After alleging that Russia violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, U.S. President Donald Trump has said he will pull out of the agreement. This isn’t the first time the U.S. made such allegations. Former President Barack Obama also claimed that Russia breached the treaty by deploying certain cruise missiles, but he chose not to withdraw from it under pressure from European nations. Trump is less sensitive to European sentiment and, therefore, has decided to terminate the agreement. The Russians, meanwhile, claim that they are not in violation of the treaty and that the U.S. charges are irresponsible.
Many have speculated that this could lead to an arms race, which raises the question of what exactly the value of nuclear treaties is. Such agreements usually limit the number of missiles a country can possess, govern the range they can fly and restrict testing of new weapons. Many believe treaties that place limits on nuclear weapons reduce the threat of nuclear war. But that assertion is hard to defend. Whether or not the Russians place a particular missile in a particular place has no effect on whether nuclear war is launched. The United States and Russia, along with a number of other countries, have the ability to strike any point on the globe with nuclear warheads of various yields. If Russia were to launch a nuclear weapon at Western Europe, countless numbers of people would be killed in an event that would likely set off a catastrophic nuclear exchange. Which vehicle the Russians used, or whether it was launched from western or central Russia, becomes immaterial.
During the Cold War, strategists on both sides sought to develop models for the use of nuclear weapons. In the early days, these strategists were frequently physicists like Bernard Brodie and Herman Kahn. As nuclear delivery systems evolved in the 1950s, the military wanted guidance on how to use them. On the very dubious assumption that the scientists who knew how to build nuclear warheads also had insight into how to wage a nuclear war, they were pressed to devise strategies. This was the task of the Rand Corporation in its early days.
In 1960, just a year before leaving the Rand Corporation, Kahn wrote a pivotal book called “On Thermonuclear War,” in which he tried to lay out a nuclear strategy. He was deeply embedded in systems analysis, which seeks to create a rational structure and a predictable model of behavior. In this case, the system that was being analyzed was the nation-state. Its internal structure is political and, therefore, does not act rationally in the sense that systems analysis thinks of rationality. War originates in politics, and politics consists of complex forces that aren’t easily modeled.
The result was a strategic theory that diverged from political reality. It assumed that the primary goal of the system was the survival of sufficient weapons to counterattack the enemy. The early models of nuclear war were based on a use-it-or-lose-it principle, which meant that both countries would seek to unleash all the weapons they had in sudden and catastrophic spasm. Later, the models became more and more complex and fairly detached from what was then called conventional war.
For the nuclear strategists, the key was a survivable arsenal that could react to a first strike. But to politicians on both sides, the use of nuclear weapons was impossible because virtually any number of missiles striking their country would have a catastrophic result. More important, the modeling of nuclear strategists regarded a certain level of nuclear detonations as acceptable so long as the enemy’s forces were annihilated. But civilian leaders had no trust in the predictive models of the nuclear strategists. Their view was that there was no acceptable number of casualties, and no one really knew what would happen in a nuclear war anyway.
This thinking played out in the Cuban missile crisis, when it appeared that nuclear war was imminent. In fact, while the strategists had prepared options for political leaders, neither the Soviets nor the Americans were prepared to use them. Both sides extricated themselves from the situation based on the idea that the nuclear option was a myth. There was no nuclear option, only nuclear calamity. Put another way, the systems analysts were right and the political system rationalized once nuclear weapons became involved. In the 1950s, people were convinced that China would launch a nuclear war once it had nuclear weapons because Mao was crazy. He may have been, but once he had nukes, he stopped making threats.
At the time, there was a belief that the more nuclear weapons a country had, the greater the threat of war was. Out of this belief came a movement to sign treaties – including the INF Treaty – that would limit existing nuclear weapons and the testing of new ones. But the problem with this approach was that it didn’t eliminate an adversary’s weapons completely, it just reduced them. And even 50 warheads hitting the U.S. would still be disastrous.
The rational response was to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether. The problem with that theory was that the physical existence of nuclear weapons wasn’t the real threat. The real threat rested in the minds of scientists and engineers who knew how to build these weapons. So long as they exist, the threat of nuclear war exists.
The possibility of nuclear disarmament was comforting but illusory. The real barrier to nuclear war was the realization by politicians that they were themselves at ground zero, as were their children and grandchildren. Where old men who decreed war would not die in a conventional battle, in nuclear war, personal annihilation was the most reasonable outcome.
Treaties did nothing to prevent nuclear war. What really prevented it was the fact that nuclear weapons created a systemic rationality in which the end result was the elimination of political leadership. The U.S. attack on Japan is still the only time nuclear weapons were used because even in attacking a country that has no weapons, leaders can’t predict how it would turn out.
The fear of nuclear war prevented nuclear war. Where the Russians place their missiles may be irritating, and reason enough to abandon a treaty. But the idea that a treaty can mitigate the threat of war simply misses the point.