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Nuclear weapons cause war

March 10, 2011

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi tried for many years to obtain nuclear weapons. The reason was, he said, that Israel had nukes. The desire for nuclear weapons is contagious. In the 1980s a rumor circulated that Gaddafi had made an offer on the international nuclear bazaar of one billion US dollars for a nuclear bomb. No bomb was available, it seems, but Gaddafi persevered.  From Pakistan and Abdul Khadeer Khan, the star salesman for nuclear weapons technology, he bought equipment and competence, blueprints and scientists.

Early after the year 2000, the Libyan dictator wanted to change his image, to become an internationally respected, or at least accepted, leader. Maybe he cared primarily for his son Saif al-Islam, the intended successor. Saif is reported to have participated in the negotiations with Great Britain. He is educated at the London School of Economics.

In 2003 an agreement on the nuclear program was reached. The equipment was transferred to Tennessee and was inspected by President Bush. Four thousand centrifuges, assembled or in parts, blueprints from China for a bomb and many other useful tools were found.  As late as 2009 the last shipment of uranium took place. There is nothing left in Libya of the nuclear program. We are grateful.

The Colonel  achieved his own goal, to a considerable degree.  He was received, embraced and kissed on the cheeks by Western leaders.

If Gaddafi had not converted but instead, with resolve and with petro-dollars, continued the nuclear program, he could very well have had some useable nuclear weapons today. In that case we would now worry that Gaddafi, who by some is seen as a madman, could use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against his own people. The likely consequence of that would have been attacks or threats on the nuclear facilities by NATO and the USA.  Gaddafi could have escalated by threatening to bomb cities around the Mediterranean. The government of Israel would have demanded a military invasion to stop the lunatic in Tripoli.

Had Gaddafi obtained nuclear weapons, an attack by NATO on Libya would have been likely. The situation could be compared with that in 2002 when the US government said there were nukes in Iraq. If the Bush administration had not managed to make the US population believe this, the American public would probably not have accepted an attack on Iraq. “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud” said Condoleezza Rice on American TV.

A land that acquires nuclear weapons, or make others believe they plan to acquire them, risks a “preventive attack.” This applies today to Iran and North Korea. Many leaders and citizens in these countries believe that nuclear weapons deter an attacker. It is the other way around:

Nuclear weapons cause war.

2 Comments
  1. March 11, 2011 5:30 am

    I thank Mr Nicholas Johnson for his sincere and concrete discussion of my paper. I do agree that my paper does not discuss the complexities of nuclear deterrence. Certainly there would be wars also in a world without nuclear weapons. Furthermore I do not here discuss the reasons why nations acquire nuclear weapons, or abstain from them.
    My point is only that if a country acquires, or plans to acquire, nuclear weapons it runs a risk of being subject to a “preventive” attack. I find this argument important, as it is so ofn said that nukes prevent war. If that was true during the Cold War is for historians to argue – and there is no agreement! – today nukes increase the risk of war.
    This is the message I bring when going to North Korea, Iran or India. And to the USA.

    Gunnar Westberg

  2. Nicholas Johnson permalink
    March 10, 2011 10:59 pm

    This post is highly speculative and grossly unrepresentative of the complexities of nuclear deterrence and preemptive actions. I would argue that the pursuit of nuclear weapons itself does not cause war, for indeed there is no evidence in the history of the 10 nuclear nations. Nuclear programs alone do not invite attack on nations. Rather, nuclear aspirations can be seen as a last straw for states with already strained relations. For the countries cited, Iran and North Korea, nuclear programs are not the sole reason why “preventive attack” is a realistic possibility.
    These are regimes which already have extremely strained international relations because of fundamental ideological differences, aggressive militarism and rhetoric, human rights abuses, and a myriad of other reasons. Indeed, it is not just their pursuit of nuclear weapons that could cause war. Their pursuit of the weapons IN THE FIRST PLACE is due to the high perception of risk of attack among the leadership. The development of nuclear weapons should first been seen as a response to the threat of war before it is seen as a cause of war.
    According to the author’s logic, nations pursuing nuclear weapons (presumably because they feel threatened) should abandon their pursuits because these pursuits only invite attack. While it may be true that these pursuits may invite military intervention, the argument is fundamentally flawed because it DOES NOT address the reasons the weapons are being pursued in the first place. If the author’s advice was followed and these regimes dropped their nuclear programs today, it would do nothing to ameliorate the myriad of reasons that they are already at odds with their neighbors and face threats of conventional war.
    The inverse of the statement “nuclear weapons cause war” is “lack of nuclear weapons does not cause war”. But as I have argued, this is not necessarily the case, so the author’s contention that “nuclear weapons cause war” cannot be true because if the nuclear weapons are removed from the equation, there still exists a considerable threat of war, which is why the regimes pursue nuclear aspirations in the first place. If war is to be prevented, going beyond decrying nuclear weapons is necessary, and we must address the reasons underlying these tensions.
    A possible counter argument to my thoughts is that regimes do not pursue nuclear weapons as a defensive measure, but rather as an offensive one designed to intimidate and manipulate their neighbors. However, I would counter that while this could be true in theory, it is not true in our international system in which countries that regimes in Iran and North Korea may seek to intimidate (ROK, Japan, Iraq, Israel, etc.) already maintain overwhelming superior nuclear umbrellas from allied countries, and thus are defended against nuclear bullying.

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