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Vol. 15, No. 2, 2016
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the new calculus



Louis René Beres is Professor of Political Science at Purdue University. He is author of many books and articles dealing with international politics. His columns have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, The Jerusalem Post and OUPblog (Oxford University Press). This article originally appeared in U.S. News & World Report.

Foreign ministers from the G-7 recently ended several days of talks in Hiroshima, Japan with John Kerry's visit to the atom-bombed city the first ever by an American secretary of state. In an interview with the Hiroshima-based Chugoku Shimbun newspaper, Kerry reaffirmed President Barack Obama's preference for "a world free of nuclear weapons," a preference that was repeated by Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. The foreign minister indicated, also, that this core objective would become part of a pertinent "Hiroshima Declaration."

In principle, of course, such an expressed hope for worldwide nuclear disarmament sounds utterly welcome and benign. In fact, however, it is dangerously naive, neither plausible, nor desirable. Taken seriously as policy, it could lead the United States and certain of its most fragile allies to substantial (and possibly even existential) harms.

On this conspicuous hope and "profession of goodness," President Obama's basic error is intellectual and analytical, not political. This incorrect reasoning stems from his seemingly visceral correlation of military nuclear capacity with genuine evil. Such correlation, in turn, is rooted in the president's stubborn presumption that nuclear weapons, precisely because of their unique power of destructiveness, are inherently "bad."

History, however, deserves pride of place. After all, the past instructs us that atomic arms are not per se destabilizing or war-mongering. On the contrary, in many volatile and perilous circumstances – and this is surely something that Mr. Obama should have already learned, from the Cold War – nuclear weapons can be peace-enhancing and altogether good. Very purposefully good.

Here, one may be more pointedly precise. Although likely counterintuitive to uninformed laypersons, nuclear weapons can actually prove indispensable to international equilibrium, stability and war avoidance. But why?

There is a compelling answer. Sometimes, in complex strategic matters, truth can emerge through paradox. It is true, of course, that any further nuclear proliferation would be more or less intolerable, and that such spread should (at least generally) be contained. Still, there are particular nation-states in our anarchic world system that simply could not survive in our global "state of nature" without maintaining some recognizable and persuasive forms of nuclear deterrence.

Israel is the single most obvious case in point.

Should the Jewish state ever have to face its myriad enemies without some form of nuclear deterrence, whether more fully disclosed or still "deliberately ambiguous," its long-planned annihilation by these relentless foes would be hastened and expanded. Indeed, this potentially unprecedented situation could exist, even if all of these enemy states were to remain non-nuclear themselves.

More than any other state on earth, Israel requires nuclear weapons just to stay alive. Whether unacknowledged or more fully disclosed, their coerced exchange for any high-sounding promises of peace through nuclear disarmament might represent the start of another Jewish genocide. To be sure, this conclusion is not merely disingenuous bluster or meaningless hyperbole. It is, rather, the inescapable result of a logical and dispassionate strategic analysis.

War and genocide need not be mutually exclusive. Significantly, this important observation is strongly reinforced by well-documented 20th-century history. Both the Holocaust (World War II) and the Armenian genocide (World War I) should come quickly to mind.

Concrete proposals for a "Nuclear Weapon Free Zone" in the Middle East, while alluringly "pro-peace," also ignore the obvious. Should Israel, in any badgered compliance with pressures from Mr. Obama or with his underlying strategic philosophy, begin a process of prompt or gradual denuclearization, nothing of any decisive military consequence would ultimately stand in the way of more-or-less coordinated Arab and/or Iranian attacks. In war, in all war, as Prussian military theorist Clausewitz commented, "mass counts."

Without its presumed nuclear weapons, appropriately configured and suitably recognizable, Israel's needed capacity to deter major aggressions could disappear.

President Obama probably means well. Nonetheless, it is imperative that he now be willing to look fairly and analytically beyond his stubbornly-idealized visions of a new world order, and also more precisely and concretely at palpably real theaters of expected conflict. From the particular standpoint of Israel, which ought never place its physical survival in the hands of the United States, what is required immediately is plain.

There must take place a continuous, comprehensive and systematic re-examination of the country's fundamental nuclear posture and corresponding strategic doctrine.

When, sooner or later, Israel is forced to defend its essential posture and doctrine from both insidious and naive calls to join a regional "nuclear weapons free-zone," Jerusalem should already have available a thoroughly lucid and convincing explanation of its intended refusal.

What would happen if Israel, for whatever reason, were to relinquish its nuclear options? Under such portentous circumstances, Israel would not only become more vulnerable to enemy first strikes, it would also be deprived of its always-essential preemption options. This is the case because Israeli counter-retaliatory deterrence would be immobilized by reduction or removal of its nuclear weapons potential, and because Israeli preemptions could never be 100 percent effective against enemy unconventional forces. Naturally, a less than 100 percent level of effectiveness could be tolerable if Israel had a fully "leak proof" anti-tactical ballistic missile capability, but no such capability is technically achievable.

Whether President Obama should agree or disagree, all nuclear weapons states are not created equal. Some, like Iran, even after the July 2015 Vienna agreement, could sooner or later present a threat of nuclear aggression. Others, like Israel, need nuclear weapons and associated doctrine simply to stay "alive." Without these weapons of deterrence, Clausewitz's concept of "mass" would quickly overtake and suffocate the tiny Jewish state, a country with less mass than America's Lake Michigan.

Israel's nuclear weapons are needed to fulfill essential deterrence options and, perhaps more residually, certain counter-retaliatory options. These weapons, it follows, could prove necessary, inter alia, to make any large-scale Israeli preemption "cost-effective," and should never be negotiated away, especially in the midst of any still-misnamed "peace process" with a so-called "Palestinian Authority." This survival imperative remains in force, no matter how appealing the idealized Obama vision of a "world without nuclear weapons."

In the final analysis, regrettable as it may appear, the ultimate structure of Israeli security must be built upon the foundations of nuclear weapons and strategic doctrine, not on "security regimes," "confidence building measures," or "nuclear weapon free-zones." Significantly, and on this point President Obama and Secretary Kerry should take careful note: If these foundations are constructed thoughtfully in Jerusalem, they could best assure that there will never be another Hiroshima in the Middle East.


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