exactly the sort of thing a terrorist would do ... if he were the Joker."

I don't doubt that some specialists in nonproliferation and terrorism issues would tell you that I'm too complacent. Well, they would, wouldn't they? After all, they're experts. If you listen to doctors, you need to be treated; if you listen to lawyers, you need to sue; if you listen to some antiterrorism specialists, you should never leave home, and you should keep lots of duct tape on hand to seal the windows against a mass gas attack emanating from ... from what? Giant balloons? (Tim Burton's Joker again).

I don't mean to criticize serious scholars or the officials whose job is to protect us. My point is that, in our age of publicity-driven policy advocacy, experts who inflate threats obtain grants and get on TV. For a specialist to say, "Having examined the issue carefully, my conclusion is that we should not be overly concerned" is not only career suicide but also heresy. The patron saint of this day and age is Our Lady of Perpetual Alarm.


I sleep soundly at night, even though I live a few blocks from the White House, because I've calculated the odds that I, along with various other national monuments, will be incinerated in a mushroom cloud. I've slept even more soundly ever since, as part of a routine heart stress test, I was injected with a small dose of radioactive isotopes. The doctor's office gave me an official form that I was instructed to show to any Department of Homeland Security officials who apprehended me, telling them, in effect, that, yes, I was radioactive but no, I was not a weapon of mass destruction. From this I inferred that Washington, D.C. -- and, I would hope, New York and L.A., if not Bucksnort, Tenn. -- are full of concealed sensors, ensuring that it would be difficult if not impossible to bring in radioactive substances without being detected.

This is pure inference on my part, and if agents from DHS ask, you didn't hear it from me. 

Michael Lind

Michael Lind is the author of more a dozen books of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Politico, The Financial Times, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, Salon, and The International Economy. He has taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and has been an editor or staff writer for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic, and The National Interest.

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