This blogpost contains my summary/response to Thomas Schelling's discussion with the SIS Dean this past Thursday (4/25). If other people attended the event and wrote a response please feel free to post it. If you did not attend the event but have thoughts on the subject you're encouraged to comment.
Thomas Schelling brought up many relevant points to our class relating to the nuclear taboo, nuclear zero, and the pursuit of nuclear weapons by non-state actors. He strongly believed that the strength of the nuclear taboo is enduring, emphasizing that there have been at least 8 wars where at least one of the belligerents has had nuclear weapons. Two of the most tempting situations were the Falklands War and the Yom Kippur War. In the Falklands war England could have very well detonated a nuclear device at sea to wipe out the Argentinian navy with close to zero civilian casualties. And when the Egyptian army crossed into the Israeli side of the Sinai Peninsula again the Israelis could have launched a tactical nuke to wipe out the Egyptian Army in the middle of a desert with very little civilian collateral damage. Despite the appeal of nuclear weapons in both of these situations the belligerents refrained from use, which speaks to how uncomfortable states are with nuclear weapons.
I believe the stigma of using a nuclear device in either of these situations greatly outweighed the benefit of their use. Especially in Israel’s scenario, the Egyptians promised not to advance past the Sinai, further into Israeli territory. If Egypt did seem to indicate that they would march further into Israeli territory then a nuclear weapon could very well have been detonated over the Egyptian Army.
Schelling also brought up a number of points regarding nuclear zero that I strongly agree support. Even if actors managed to dispose of all the nuclear devices there is no way to erase the knowledge of how to build and use a device. There is nothing keeping a country from storing small amounts of weapons grade uranium in secret to protect themselves. I am of the position that nuclear weapons are a stabilizing force that enhances global security, and as illustrated in the previous section states have exercised tremendous restraint in their use. A nuclear zero world would not necessarily be a more secure world.
With regard to non-state actors and nuclear weapons Schelling pointed out the low probability of their successful use. The process by which a terrorist group or other non-state actor must go through to acquire a nuclear weapon is tremendously costly and fairly easy to detect. A terrorist group would first have to find someone to sell them the nuclear material which is not easy but at the same time easily detectable. Then they would have to acquire the dozens of experts necessary to produce a weapon, which again is a very difficult task that I doubt there are even enough people in world willing to fulfill.
If a group is able to overcome all these obstacles Schelling mentioned that there is much more to gain from an undetonated nuclear device than one that has already been used. It is likely that actors would rather use a bomb as leverage rather than immediately use it because once the nuclear device is used that group will have no such leverage over the United States or other target.
He concluded his discussion with a fantasy where a CIA agent and Israeli Mossad agent are each after a terrorist group that is searching for a nuclear device. But instead of finding that group they find each other, shake hands and part ways. This is because of the low likelihood that a group could acquire or would even try to acquire a nuclear device.
Overall Schelling’s discussion reinforced the sense of security I have in a world with nuclear weapons. While they do threaten human security in countries such as Iran and North Korea where whole populations are forced to suffer in the pursuit of a nuclear device, I do not feel that the detonation of nuclear device is particularly likely, and overall they are positive force in the world.