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MAD No More?

MOSCOW – Two years ago this month in Prague, US President Barack Obama put forward his visionary idea of the world free of nuclear weapons. A year ago, a new strategic arms treaty between Russia and the US was signed in the same city. Now the worldwide wave of support for a full ban on nuclear weapons, or “nuclear zero,” is being transformed into a debate about nuclear deterrence. Indeed, the four American strategists who first called for “nuclear zero” – Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry, and Sam Nunn – have partly backtracked, and are now calling for an end to the doctrine of “mutual assured destruction.”

Unfortunately, their suggestions for accomplishing this are unclear. Their only concrete proposal is asymmetrical cuts of tactical nuclear weapons by Russia and the US. But tactical weapons are not a serious threat to anybody. Moreover, Russia is not interested in reducing this part of its nuclear arsenal significantly. It needs such weapons to compensate psychologically for NATO’s preponderance – a reversal of the Cold War epoch – in conventional forces. More importantly, Russia considers these weapons insurance against the possibility of Chinese conventional superiority.

I firmly doubt the need to dispense with deterrence. After all, it worked successfully for decades: the unprecedented geostrategic, military, and ideological confrontation of the Cold War never escalated into open, head-to-head warfare. The existence of nuclear weapons also curbed the conventional arms race.

The most important function of nuclear weapons during the Cold War – though little spoken of at the time – proved to be “self-deterrence.” Of course, each side considered itself peaceful, and would not admit that it, too, had to be deterred. But the danger that any conflict could escalate into a nuclear confrontation prevented reckless and dangerous behavior on both sides on more than one occasion.