Why Does America Only Fear Hypothetical Nukes?
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Why Does America Only Fear Hypothetical Nukes?


Although I’m admittedly often perplexed by U.S. foreign policy, perhaps nothing puzzles me quite as much as America’s obsession with ONLY hypothetical nuclear weapons. That is, U.S. policymakers and pundits seem to have an inordinate fear of nuclear weapons, until they become real.

The U.S. has quite rightly been concerned with the spread of nuclear weapons since they first burst on the scene at the end of WWII. Thus, as early as 1954 President Dwight Eisenhower exclaimed, “Soon even little countries will have a stockpile of these bombs, and then we will be in a mess.” Similarly, during the 1960 Presidential campaign John F. Kennedy predicted that as many as 20 countries might have nuclear weapons by the time of the 1964 election.

Nor were politicians alone in holding this fear. In 1957, the Central Intelligence Agency predicted that 10 countries would build nuclear weapons over the following decade; by 1975, it predicted that “logically” proliferation would only end when “all political actors, state and non-state, are equipped with nuclear armaments.” Similarly dire predictions have surfaced nearly every time a new country approaches the nuclear threshold, from China in the early 1960s to Iran today.

Despite being a wildly successful (tactically speaking) non-nuclear weapon attack, 9/11 brought a new even more harrowing possibility to the fore: the prospect of nuclear terrorism. Some general prudence was no doubt sensible given the likelihood that a globally dispersed, religiously inspired terrorist group like al-Qaeda can’t be deterred from using nuclear weapons (and that steps to reduce nuclear terrorism are beneficial in and of themselves). What seemed excessive was the general level of rhetorical panic that followed, with some commentators actually floating numerical probabilities that a nuclear terrorist attack would occur in the next five or ten or twenty years.

This hysteria was particularly remarkable given how little concrete action toward preventing this possibility took place during the first eight years after 9/11. To be sure, the Bush administration made some commendable if limited early progress, mostly in the form of UN Security Council Resolution 1540 and the Proliferation Security Initiative, both of which only targeted the trafficking of WMDs and their delivery systems. Still, it wasn’t until Barack Obama took office in 2009 that the U.S. launched a larger effort to secure the fissile material that terrorist groups like al-Qaeda would need to procure from nation-states to have a remote chance of putting together a nuclear device of any kind.

What really makes the widespread panic over hypothetical nuclear weapons seem bizarre is the relatively benign view American policymakers, lawmakers and pundits take of actual nuclear weapons. Nothing illustrated this better than the George W. Bush administration deciding to in effect recognize India as a nuclear weapons state, despite it not being a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Whatever one thinks of this policy on its own merits — I tend to support it — it’s hard to reconcile this decision with the Bush administration previously going to war to destroy Saddam Hussein’s non-existent nuclear weapons program.

In general, the U.S. foreign policy community does not seem overly concerned with existing nuclear stockpiles, particularly when compared with its excessive concerns over the hypothetical ones. This is nothing new: when China was approaching a nuclear weapons capability, U.S. administrations actively contemplated using military force to prevent it from crossing the threshold. Four years after Beijing tested its first nuclear weapon, however, America advanced a treaty that enshrined China’s legal right to possess nuclear weapons. More recently, many of the most strident hawks on Iran simultaneously oppose U.S.-Russian nuclear arms reduction efforts, increased budgets to enhance U.S. nuclear security and any efforts to deemphasize nuclear weapons in U.S. national security policy.

This relatively sanguine view of existing nuclear stockpiles also extends to less established nuclear powers. For example, when North Korea conducted its third nuclear weapons test earlier this year, many U.S. policymakers and pundits framed the danger of this event in terms of its impact on the Iranian issue. When asked about the test the next day, for example, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry first misspoke by referring to the Iranian nuclear test. After being corrected, he continued to argue that the North Korea nuclear test “is not only about the DPRK and its continued flaunting of its obligations under three separate UN Security Council resolutions. This is about proliferation. And this is also about Iran, which is why I had Iran on my mind in answer to your question, because they’re linked.”

Kerry was hardly alone in believing the threat of North Korea’s nuclear test was mainly about the influence it might have on its Iran’s nuclear calculus. However, it’s difficult to comprehend why the hypothetical Iranian nuclear threat would be seen as greater than the actual North Korean one. Besides the fact that Iran doesn’t have any nuclear weapons yet, North Korea is hardly a more trustworthy regime than Iran in terms of the likelihood it may use nuclear weapons, transfer them to others, or lose control of its arsenal. Indeed, unlike modern day Iran, North Korea has invaded a neighboring country and has generally been more willing to engage in brinksmanship. It’s also far more unstable internally. Moreover, many of the concerns being raised about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran today were expressed about a then-hypothetical nuclear-armed North Korea in the early 1990s, and again in the years leading up to its 2006 nuclear test. Moreover, much of the concern about the North Korean nuclear threat today centers on the possibility that it will be able to strike the U.S. homeland in the future, rather than its existing capabilities.

The greater attention hypothetical nuclear weapons receive from the American foreign policy establishment also extends to Pakistan. To a much greater extent than is true of other existing nuclear powers, Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal has continued to raise concerns in Washington even after it became a real, tangible thing. Yet, most of this concern has not been over the Pakistani state’s possession of nuclear weapons, but rather that al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups might steal bombs from it. Other threats emanating from Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal — such as the fact that it is driven around in unmarked cars on busy highways, or that Pakistan is in the process of fielding tactical nuclear weapons to deploy along its border with India — have not caused nearly as much anxiety in Washington as the possibility that terrorists might steal a nuclear bomb from Pakistan. Yet the prospect that nuclear weapons could be used in a response to India activating its Cold Start doctrine, or by accident due to unsafe handling of the arsenal, seem at least as great as the possibility that the handful of remaining al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan could successfully steal a nuclear weapon, must less be able to overcome the security measures designed to prevent any unauthorized use.

None of this is to say that Washington isn’t right to be concerned about the spread of nuclear weapons, or that the threat posed by existing nuclear arsenals warrants the type of excessive panic hypothetical nuclear weapons currently receive. Rather, I’m simply arguing that the cognitive dissonance between America’s concerns about real and hypothetical nuclear weapons is indefensible. Neither real nor hypothetical arsenals pose an imminent danger of nuclear weapons being used, but by definition, if nuclear weapons are used, it won’t be from an arsenal that exists only in our imagination.


An American College Student
March 25, 2014 at 09:14

America fears only hypothetical nukes because America is run by traitors and incompetents who sold their country to our sworn enemies for personal profit

January 7, 2014 at 11:27

I’d be inclined to think they would focus on this, as a priority, because these weapons, can potentially be stopped all together. Whereas, once you’ve got ‘the bomb’, there’s really not a whole lot of responsible options left, except diplomacy and sanctions.

December 27, 2013 at 10:50

US only fears nukes when there’s credible evidence Russian and Chinese nukes can reach Washington and New York – and they can. Beijing and Moscow should and will launch proportional response should nukes be used against their major cities. Nukes are not a one-way mirror. This seems to be forgotten by hawkish US senators alike.

December 26, 2013 at 19:14

The author appeared to be too naive and lack of understanding North East Asian countries like China,Japan and Korea as well as Islamic Republic of Iran mentalities and mindsets .
With little nuke capability,NK can hardly deter any superpower invasion without China’s guaranteed full back up.And the Us and the West fear of NK nuke due to its peril nature rather than its true nuke capabilty.There is a famous saying in Asia ,it says: no one is that stupid to use his/her fine Chinawares to test with coconut shell.
Besides, Chinese also has been well known by the West as peril people that PLA has proved in Sino-Japan and Korean wars by using mass human tactic to win the battle at any rates.
It’s China which always warns the US that in case the war breaks between Taiwan -China .It would use nuke weapons if US intervenes.
It’s Russia that has unilaterally postponed NUKE ARM REDUCTION pact with US but not by US Admi hawks.
Recently, Putin has frequently, repeatedly warned that Russia will use nuke to protect its national integrity in case it’s potentiallly defeated by conventional war.

December 19, 2013 at 23:17

There is a point in the article in which theory allows strong anti-Pakistan elements in the Washington establishment to demonize Pakistan and gradually build a case against Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Almost every American news report contained a line that suggested that US officials suspected links between Pakistani military and ‘extremist groups’. This is a longstanding US position designed for political point scoring. Unfortunately, Pakistani military has for too long ignored this type of irresponsible behavior from an ally that is now showing its true colors.

December 19, 2013 at 23:09

It was interesting to note the double-speak the Black Budget was a proof that America is an unreliable partner but the State Department had the cheeks to deny it. Not the king but king’s men were more aggressive. As Ms Psaki in her 4th September statement said, that “the United States is confident that the government of Pakistan is well aware of its responsibilities and has secured its nuclear arsenal accordingly”. Ms Psaki further Stated that United States recognize that Pakistan is fully engaged with the international community on nuclear safety and security issues, and is working hard to ensure its strategic export controls are in line with international standards.

December 19, 2013 at 22:38

All nuclear-weapon States are equally concerned about the safety and security of their nuclear assets; so is Pakistan. Pakistan is passing through a troubled phase and confronting a lot of challenges. At this turning point, the propaganda by the Western nations, particularly their media, against the security of Pakistan’s nuclear programmes is baseless. The West, especially the U.S., is using this propaganda as a pressure tactic to pursue its interests.

December 19, 2013 at 22:37

State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki in a statement in Washington reaffirmed confidence in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons security. Jen said “We recognize that Pakistan is fully engaged with the international community on nuclear safety and security issues, and is working hard to ensure its strategic export controls are in line with international standards. Pakistan is a state party to both Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Convention and is a partner in the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism.”

December 19, 2013 at 22:36

In the near term, there is little danger to either the security of Pakistan’s fissile material installations or the safety of its nuclear command and control. Fears of domestic instability and factional infighting within the military are exaggerated. The small number of nuclear warheads in Pakistan’s inventory and still smaller number of facilities used to produce fissile material also give national command authorities considerable advantages in protecting them against potential attacks by terrorists.

December 19, 2013 at 19:46

Pakistan is a responsible nuclear power state and it has developed a robust command and control structure for the nukes security. Still US points finger on nukes safety in Pakistan. It is very interesting to look at monopoly of certain states over entire globe. 1st US has made atomic bomb in 1945 tested on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It killed millions of people. During cold war both US and Russia created massive number of nukes. Today, US and Russia has more than half of the total nukes of the world. But US points finger on other states nukes.

December 19, 2013 at 19:08

US concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear program are just base less; Pakistan over the years has acquired robust command and control system for its nuclear arsenal. More than 20,000 trained soldiers, scientists and engineers are working to develop and guard nuclear arsenal. Nobody knows how they do it, where, when and how they do it. Pakistan’s nuclear program is safe and secure.

December 19, 2013 at 18:58

Pakistan is a responsible nuclear power and it has developed a robust command and control structure for the nukes security. Still US points finger on nukes safety in Pakistan. It is very interesting to look at monopoly of certain states over entire globe. 1st US has made atomic bomb in 1945 tested on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It killed millions of people. During cold war both US and Russia created massive number of nukes. Today, US and Russia has more than half of the total nukes of the world. But US points finger on other states nukes which is totally unjustifiable.

December 19, 2013 at 16:11

the Use of nuclear weapons by USA in the pre cold war era left a water shed mark over the history of international politics. But since the introduction of nuclear weapons , in the post cold war era these weapons have given deterrence capability to the states while linitizing the military options for USA because now states are seeking relieve of threat in countering super power with the same intention of deterrence and that can only be achieved by owning a nuclear weapon. Author has mentioned the concept of nuclear terrorism with special reference to terrorist organizations opereted in Pakistan. It is a proven fact that Pakistan has established its own command and control structure for the safety and security of its nuclear arsenals and facilities. Further no accident of stolen or theft of nuclear weapons with reference to Pakistan has not been reported, so USA better to think of existing nukes which are more dangerous for the international security.

December 19, 2013 at 08:30

The Americans fear nukes because they know that being the first and only nation to have actually used nukes against an adversary, and against unarmed civilians, they are the legitimate target of the next nuke attack … which could come as a total surprise to them …

December 19, 2013 at 04:07

Because the states that already have nukes, they had them for a sufficient time that’s its reasonable to assume they are infant deterred by mad, otherwise they would have already used them. Now what do the neocons say about iran for example, that irans ideology is so crazy that they are not deterred by mad. If iran had the nukes and a few months or years its safe to assume people would realize they are rational actors. Do you really the elite of any country want to spend the rest of there lives living in a bunker underground.

December 18, 2013 at 18:08

An interesting question, indeed. It is rightly pointed out that neither real nor hypothetical arsenals pose an imminent danger of nuclear weapons being used. Nevertheless, the source of this cognitive dissonance might not be the fear from nuclear weapons being actually used (first use), but the proliferation of nuclear deterrence capabilities. In that respect this hypocrisy might be justified insofar as the spread of nuclear deterrence capabilities limits US (conventional) military and diplomatic options regarding new nuclear powers. On the other hand, existing nuclear stockpiles are limitations already in place for US policy and there is a limited scope of actions that can be used to mitigate these limitations. Of course, from a public relations perspective it is easier to gather popular support for a non-proliferation policy by emphasizing the nuclear threat to life, not the threat nuclear proliferation poses to nuclear powers’ political and military options in their respective foreign policies.

December 18, 2013 at 13:56

The US fears hypothetical nukes more than actual ones because the US is not very flexible in its thinking. Any change is something to be feared regardless of the actors involved.

December 18, 2013 at 09:14

non-deterrable states are Iran, NK and Japan.

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