A new nuclear pessimism
19 Dec 2017|

The ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific recently published a small volume of essays titled Nuclear Asia. With North Korea’s nuclear exploits featuring prominently in the headlines over the past 12 months, the issue is certainly topical. And in the 17 essays that make up this volume, the ANU’s editors have tried to ensure both a broad range of subject matter and a diversity of opinion among their authors. But there’s an undeniable bleakness to many of the contributions. Indeed, it’s a publication intended to worry the reader. It explores a number of unsettling trends. And, as Michael Wesley makes plain in his opening chapter, the ‘main purpose [of the current volume] is to try to bring the dangers of these trends much more public and policy attention’.

True, there are nuclear dangers in Asia. Still, they need to be set alongside the strengths of the Asian nuclear order—the overall story isn’t one of unrelieved gloom. Since the late 1990s, the concept of a ‘second nuclear age’ has helped to paint a depressing picture of Asia’s nuclear dynamics. It portrays—in sharp contrast to the first nuclear age—a world of multiple nuclear players: some impoverished or inclined to ready use of weapons of mass destruction, few with robust conventional forces or reliable systems for command and control, and many driven by nationalism rather than game-theory logic. The second nuclear age, forecast Paul Bracken, would see ‘fire in the East’.

That might yet prove right. But so far, it hasn’t. If we’re going to get an accurate picture of the Asian nuclear order, we need to balance that portrayal with an understanding that other forces are also at play. Asia’s nuclear order turns heavily upon the notion of voluntary self-restraint. That restraint can be seen in the general slowness of Asian nuclear programs, their small arsenal sizes, the relative absence of nuclear arms races, the recessed character of most Asian deterrence settings, and the fact that most Asian nuclear-weapon states are still developing countries with economic priorities.

The essay by Brendan Taylor and David Envall—on why the arms-race model doesn’t fit well in today’s Asian nuclear dynamics—is a sober and nicely constructed piece that does pay appropriate regard to the stabilising features of the regional order. Their chapter hews rigorously to a close definition of ‘arms racing’ and is measured and thoughtful—a useful reminder that even though voluntary self-restraint’s under pressure, a valuable residue remains.

So why is the overall mood so much darker? North Korea is obviously a major part of the answer. Kim Jong-un hasn’t looked self-restrained in 2017. The pace and scope of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs have been deeply troubling. But President Trump has also contributed to the darkening of the nuclear mood, and the statements of some senior figures in his administration have done little to dampen concerns.

The overall effect has been to make more immediate a set of worries which had previously been seen primarily through a more abstract, academic lens. For example, several of Nuclear Asia’s authors take exception to the fact that advanced conventional weapons are increasingly intruding upon the nuclear realm, with destabilising consequences. The claim’s true, of course. Ballistic missile defences, long-range precision-guided munitions, and offensive cyber operations are making strategic nuclear balances complex and escalation ladders complicated. But if we’re ever going to see nuclear disarmament, conventional weapons have to take over those key deterrence and defensive missions now performed by nuclear ones. Keeping the realms separate—and how do we do that exactly?—isn’t going to work.

Besides, accepting the inevitable intrusion of advanced conventional weapons into the nuclear realm is part of the cure for the affliction that Tanya Ogilvie-White, in her essay, labels ‘nuclear fatalism’. Nuclear fatalism, she argues, reflects a mood of growing resignation that nuclear weapons are going to be around indefinitely, that disarmament diplomacy is feckless and nuclear war inevitable. If that’s the definition, I’m not sure I know many nuclear fatalists. Sure, nuclear weapons won’t disappear anytime soon. But arms control remains a valuable exercise—not least in helping to ensure that nuclear war isn’t inevitable.

Despite the new nuclear pessimism, we shouldn’t succumb to a counsel of despair. The Asian nuclear order is stronger than it looks. The complexities of greater interaction between the nuclear and conventional domains have an upside—they’re the inevitable product of a strategic environment in which nuclear weapons have a smaller role. And the human race is not doomed to inevitable nuclear extermination. But—and this is a big but—neither have strategic competition and war disappeared from the world. The struggle for geopolitical pre-eminence and first-mover advantage continues. Strategy is not dead.

It’s been a challenging year for those keen to promote the broader nuclear ordering project. Let’s hope 2018 brings better tidings.