Zachary Keck

Why Does America Only Fear Hypothetical Nukes?

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Zachary Keck

Why Does America Only Fear Hypothetical Nukes?

The US foreign policy community is far less concerned with existing nuclear arsenals than potential future ones.

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.