The problem with the MAD doctrine

It is not immediately obvious why nuclear proliferation is a bad thing. After all, if the United States and the Soviet Union did not face the possibility of mutually assured destruction (MAD), the Cold War may well have turned very hot. Nuclear weapons spared us the countless deaths of a third World War. As prominent American journalist Fareed Zakaria explains: ‘Great powers went to war with brutal regularity for hundreds of years. Then came nuclear weapons, and there has not been a war between great powers since 1945 – the longest period of peace between great powers in history.’

Even the one time use of nuclear weapons in World War 2 can be seen as – in a very qualified sense of course – desirable, in so far as President Truman’s decision resulted in fewer deaths then had the United States invaded Japan. In Asia, Pakistan and India used to have periodic military skirmishes. They haven’t since both went nuclear. Following this quite reasonable line of thought, Zakaria argues that a nuclear Iran is not as threatening to international security as many have assumed. He points out that Iran’s clerical leaders value staying in power and wouldn’t irrationally launch a nuclear missile. The US could ‘live’ with a nuclear Iran as it did with the Soviet Union.

Now Zakaria may be right that the particularthreat from Iran has been exaggerated; but he ignores the cataclysmic downside risk of a nuclear world, in general. Yes nuclear weapons reduce to almost nil the possibility of conflict but the outcome of any war that does occur is potentially apocalyptic. This risk is inescapable. Deterrence is only effective if you think the other party are prepared to use their weapons. Nuclear states then get naturally caught up in a form of high stakes brinksmanship with their rivals: they have to pretend they’re always willing to press that red button. And as the Cuban missile crisis showed, there is always a chance – however small – that this brinkmanship can push us all off the edge. So yes nuclear proliferation is a very effective peace strategy but also a very risky one.

The argument made here is very similar to that made about exotic financial securities by Nassim Taleb in his highly renowned book, the Black Swan. Before the financial crisis, financial securitisation appeared to reduce the risk of financial losses greatly. Yet inherent in the adoption of these instruments was the small possibility of huge financial loss. It is not for nothing that the great American investor Warren Buffet has referred to financial derivates as ‘weapons of mass destruction’.

The argument in favour of nuclear deterrence only makes sense in a world where we have successfully rode our luck. It would not if the West had experienced even a small scale nuclear war in the twentieth century. (Arguably neither would I be able to write, or you read, this article if there had been a large scale nuclear war) It’s time to try less risky modes of securing world peace. This means that the long – term goal for the Middle East, as in all other regions, should be nuclear disarmament or non proliferation. The caveat of course is that this should eventually apply to all states in the region: Iran, India, Pakistan and Israel included.



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