Nuclear proliferation and unpredictable behaviour


I’ve been following the analysis and commentary in the press this year about North Korea’s development of nuclear programme.  I haven’t followed it obsessively; it’s been more of a watching brief.  As the rhetoric has escalated over the last few days, I’ve had a growing sense of unease, put in context by an essay by Tony Judt.

The essay is Why the Cold War Worked (details at the end of this post).  Having seen the title, I was expecting to find reference to nuclear weapons early in the piece, but they don’t get a mention until the penultimate paragraph – as one of the new elements that resulted in the Cold War being different from anything that had happened in Europe before 1945.  Politicians couldn’t look to pre-War models and solutions to problems because there was now the potential to cause extensive destruction and immense loss of life so quickly and with a single missile.

Tony Judt notes that it took politicians, including US policy makers, many years to learn that nuclear weapons were strikingly unhelpful as instruments of statecraft.  In contrast to spears, they really were only good for sitting on.  He goes on to say (and this is the bit where I sat up and read it again):

Nonetheless, as a deterrent device a nuclear arsenal has its uses – but only if both you and your opponent could be convinced that it might, ultimately, be deployed.

Behaviour of the five nuclear-weapon states has, generally, been regarded as predictable, particularly since the end of the Cold War.  But when another country acquires nuclear weapons or carries out nuclear tests – Pakistan and India in the past; North Korea more recently – there’s a concern that the new member of the club won’t understand that these weapons aren’t to be used.

So, what happens if a country convinces others that its nuclear weapons capability might, one day, be deployed?  What impact does that have on the balance of power and statecraft – and on public rhetoric?  Is that country bluffing?  Does having nuclear-arms capability make that country more confident about using – and more likely to use – non-nuclear weapons?

And what if the behaviour of one of the acknowledged nuclear-weapon states becomes more unpredictable – perhaps through an unpredictable leader being in power?  Tony Judt’s essay provides insights, but little comfort.


Why the Cold War Worked appears in When the Facts Change by Tony Judt.  It’s a review of We Now Know:  Rethinking Cold War History by John Lewis Gaddis and The Conninform:  Minutes of the Three Conferences 1947/1948/1949, edited by Giuliano Procacci.  It first appeared in The New York Review of Books in October 1997.


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