National Security and the Nuclear Dilemma
Richard Smoke, 1984
Richard Smoke is professor of political science and director of the Center for Foreign Policy Development at Brown University. He is co-recipient of the Bancroft Prize for his book "Deterrence in American Foreign Policy" and author of "National Security and the Nuclear Dilemma." Today he shares some of his central views on the quest for peace.
Whiteley: Professor Smoke, you've indicated that the problem of achieving peace in the nuclear age is multi-dimensional. To what are you referring?
Smoke: When you talk with different people about the problems of peace and security you get very different answers. And whether you're talking with people whose focus is on weapons and strategic policy, whose focus is on arms control, on the Catholic Bishops, or representatives of the peace movement either here or abroad, and part of why you get different answers is that they are focusing on different aspects of what is really a complicated multi-level or multi-dimensional problem. And there's a certain sense in which every one of the answers you get has an element of truth in it. And I think that a good deal of the trick in grasping correctly how to solve the challenge of our time is an understanding of the multi-level or multi-dimensional quality of the problem, and in working on all of these levels, appropriately pushing forward and making progress on all of them simultaneously, but understanding the relationship between them.
Whiteley: What do you see to be the major components?
Smoke: There are various ways of breaking them down, but certainly one important dimension is arms control, and trying to put a cap or slowing down the arms race.
Whiteley: So you consider arms control an essential part of national security.
Smoke: Absolutely essential. And one reason why we are not more insecure today than we are, and I think we're considerably insecure today, but it could have been worse, is because of the arms control progress that's been made in the last 20 years. But this is not to say that deterrence and those who are interested in maintaining deterrence - I won't speak of bolstering, and I don't think it needs bolstering - but maintaining deterrence will also have an element of truth in their point of view as well. And indeed deterrence is an important component in those arms control regimes. Beyond that there's the whole dimension of U.S./Soviet relations, the political and diplomatic relationship between the two sides, which contains both a kind of traditional diplomatic component to it in the way the people normally think about U.S./Soviet relations, but also an important component that involves symbolic behavior and how the two sides perceive each other in a kind of basic way. And here things like so-called 'citizen diplomacy' or 'track two diplomacy' it's sometimes called, come into play where there are various things that citizens and groups, non-governmental groups on both sides can do to supplement the official, or some call 'track one' relationship. Beyond that there's another whole level, and all these can be regarded as levels of awareness of the problem, as well as levels of activity. There's another whole level that has to do with seeing the peace and security issue in the context of a larger process of global change and global transformation.
And it's quite common now, particularly in America, for theorists is to talk in terms of increasing world interdependency, the gradually interlocking world economy, world ecology, world global communication systems, and seeing all this as part of an increasingly global consciousness or global development that represents a kind of historical transformation or historical shift in the way the people have thought about humanity and their political relationships. And seeing peace and security problems in that context, and speaking, for example, as Norman Cousins does, in terms of resolving at the level of a greater global awareness is valid also. So the trick as I see it is to see all these things as at different levels of a multi-level problem and to grasp the relationship between them and then to move forward on all of them simultaneously.
Whiteley: But at the same time you've indicated that you think major change toward increasing the prospects of peace will come not from governmental action, but from non-governmental action. What do you mean?
Smoke: To a large extent, I think that's so. And the reason is I have a notion that governments, when it comes to security questions, are inherently quite conservative (small 'c' conservative). That because of the very reasons why we form governments in the first place (and the governments originally evolved as a way of protecting the security of a given piece of territory), that way of looking at the problem, if you are trying to defend or protect a given space, a given piece of territory, a given population, is so very deeply wired into the very structure of government and the way everyone who thinks - who works in government or has governmental responsibilities. I think it's extraordinarily difficult for governments to take the initiatives that lead out of that plane of reasoning. And therefore, I think that to a large extent, the initiatives that move toward change in a situation, particularly a change of the more fundamental and long-term kinds, have to come from non-governmental sources and move through non-governmental modes of behavior. Which is not to say that there isn't a very important role for government as well, both in protecting security in the short term and in doing something about this terrible arms race.
Whiteley: You, in association with the Public Agenda Foundation, Brown University, with which you're associated and the Institute for Foreign Policy Development, have identified four basic options facing our democracy, and indeed the world, on the use of nuclear weapons: that our world will be safer in your view if we understand those options, and adopt policies in association with our view of them. I'd like to present them one at a time. The first is that there's no mission for nuclear weapons in the world; that they serve no useful purpose.
Smoke: Sometimes called the 'abolitionist position.' And in a certain way, you know, I think almost everybody holds that position. Ronald Reagan has said, and a number of other people of the administration and of previous administrations, have said that in the long run, wouldn't it be wonderful if we could abolish the weapons altogether. Part of the difference between that view of abolition and the view held by a great many in the peace movement, and with which I'm extremely sympathetic, is that if you place abolition as something that would occur far out in the distant future, then it becomes a hazy goal that has not a great deal of relevance to immediate policy positions. Where option one, abolition, becomes a major operative goal is the point where you begin to use it as a way of structuring the decisions you make in the next year, or the next five years or the next ten years. One of the approaches that I'm interested in right now is defining a particular relationship in the arms relationship between East and West, for say the year 2000, or twenty years ahead or something like that, which by the way could not be all absolute abolition; it could be a great reduction from where we are now. And then reasoning back from that point in the future to ask what can we do in 1985 or 1988 or 1990, have a staged plan that would lead to a stable, permanent, safe configuration.
Whiteley: Would in your view it be dangerous to abolish nuclear weapons now?
Smoke: I don't know how you would go about it. As far back as the late 1950s the experts were concluding that so much plutonium had been produced that it would be practically impossible to track it all down. And we've produced 10 or 100 times more since then than we had produced then. I think unilateral disarmament or unilateral abolition by the West or by America would be a serious mistake, if only because that is one of the most likely ways to create a major war that I can think of.
Whiteley: The second option that you've identified is for nuclear weapons to have a single mission.
...nuclear weapons have one rational purpose and one rational purpose only, and that is to deter any nuclear use by anyone else. So that in effect the nuclear weapons deter each other on each side or on all sides, and have no other use, no other political meaning, no other military purpose.
Smoke: The single mission is to deter nuclear use by the other side, and the fundamental point of view behind this option is, as for example Robert McNamara has said, that nuclear weapons have one rational purpose and one rational purpose only, and that is to deter any nuclear use by anyone else. So that in effect the nuclear weapons deter each other on each side or on all sides, and have no other use, no other political meaning, no other military purpose. That is a policy and an option that we could move toward with relative speed. We couldn't do it tomorrow morning, but within a very few years we could adjust American and NATO strategy, I believe, to embody that option which would require a major change in the way American strategic planning and forces are structured and in the way NATO goes about its planning and force development. But it could be done, it is politically possible, and in my belief it should be a goal that we move toward quite rapidly.
Whiteley: And one component of it is strengthening conventional forces.
Smoke: That is certainly the usual thing that is said, and one way or another it has to be true. But you know there is a difference between the kind of conventional upgrade that we tend to be hearing about right now, which involves provocative and offensive strategies and tactics in Europe, and a different kind of conventional improvement that would be what is sometimes called 'defensive deterrence', and there are other names for it as well. But a posture that would stress an ability to defend western Europe in ways that would not be threatening and not be provocative to the Warsaw Pact.
Whiteley: In our democracy it's estimated that roughly 80% of the people do not favor a 'first-use' doctrine, yet that's our government's policy.
Smoke: More than that, in a recent survey by the Public Agenda Foundation, it was discovered that approximately 80% of the American people believe that that is our policy now, and also favor it. And I have talked with people who have had the experience of giving lectures before very large crowds, of asking the audience to raise their hand, asked the following question: One Superpower had the policy of being willing to use nuclear weapons first; which one do you think it is? And they would say the Soviet Union, and practically every hand goes up. And they would say America, and practically no hands go up. In fact, the truth is it's the opposite. It is America that has a policy of using nuclear weapons first, at least under certain circumstances. I think that's dangerous, I think it's unnecessary, but I think it's something we can and should move away from rapidly.
Whiteley: And it would be for you, a part of adopting as a safer stance, option two that we've been discussing.
Smoke: And once we have established clearly in everybody's mind that nuclear weapons are useful only for deterring other nuclear weapons, then that has the effect, psychologically as well as politically, of sort of putting nuclear weapons up here in a kind of special category where they're deterring each other back and forth but have no other relevance. Once they're up there in that special box, as it were, then you're on a much better basis for going forward to talk about really drastic disarmament and moving toward abolition.
Whiteley: Option three is that nuclear weapons serve to deter both nuclear and non-nuclear attack.
Smoke: And that has been NATO doctrine since 1954. Current U.S. doctrine and NATO doctrine is actually a mixture of options three and four, but primarily option three. And there is, and has always been, a certain political resistance both in Europe and in America. On each side of the ocean there tends to be a tendency to think that it's the other side that is primarily resisting, but a resistance to moving away from that partly because of myths about the overwhelming power of the Soviet conventional forces in Europe (and they are powerful, but they're not that overwhelming), and partly because of what I think are also myths about tremendously greater dollar costs involved with moving away from that option. I think there are ways that could be found that would not be that expensive.
Whiteley: But a number of our allies who have made commitments to us, to each other, to adopt certain postures toward their own national security, could assume that the United States will honor its treaty commitments to them. The West Germans don't have nuclear weapons, the Japanese do not have nuclear weapons, a number of the countries in NATO do not and depend on the United States. How do you help assure their security at the present time?
Smoke: Well, this is why we could not just tomorrow morning announce a policy of 'no first-use.' It would be tremendously disruptive in our alliances for exactly the reason that you just stated. But what we can do is set a goal, a posture that would amount to 'no first-use', though whether it would be labeled that I think is a separate question. But it would be in effect that policy. And set that as a goal for say January 1, 1990, and give us on the order of five years to move our alliance systems and restructure them in a direction where that could be the policy. Then it would not be necessary for these other countries to acquire nuclear weapons in order to have a 'no first-use' policy. All we have to do is to be able to guarantee their security.
Whiteley: How do you respond to the argument that this particular option has kept the United States and the Soviet Union out of a major war for forty years.
Smoke: Well, I'm reminded of the people who believed around the turn of the century, and early in this century, that the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance were keeping Europe out of war and had done so decade after decade, or year after year. The actual alliance was only formed a couple of decades before the war. And then in July 1914 we discovered otherwise. There's always peace until the war actually occurs. The fact that we have not had a war until now is no guarantee that there will not be one tomorrow or next year. It is my belief that we are moving into a gradually more dangerous situation globally, and in terms of the weapons being deployed. And also that for a variety of reasons the West is now better in a position to adopt a 'no first-use' policy than it might have been, say 30 years ago. So let's move to a safer strategy while we can.
Whiteley: Option four, that nuclear weapons in the modern era have multiple uses to defend the United States in multiple ways.
Smoke: And to derive from nuclear weapons political and diplomatic influence. To try to extract the maximum possible benefit in terms of influencing our allies, mutual as well as public opinion and so forth. And increasingly over the last decade, elements at least of that option have become part of American policy.
Whiteley: That nuclear weapons do allow us to exert power based on them in the world.
Smoke: And more than that, that we should also have military options for fighting limited nuclear war, so-called and under the Reagan Administration, and the last year or two of the Carter Administration, a doctrine for prevailing in what's called a protracted nuclear war. I believe that this is a very dangerous road to be going down for a variety of reasons, one of them being that it encourages the belief, not just an American belief but also worldwide, that nuclear weapons have benefits and purposes that might be actually useful in given situations. That mode of reasoning tends to encourage in a crisis, for example, in crises, the kind of crisis behavior that could actually lead to some kind of nuclear outbreak. It also tends to encourage proliferation. If the United States is carrying out a doctrine that says we have all sorts of uses for nuclear weapons, that among other things, is giving a message to the rest of the world that we think nuclear weapons are really useful things to have. And therefore we are encouraging proliferation, which is another one of the really dangerous potential trends we might face.
Whiteley: The basic argument in favor of option four is that America and her allies will be safer as a result of demonstrating our willingness to use these weapons to accomplish those goals that will increase our national security.
Smoke: If there's anything to it at all it's a very short-won safety that is bought at the price of greater long-term insecurity. The American people in poll after poll demonstrate this, feel less secure now than they did 20 or 30 years ago. The primary reason for it is the endlessly ongoing arms race and option four doctrine would promote and accelerate the arms race.
Whiteley: You've indicated that in your view there's a very dangerous trend underway for 'first-strike' weapons and 'first-strike' policy. What do you mean and what is the danger?
Smoke: Almost every weapon that the United States is now developing or has recently developed is either itself a 'first-strike' weapon or could easily be fit into 'first-strike' strategies. And though it frequently is not discussed in America in these terms, I think the Kremlin is very aware about it. And this is part of what we were just touching on of the increasing emphasis in Washington on a possibility of some kind of limited nuclear war or at least the supposed strategic intelligence of planning for it, and what's sometimes called 'bolstering deterrence' by the acquisition of this kind of capability. With one possible exception, which is called the "Midgetman." The Midgetman is a proposal for a small probably mobile single warhead ICBMs to be developed in the 1990s, deployed in the 1990s. With that possible exception there is no weapon currently coming into the arsenal or recently coming into the arsenal that is not a possible part of a 'first-strike' posture. I myself am probably less worried about the MX than some people are, partly because I don't think the Soviets are very worried about the MX. The numbers that we're likely to deploy are pretty small and there are indications in things that they have said privately that they're less worried about the MX than they are about some other things.
I'm quite concerned about the Pershing IIs and I'm quite concerned about the Trident D5 system. The new Trident warhead, the so-called D5 warhead, is going to have every bit as great a 'first-strike' capability as the MX and yet it has received one percent as much attention. I hope that will change in the next year or two. But the whole trend in ballistic missiles, in the extraordinary high accuracy of our cruise missiles, and in the numbers of cruise missiles that we're planning to deploy, as well as in the doctrines that are going with them and in other ancillary things such as a build-up in air defense, various steps that are being taken in command and control systems, to say nothing of all the talk about Star Wars. The whole drift is in the direction of what's called war-fighting capabilities, and the possibility of, at least in the Kremlin's perception, 'first-strike' options. And it's a dangerous drift; it's one that, as I say, is not receiving the attention that it deserves.
Whiteley: You've indicated that the greatest danger of war in your view is that it would develop out of a crisis, and this has led you to be concerned both about crisis control and crisis management, and those problems must urgently be addressed if we want to make the world safer. To what are you referring?
Smoke: Very few people think that the Soviet Union or anyone would launch a nuclear war out of the clear blue sky, or even as a result of some absolutely sudden confrontation that would occur, they would have delivered ultimatum or something like that. That has not occurred, and in the judgment of practically all experts, will not occur. The great danger is the danger of something like the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, perhaps this time located in the Middle East or the Persian Gulf, or possibly in the Balkans where there is a gradually intensifying trading back and forth of first political and diplomatic, and then local military moves that cumulatively escalates into a very severe confrontation. And each side could gradually find itself sucked into a situation which would be very difficult to get out of. That is what I worry about. That is what I think most people who look at the actual scenarios for how nuclear war might begin worry about the most. And there are a variety of things we can be doing and should be doing to both avoid such situations, and should any such thing occur in spite of our best efforts to avoid it, to get out of it quickly.
Whiteley: What are those?
Smoke: I would very much like to see, for example, a set of highly publicized congressional hearings in another six months or a year or as soon as possible. They might even title their hearings "The most Likely Path to War" or something of that character. And have experts testify with a good deal of attention given to it about this problem, about the ways that scenarios could develop, and about ways in which crises could be prevented or controlled and quickly resolved if they did occur. There's a tremendous tendency for attention to be drawn to the nuclear weapons themselves and the missiles and so forth, partly because they're tangible and they're here now; partly because there's a kind of glamour about them. But in a certain sense it is equally important to look at the ways in which a war might actually begin. And the danger is not the weapon sitting there; the danger is in the weapon being used. For that you have to imagine the war is happening, and for that you have to imagine the war started in some fashion.
So you need to give attention, not just to the weapons, but also to the sequence of events by which a war could begin. And there are a number of things we could be doing to make war less likely that we are not doing. Let me give you one. I think it would be tremendously valuable for there to be twice a year, or once a year, a high level but confidential conversation between the two capitols. Either, say the Secretaries of Defense and State and the Soviet equivalents, or perhaps in addition, our Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Soviet equivalent. And let them get together for a weekend and just talk, and share their concerns about what each side sees as the other's most dangerous and most provocative moves, and understand each other's point of view and what each other sees as risky or provocative, or where the dangers really are. I think it could be tremendously valuable; a number of other people have made the same suggestion. It would be easy to do. There are no great political costs involved. Why don't we do it?
Whiteley: Most of our analysis today has been on the interaction between the Superpowers and the scenario towards war. What about the twin dangers of terrorism and increased nuclear proliferation, the governments that don't have a history of caution that ultimately both the Russians and the Americans have had for nuclear weapons.
Smoke: Don't have a history of caution and may not have the money to build the kind of safety systems that the Soviets and the Americans have both built. It takes money, quite a bit of it, to render nuclear weapons relatively safe in terms of not being stolen, not being launched accidentally, not being launched without authorization. So all that takes quite a bit of money. Third World countries would not have it, very possibly would not have it. I worry about something that some people call the 'Third Bomb Event.' The first two bombs were Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What occurs if and when a nuclear weapon is used again, the 'Third Bomb.' And there are quite a number of experts who believe that some kind of nuclear use by perhaps a very small number of weapons, perhaps even one or two, by some Third World country, some set of players other than the Soviet Union and the United States, between now and the year 2000 is not so unlikely. One of the many important questions surrounding that is the question of what would the world's reaction be, both the immediate reaction and the longer term reaction. I could imagine such an event leading to a great acceleration of arms races, both the Soviet/American arms race and other arms races around the world to great acceleration, of further proliferation, of leading to additional countries acquiring nuclear weapons rapidly, perhaps leading to additional wars in which nuclear weapons were used.
Whiteley: In identifying the problem of achieving peace in a nuclear age as multi-dimensional, what do you want your fellow citizens to do differently.
Smoke: I believe that there is going on now, and will accelerate over the next several decades, a tremendous process of world change, of world transformation, which for the most part will be conducted and carried out not by governments in the lead but by governments in the back. That for the most part it will be conducted and carried out by non-government organizations, by citizens banding together in various ways, by a whole menu of possible initiatives that groups and even individuals can conceive and carry out, mostly transnationally, internationally across borders. I don't think in many ways that the cutting edge of global change over the next couple of decades is to be found in Washington and Moscow. I think it's to be found to a large extent in the heads of imaginative citizens who can see ways of banding together and, across national boundaries, to produce that change.
Whiteley: Professor Smoke, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the problem of achieving peace in the nuclear age.