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America Is Preventing Nuclear Attacks in All the Wrong Ways

There’s a deep psychological reason that America treats nuclear weapons like a spoiled child hogging all the neighborhood candy. Are we too paranoid to see it?

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Barry Posen: Now, the present American grand strategy basically says nuclear weapons can only be possessed by countries that we like and they cannot be possessed by countries that we don’t like so if countries we don’t like try and get nuclear weapons we will move heaven and earth to stop them. That’s the basic story. As a codicil to that we basically would prefer that no other countries get nuclear weapons either because it just complicates our lives.

Now, in a perfect world it would be nice if there were no other nuclear weapon states except the United States, but there are already several other nuclear weapon states other than the United States. We’ve learned how to live with other nuclear weapon states. And if you look at the kinds of policies that it takes to keep other powers from doing in their national security interest inside their own borders with their own money what it is they conceive as being necessary for their national security, to try and dictate to them what they can and cannot do is a big job and you need a hegemonic position to be able to do that. You need decisive crushing military superiority and you may even need to be able to invade them. And if you look at the arguments about Iran and about North Korea as they’ve unfolded over the last ten years and as they’re being discussed today, the question lurking in the background all the time is if you can’t get them to negotiate away these capabilities, which they seem to want for their own reasons, you should be willing to fight a preventive war. Not a preemptive war, not attacking them before they attack you when you think they’re getting ready to attack you, but attacking them now because you think there might be a problem later and you would rather not deal with it so you’re going to have war now to avoid some kind of war later. And this seems pretty good if the war is cheap, but the wars are not cheap because rubbing out another countries nuclear weapons turns out to be a big job. You’ve got to destroy factories, laboratories, you’ve got to wreck their economy, you’ve got to keep the economy squeezed, you have to kill people or kidnap them, scientists, engineers. If you want to prevent a moderately technologically advanced country, and here we’re talking about North Korea, which is really nothing special, from getting this old technology of nuclear weapons it’s now an all the technology is not a mystery, you really needed to be able to get your hands around their neck and squeeze it and keep squeezing.

So the question is how many times with how many places are you willing to do this? How often are you willing to wager preventative wars? How many countries do you want to be in a constant this kind of relationship with? These are the questions you have to ask. Now, I would like to have an honest debate about this with the United States. I don’t think we even have an honest debate because the way the debate is happened is it would be very bad if they got nuclear weapons; we have to do something about it. “All options are on the table.” What kind of euphemism is all options are on the table? War is on the table. Well, what kind of war is on the table? How many wars are on the table? What is the likelihood of success? What are the unintended consequences of wars to prevent nuclear proliferation? These are questions we should debate, we should ask, we should answer. Now my problem with nuclear weapons is rather different, I believe that America knows how to deter countries that have nuclear weapons. Countries that have nuclear weapons are not going to attack the United States because if they do we’re going to annihilate them. It will be very sad for us, it will be even sadder for them. They’re mostly small nuclear powers, we are a great and large nuclear power. The whole thing would be very, very, very sad and tragic and it’s easy for the other side to know how tragic it’s going to be because our nuclear forces are not a secret. We have 1,500 warheads on a variety of delivery systems and we can wreck pretty much any country in the world. That’s the residual of our Cold War force and we are getting ready to spend a trillion dollars modernizing that force to keep it tip-top shape.

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