Nuclear weapons remain a stumbling block in international relations. Tensions have been building over the Iranian nuclear program and could lead to a new war in the Middle East. The West and Russia might again find themselves eyeing each other across a barricade. This could damage relations for years to come.
Nuclear weapons remain a stumbling block in international relations. Tensions have been building over the Iranian nuclear program and could lead to a new war in the Middle East.
Sergei OZNOBISHCHEV, director of the Institute of Strategic Assessments and section chief at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IWEIR RAS) shares his views on the future of nuclear weapons in the new century with the website of the Valdai International Discussion Club.
What new functions have nuclear weapons acquired in the 21st century? Are they still a deterrent or something entirely different?
As I see it, nuclear weapons have been rapidly losing the “stabilizing” power (such as nuclear containment, the Cold War) they were credited with. No matter how we interpret this power, it did maintain peace and world security at a certain level. Of course, there were nuclear crises that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war (the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. – Ed. ), but luckily nothing else approached that level of danger. Therefore, we can say, somewhat theoretically, that security was sustained by the confrontation between the superpowers.
While in the past nuclear weapons acted to restrain the superpowers, today we have a totally different geopolitical picture of the world. The spectrum of challenges and threats has changed radically, which is acknowledged by everyone, especially the nuclear powers, but little is being done to modify the security paradigm. Nuclear weapons continue to weigh heavily both on the Nuclear Five (the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and China. – Ed. ) and the entire system of international relations. The possession of nuclear weapons by the “select few” tempts other powers to join that “elite club.” Some would give up the quest for nuclear weapons at an early stage, while others keep trying. Unfortunately, international experience shows that possessing nuclear weapons is still an “indulgence” of sorts and a safeguard against aggression. Gaddafi is a prime example. Had he not dismantled his nuclear program, NATO wouldn’t have interfered in the Libyan civil war. If Yugoslavia had had nuclear weapons in 1999, NATO might not have bombed it. Yet another important aspect of nuclear weapons is that they generate a nuclear psychology and a nuclear ideology, which, in turn, generate a standoff like the Cold War.
For a huge number of people, nuclear weapons are essential to their continued prosperity. They have a stake in keeping up the threat and constantly seek it out elsewhere. These people, who we can call the Military-Industrial Complex (MIC), understand each other well and, paradoxically, even “cooperate” in stoking the nuclear threat. I saw such paradoxes with my own eyes. For example, I can identify signs of Cold War ideology and MIC pressure in the hysteria surrounding the United State’s missile defense project in Europe.
When referring to nuclear security, we mostly mean strategic nuclear weapons. But we often forget about tactical nuclear weapons whose possession, incidentally, is not regulated by any international agreements. Should some international or bilateral treaties be signed to regulate the tactical nuclear weapons of the nuclear powers, in the interests of nuclear security?
I don’t see tactical nuclear weapons as a big problem. The issue is somewhat exaggerated by the West, but that is their problem. Arms control talks are based on the rhetoric and logic of bargaining. In this format, Russia certainly has an ace up its sleeve. According to available Western sources, we have many more tactical nuclear weapons than the Europeans or the Americans. So far we have been holding onto this ace. We must wait for an opportune time to trade it for something important.
Something important for me is a feeling of security, which comes when there is no one around you stoking tensions. The prevailing feeling of instability has been largely fomented by the media. We rely to a great deal on feelings, which are irrational. It’s not simple to get to the core of nuclear security problems and see whether TV and radio accurately present reality. We are faced with subjectivity. The feeling of insecurity comes from the atmosphere fostered by the media. Cold War tropes are repeated to this day.
How do you propose to resolve the dispute over the Iranian nuclear program?
The ultimate resolution remains elusive, but a number of reciprocal concessions are possible. Unity is the key for dealing with this problem, but so far it is the individual interests of states that have prevailed. It is necessary to find points where interests overlap.
How do you assess the outcome of the nuclear security summit in Seoul? Can we say that it helped strengthening the non-proliferation regime?
The states have certainly made some headway, and now they even have a roadmap for nuclear security. Oddly, however, the summit, which was held in Seoul, totally avoided the problem of the North Korean nuclear program, but there were, of course, clear political reasons for doing this. This is a very important point. They also refrained from discussing Iran and did this quite consciously. In some respects the summit achieved progress, but not on the issues that could soon divide the world – first and foremost, I mean the Iranian crisis. The West and Russia might again find themselves eyeing each other across a barricade. This could damage relations for years to come. This, in turn, would have a negative impact on our efforts to solve the non-proliferation problem.