The proliferation debate: Learn to love the bomb -- and die


April 02, 1995|By Craig Eisendrath | Craig Eisendrath,Special to The Sun

Some say the world will end in fire.

Some say in ice. . . .

- Robert Frost, Fire and Ice

Simple logic dictates that the more nations have nuclear arms, the greater the chance these terrible weapons will be used. Yet a number of respected analysts today believe that nuclear proliferation actually makes the world safer. The effects of their arguments may be more than academic.

At issue is U.S. policy, which soon will be put to a strong test. This month at United Nations Headquarters in New York, 162 nations will decide whether or not to renew their adherence to the 1969 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The treaty binds non-nuclear states to refrain from acquiring nuclear weapons, and nuclear states to refuse to assist them should they try. The United States originally proposed the treaty, and still stands behind it. If pro-proliferation analysts had their way, the United States would pull back its support.

A recent, brilliant book, "The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate"

(W.W. Norton & Company. 164 pages. $16.95), crystallizes the arguments for and against nuclear proliferation. Like a gripping court case, the book presents the arguments and the evidence on both sides, and lets the reader decide whether nuclear proliferation does or does not make the world a safer place.

Championing the proliferators is Kenneth N. Waltz, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, who maintains that nuclear weapons create a peaceful world because nuclear deterrence works. His principal evidence is that for 50 years, following Nagasaki, nuclear weapons have not been used. Indeed, he argues, the world has generally been safer for nuclear states than it was before the Nuclear Age.

Deterrence works, Waltz claims, because the risks of massive nuclear destruction are simply too great. The leaders of nuclear states know this and act rationally. The fear that the heads of the Third World nations that might acquire nuclear weapons would be less rational than the heads of megastates like the United States or the former Soviet Union is mere ethnocentrism. In fact, Waltz maintains, the "cognitive skills" of Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, Iraq's Saddam Hussein are and North Korea's Kim II Sung were more impressive than those of, say, Jimmy Carter or George Bush.

Waltz dismisses the potential hazards of nuclear proliferation. Preventative war against a state developing nuclear weapons is unlikely because it doesn't work and is therefore irrational: "If the blow struck is less than devastating, one must be prepared either to repeat it or to occupy and control the country." Smaller nuclear powers will avoid nuclear accidents because they have less complicated nuclear establishments to manage. Military, as opposed to civilian, control of nuclear weapons, a real possibility in new nuclear states, poses no real risks because military planners act sensibly to avoid casualties.

Nor need we fear nuclear terrorists in areas like Eastern Europe or the Middle East. Waltz assures us, "Terrorists have some hope of reaching their long-term goals through patient pressure and constant harassment. They cannot hope to do so by issuing unsustainable threats to wreck (sic) great destruction, threats they would not want to execute anyway."

Similar arguments have been advanced by pro-proliferation politicians and by scholars such as Hebrew University's Martin van Creveld, whose "Nuclear Proliferation and the Future of Conflict" (The Free Press. 180 pages. $22.95) includes a useful 300-year history of war and military strategy. Like Waltz, Creveld ends up championing nuclear weapons as agents of peace.

Their arguments seem to make sense. The catch is that they make sense not in the world we live in, but in the ideological world of the 17th century British political scientist Thomas Hobbes.

That world began in what Hobbes called a "state of nature," a world of man against man, in which men's lives were "nasty, brutish and short." Hobbes maintains that to avoid violent death in the state of nature, human beings had no alternative but rationally to contract with each other to create a state that would have absolute, undivided authority.

According to Waltz and his neorealist associates, the anarchy of Hobbes' "states of nature" describes the modern world of competing states. Like Hobbes, they assume that states act as individual units below the state, there is no organization worth considering and that states, like human beings, can be depended upon to act rationally in their own self-interest.

These Hobbesian assumptions are precisely what Waltz's co-author and debating opponent, Scott D. Sagan, attacks. Sagan, a political scientist at Stanford, argues convincingly that state policy is not necessarily rational, nor is it typically the product of one person, even in a dictatorship, but of organizations, including governments, which act according to their own routines and interests.

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