Red Lines for Nuclear Policy-Making


The primary lesson taught by the history of nuclear confrontation is danger of using nuclear weapons for tactical bargaining advantage: there have simply been too many close calls, from the Cuban Missile Crisis to India-Pakistan a decade ago to Israel-Iran today. Global security would be enhanced by shifting the emphasis from nuclear deterrence to the articulation and institutionalization of red lines prohibiting policy-makers from gambling with nukes for tactical 
advantage. A world in which the possession of WMD was regarded as a burden requiring exceptionally mature behavior rather than a blank check for exceptionally irresponsible behavior would be a better world.

A valuable post in the Arms Control Wonk blog has laid out the argument that we can learn much about how to avoid nuclear war from the now numerous historical cases of near misses. Continuing Arms Control Wonk’s valuable line of argument as it applies to Asia, Iranian-Saudi nuclear nervousness and Iranian-Israeli nuclear threats complicate Arms Control Wonk’s analysis. One distinction between the two cases is that arguably neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia is actually trying to build a bomb, so it (arguably) remains a case of “Don’t make me do it, because I can if you do.” The blatant Israeli effort to use its reportedly massive nuclear arsenal to intimidate non-nuclear Iran constitutes a different class of deterrence: nuclear deterrence is normally thought of as deterrence against another nuclear power. When a nuclear power attempts to use nuclear weapons to deter a weaker, non-nuclear adversary, the message is ambiguous: the weaker party is likely to be stimulated to gain security rather than deterred from attacking. The permutations of how nuclear arms and ambiguity can be used both for deterrence and intimidation are becoming dangerously numerous, which is exactly why the line of thinking in Michael Krepon’s essay is so important to pursue.

On this anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, the cold black and white TV images of which still haunt me from my childhood, we might advise not only our own officials but the policy-makers of India, Pakistan, Iran, Israel, and North Korea to consider the near misses of that crisis. Nuclear deterrence as a long-term tool may have some justification, but playing nuclear games for tactical advantage is bad tactics: it is not quite rational to risk so much for so little. Under the cognitive pressures of a crisis, nuclear threats are likely to provoke bad decision-making. If the edge of the nuclear abyss is not sufficiently visible when examining the Cuban missile crisis, one only need look at the near-nuclear-war between India and Pakistan…or, for that matter, the anti-Iranian nuclear rhetoric (“red lines,” “all options”) that pours from the mouths of certain (with some extremely important exceptions like Mossad’s Moshe Dagan) Israeli and U.S. politicians.

Perhaps a better use of red lines than as commitments to launch a war of aggression (a box one should avoid climbing into) would be to define a new set of special restraints under international law for all nuclear-armed policy-makers. Examples include red lines against:

  • nuclear (or, better, any WMD) threats vs. non-nuclear states (to give states some incentive to forego the bomb);

  • publicly employing language (e.g., “all options,” when one’s policy clearly rejects such obvious options as compromise or jointly seeking positive-sum outcomes) likely to be interpreted as constituting a highly destabilizing nuclear threat;

  • cruising a nuclear-capable submarine under water off the coast of a non-nuclear state;

  • preventive war in the absence of a clear and present danger.

Clear, publicly enunciated red lines cautioning the world’s policy-makers against behavior defined under international law as “unacceptable” might be backed up by provisions calling on leaders who violate such provisions to address the U.N. with their justification. The clearer the rules, the greater the expectation that the rules apply to all, the more likely that rules will slowly come to have a moderating effect on behavior. A world in which the possession of WMD was regarded as a burden requiring exceptionally mature behavior rather than a blank check for exceptionally irresponsible behavior would be a better world.

The problems inherent in all the above are of course numerous. One of the most obvious is the ease with which one can toss around the common but vague term “clear and present danger.” Netanyahu’s case against Iran is instructive: he argues that Israel has or very nearly has justification for starting a war to prevent a nuclear threat from an Iran that not only has no hope of matching Israel’s current nuclear arsenal but has no nuclear bombs at all. Netanyahu claims the threat is clear even though it is totally in the future, presupposes irrationality on the part of the much weaker Iran, and totally ignores Iran’s record of cautious foreign policy-making. “Clear and present” may ultimately be hard to define, but it is certainly clear that Iran’s threat to Israel is not “present” (although Israel’s threat to Iran of course is “present”). The essential message here is that an international effort to define, codify, and perhaps even enforce the standard “clear and present” would enhance global security.

Another problem is that one can define all the redlines one wants; there is no obvious means of compelling a state of sufficient power to observe them.  The sufficient rejoinder to that is simply that one must start with articulating rules, which then at least offer a standard: without even posting a stop sign, one can hardly expect even the most well-intentioned drivers to know where to stop.

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One comment on “Red Lines for Nuclear Policy-Making

  1. Pingback: World Affairs Note: London Defines ‘Clear and Present Danger’ | Shadowed Forest of World Politics

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