Yesterday evening, Hoyas for Liberty alongside the International Relations Club, Georgetown Global Zero, Georgetown Up to Us, and the Georgetown Roosevelt Institute hosted a discussion entitled “The Future of Armageddon: The US Nuclear Arsenal in the 21st Century.” The panel consisted of four academics in the field of nuclear security: Chris Preble of the CATO Institute, Baker Spring of the Heritage Foundation, Georgetown’s own Keir Lieber, and Ambassador Richard Burt of Global Zero. Moderating the panel was Georgetown professor Matthew Kroenig. Just the four panelists alone shed light on the diversity of views that make contemporary nuclear policy such a contentious field of debate.
As a brief background, in 1945 the United States was the first nation to use nuclear weapons when it dropped Little Boy on Hiroshima, followed by Fat Man on Nagasaki. These incidences were the only time nuclear weapons have been deployed in war to date. After that, nuclear weapons were central to the bipolarity in the Cold War between the United States and USSR. Most recently, after the September 11 attacks, people are increasingly worried about what would happen if rogue states, like Iran or North Korea, or terrorist organizations, like Hamas or Al Qaeda, were to acquire nuclear weapons.
Nuclear debate today thus centers on many questions. One question is how the United States should credibly deter other countries from attack and what it should do if deterrence fails. Another is if the costs of building a nuclear arsenal and defenses are worth it. A third is an overarching question of if nuclear weapons are too dangerous or immoral to keep at all.
Each panelist held a different slightly different stance on these questions, which displayed a surprising amount of diversity.
For example, the first question to the panel was what each expert believed the general purpose of nuclear weapons were today. All four agreed in general that nuclear weapons are intended to deter but had disagreements on the minutia.
Preble began the panel off by stating that having a credible second-strike and a smaller first-strike was sufficient for deterrence. Second-strike capability is the ability for a nation to absorb a nuclear attack and retaliate. This retaliation is usually pretty destructive, including annihilating whole cities. Opponents are deterred from attacking because the costs from second-strike would be too high. First-strikes, in contrast, are to preemptively disarm the opponent before it can attack by striking military targets, such as airbases for nuclear bombers. This is intended to avoid civilian damage.
Spring instead fully supported strong first-strike capabilities, bringing up the point that authoritarian nations had totally different acceptable costs than democratic nations, which emphasize protecting its civilians far more. Deterrence through second-strike would thus not work.
Ambassador Burt argued, contrary to both Prebel and Spring, that nuclear weapons were not necessary anymore. He stated that nuclear weapons had historically been the “most important symbol of great power,” but now power, as in the example of China, is from geoeconomic strength instead. He also opined that the difference between solely civilian and solely military targets doesn’t exist in real life because the collateral damage of a nuclear bomb is so detrimental.
Lieber rounded out the panel by refuting the idea that nuclear weapons were solely symbolic. He pointed to historical example and argued that the United States previously championed nuclear weapons because it did not think it could defeat the USSR through conventional military and wanted nuclear weapons to compensate for conventional inferiority. Now, as a superpower, it condemns nuclear weapons when conventionally weaker nations follow the same logic. Lieber concluded that “in the end, because our adversaries need nuclear weapons, so do we.”
Such differences characterized the rest of the debate. Preble, Spring, and Lieber all provided strong arguments of deterrence theory, but Burt seemed to rely more on practical applicability from experience instead. Burt served in a direct role in diplomatic negotiations, most importantly as chief negotiator of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) signed in 1991, which implemented the largest reductions in nuclear weapons by the United States and the USSR at the time. He made a point of this experience when he asked the other panelists “I don’t know how many of you guys work in government, but I’d like to see you go into the Oval Office and ask the President to authorize a nuclear test.”
The debate overall, as expected of one that would be hosted by the School of Foreign Service, delved well into terminology and theory. As Kroenig noted, the various opinions indeed “raised many questions for the audience and panelists.” Unfortunately, there was very little discussion on the morality of nuclear weapons, although that would probably have been a completely different debate. Burt also had to leave early, and as a result, there was less clash than Vox would have liked on the idea of totally ridding the world of nukes.
As a much less technical closing observation (because what would Vox be without seemingly unrelated social commentary), there was a disappointing lack of women on this panel, and given that nukes (the study thereof, not the usage) is such a sexy field, Vox wished to have seen women on stage fighting it out.
Photo: Claire Zeng/Georgetown Voice