Nuclear Exchange

Ken Adelman thinks John Mueller is too dismissive of the nuclear threat.

John Mueller’s article rebutting nuclear hysteria ("Think Again: Nuclear Weapons," January/February 2010) itself becomes hysterical when deeming North Korea’s "couple of nuclear tests" as "mere fizzles" and the nonproliferation regime as "lash[ing] out mindlessly at phantom threats."

It’s an easy piece to deride, or even mock, but it does make a few key points.

One is the futility, if not silliness, of U.S. President Barack Obama’s dream of a world with zero nukes. Many otherwise serious, sensible, and realistic practitioners of national security — Sam Nunn, William Perry, George Shultz, even Henry Kissinger — have bought into this utopian vision.

As a fashionable end-of-career display of virtue and abiding concern for humankind, it’s understandable. As a real pursuit by a presidential administration or even an NGO with money and talent, it’s a big waste of time and money. Both are better spent on the serious security problems civilization now faces.

Second, Mueller makes the critical point that nuclear disarmament is proceeding much faster and more extensively than most anti-nuke advocates — including, ironically, U.S. President Ronald Reagan — imagined in the 1970s and 1980s. For the Russian and U.S. arsenals to drop from 70,000 to 10,000 is mind-bending.

So the Boris Karloffian gloom-and-doom background music on any drama about nuclear weapons is contradicted by the facts. The number of nukes is plummeting: good news. And the security surrounding them is improving: even better news. On the other hand, they are spreading: really bad news.

Mueller is wrong to be dismissive of North Korea and Iran getting their hands on the bomb. Sure, they might use it primarily for deterrence. But it’s us who would be deterred, which I sure don’t like. Saddam Hussein having the most primitive, poorly targetable nuke in 1990 would have deterred us from liberating Kuwait. That mad tyrant would thus have controlled Middle East oil (once the Saudi regime succumbed to his wishes, as it would have). A fearful prospect, made possible by nukes.

Mueller is spot-on when explaining how reducing nuclear weapons happens faster, easier, and smarter outside formal arms talks. I championed the notion more than 25 years ago, but the arms control crowd dismissed it fervently then, as it will Mueller’s provocative article now.

—Ken Adelman
Former Director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency
Aspen, Colo.

John Mueller replies:

I am happy to hear that Ken Adelman was championing the notion of the negative arms race on the inside 25 years ago. I was doing so on the outside — in the Wall Street Journal in 1988 and in this magazine’s winter 1989-1990 issue — obviously with the same lack of effectiveness.

But if the foreign-policy establishment rejected Adelman’s good idea then, it substantially embraces his terrible one now: that a nuke or two in the hands of a militarily weak regime gives it the capability to dominate its neighborhood. As noted in my article, the neighbor’s response to such a rocket-rattling rogue would not be to succumb in fear, but to join an alliance of convenience to oppose the threat — rather like the one that quickly formed against Saddam when he invaded Kuwait in 1990.

The confident assertion that Saddam could have deterred a military effort to liberate Kuwait with a "primitive, poorly targetable" nuke is equally questionable. Reliant on an army that had twice refused to fight for him, Saddam was not suicidal. And, as Colin Powell points out in his memoirs, even several, sophisticated, tactical nuclear weapons would be incapable of doing serious damage to a target like a dispersed armored division.

Interestingly, Adelman does not seem very concerned that Iran or North Korea might actually use a nuke or transfer it to others. Rather, applying the kind of thinking that got us into the disaster in Iraq, his message is that we must do everything possible (including killing a lot of people) to prevent those countries from obtaining the weapons so that we can more comfortably invade them later. This is not, I would modestly suggest, a promising approach for dissuading them from pursuing nuclear arms.

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