Analysis & Opinions - The Washington Post

Defusing The Nuclear Menace

| September 4, 1988

ARMS CONTROL has fallen off the nation's political radar in recent months. But it shouldn't. The world is as dangerous as ever.

U.S. and Soviet arsenals number over 50,000 nuclear weapons, most more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima; intercontinental ballistic missiles can deliver these destructive payloads in less than 30 minutes to any point on the globe. Even if a new START agreement were to cut the number in half, we would be left with a potential for explosive power and radioactive contamination that could actually threaten the existence of life on earth.

The current system seems plausible and acceptable primarily because of its familiarity. In fact, its major features were not deliberately designed but emerged over time as a consequence of technology, competition and piecemeal decisions. Under this system the great powers have enjoyed 42 years without general war -- a period twice as long as the time of peace following World War I.

But if the system should fail tomorrow, a survivor (perhaps on some other planet) would undoubtedly conclude that its collapse was as certain as was the coming of World War I. Had Archduke Ferdinand not gone to Sarajevo in 1914, some other match would have lit the fuse. So, too, a nuclear holocaust would seem an inescapable consequence of the security system the great powers created in the decades after World War II.

Reliance on nuclear deterrence -- the centerpiece of that system -- entails an ever-present possibility of catastrophe. Arnold Toynbee prophesied in 1948 that the nation-state and the split atom could not coexist on this planet. One or the other had to go.

We do not believe deterrence soon will fail. In U.S.-Soviet relations, the current nuclear postures have substantially solved the problem of deterring deliberate nuclear attack.

Yet it is hard to imagine that anyone would have chosen this world as a deliberate act of policy. It would have been regarded as too fanciful, impractical and dangerous. If utopian visions of a safer world are judged against the design of the world we live in, they may not fare so badly.

In our view, two paths together hold the greatest promise as long-run goals for policy makers and scholars to explore:

"Lengthening the nuclear fuse." This means changing the military forces of the United States, our allies and our adversaries enough to give the United States a credible conventional deterrent and only a modest residual nuclear force. A successful program for achieving this objective would rely as much on political and organizational changes as on technological innovation.

Political cooperation. A second path, entailing U.S.-Soviet cooperation, Soviet mellowing and Soviet decline, envisages a more fundamental, longer-term evolution of the U.S.-Soviet relationship.

The United States' nuclear strategy and the forces that have evolved to support it are remnants of a fundamentally different era. When U.S. nuclear forces and doctrine first began to take shape, there were no nuclear threats to American territory, forces or allies and no prospects for conventional aggression against the U.S. homeland. Our principal concern was the potential for Soviet conventional aggression in Europe. America's threat to meet such aggression with nuclear weapons was then a credible one, for we had both the means and the will to carry it out.

As the Soviet Union obtained a countervailing nuclear arsenal, however, the U.S. threat to meet Soviet conventional aggression in Europe (or elsewhere) with a nuclear response was slowly transformed into a threat of mutual suicide. It seemed more and more unlikely that a rational leader would take such action, and the threat to do so appeared less and less credible.

Yet the very existence of large numbers of nuclear weapons, their widespread integration with conventional forces in potential theaters of armed conflict, and the fragility of some of the systems for controlling their use create a danger of unintended nuclear escalation. The West should and can modify its strategy and restructure its forces in ways that reduce these dangers while maintaining adequate deterrence.

The first step is to achieve a conventional military balance that will permit reduced reliance on nuclear weapons to deter conventional aggression. Given Soviet geographical advantages, such reductions will have to be heavily asymmetrical. Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), for example, has suggested a trade of at least two U.S. divisions for more than 13 Soviet divisions in Europe. Negotiated reductions in conventional forces in Central Europe might be supplemented by qualitative improvements in the West's non-nuclear forces, to compensate for Soviet quantitative advantages. Technological innovations (such as smart weapons) should be a high priority. As the balance of conventional forces becomes more even, shorter-range nuclear weapons could gradually be withdrawn from potential areas of armed conflict.

The nuclear fuse can be lengthened further by reducing each side's incentives for a pre-emptive attack against the other side's nuclear forces and associated command, control and communication systems. Deep cuts in the nuclear arsenals of both superpowers (50 percent or more) can be designed in ways that will reinforce the stability of the nuclear stalemate. The command, control and communications networks associated with strategic and theater nuclear weapons, however, are less robust than the forces themselves. Strengthening these networks can add to the fuse.

Changes in U.S.-Soviet relations are even more critical. Any comprehensive vision of a world beyond MAD (the doctrine of "mutually assured destruction")must involve the political evolution of the U.S.-Soviet relationship to a point of significant superpower cooperation.

We need to understand better the limits on Soviet power. The Soviet centralized command-and-control economy is incompatible with successful advanced industrial development, inefficient in allocation and inept in incentives. In an era of rapid technological change, a measure of decentralization and free thinking may be prerequisites for success. Soviet economic growth slowed nearly to stagnation in the early 1980s. Soviet GNP is now approximately equal to Japan's, and only half that of either Western Europe or the United States.

The Cold War of the late 1940s and early 1950s was not merely a response to Soviet military power. Western Europeans and Americans also feared Soviet ideas and ideals, especially the possibility that Soviet communism could become an ideological firestorm sweeping Europe and Japan much as Islam spread in the 7th century.

   Today, communism's claim on the hearts and minds of those with the chance to choose is minimal. It is hard to find examples of states that have voluntarily chosen a communist system of government; it is easy to find many example of the converse -- as in Eastern Europe. Few observers in either the West or the Soviet Union today take seriously the prospect of communist ideology on the march.

The passage of time, interactions with the rest of the world and the spread of communications are making Soviet policy-makers more aware of the realities of the world outside. (During the Chernobyl crisis, many Soviet citizens listened to western broadcasts about the extent of radiation damage along with official Soviet statements.) Contact with the outside world erodes the dogmatism of official truth, undermines misperceptions and reduces paranoia.

General Secretary Gorbachev has put the point bluntly: Unless the deterioration of the past decade is sharply reversed, the Soviet Union will not enter the 21st century as a great power. The current Soviet leadership is much clearer about the failures of performance than about prescriptions. But it seems plausible that for some time, the Soviet Union will be preoccupied with internal affairs as it concentrates first on righting its economy through common sense and pragmatism; experimenting with degrees of openness, liberation and democratization; and downgrading its ambitions in the Third World.

Such circumstances, if wisely managed, could present the best opportunity of the postwar period to advance our interests and the cause of peace.

The twin visions of lengthening the fuse and political evolution are not only desirable but may actually be achievable. The fact that nuclear war is possible does not mean it is inevitable. If, through appropriate processes, the United States and Soviet Union can reduce the risks of nuclear war each year, then nuclear war need not even be likely.  Graham Allison, Albert Carnesale and Joseph Nye are at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. This article is adapted from their new book, "Fateful Visions," published by Ballinger.


For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham, Joseph S. Nye and Albert Carnesale.“Defusing The Nuclear Menace.” The Washington Post, September 4, 1988.

The Authors

Graham Allison

Joseph S. Nye