Victor Davis Hanson: Obama's Nuclear Naivety

Roundup: Historians' Take

[NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.]

The Obama administration has celebrated its recent efforts to sign a nuclear-weapons accord with Russia and the hosting of a nuclear non-proliferation summit in Washington — all silhouetted against grandiose promises to seek the end of all nuclear weapons on the planet. But from all this, what real progress exactly have we made toward ensuring a world safer from the specter of nuclear annihilation? Aside from the wording of proposed treaties and proclamations, what are the larger philosophical assumptions behind the new utopian approach to non-proliferation?

First, nuclear weapons per se — regrettable though they may be — are not exactly the problem. None of us is terrified that a democratic Britain, France, Israel, or India possesses them. While we might prefer that major autocracies like China and Russia were not nuclear, we do not at present fret about a first strike from either, given that both are invested in, and profit from, the global system of trade and commerce — and, in their more aggressive moments, are subject to classical laws of deterrence.

Second, if any state is intent on mass murder, there are chemical and biological mechanisms that might be cheaper and more accessible than nuclear weapons. Far more people have been killed by machetes since Hiroshima and Nagasaki than by nukes, but we could hardly have stopped the violence in Rwanda by a worldwide ban on edged weapons. The utopian wishes to ban the six-shooter; the realist, the gunslinger.

So the problem is not nuclear weapons, but who has them — in particular, the degree to which an autocratic, renegade country seeks them either to threaten rivals, or to blackmail the world. We worry a lot about a nuclear Pakistan, are especially disturbed over a nuclear North Korea, and are terrified that Iran may well become nuclear. Their nuclear status earns them undue attention, money, and even deference from the United States — which they might not have garnered had they not been actual, or at least potential, nuclear powers.

So if we are to have a summit on non-proliferation, we should either insist that Iran and North Korea are there, or ensure that their outlawry dominates the agenda. Anything else is merely a photo-op, the equivalent of the grandstanding federal functionary citing the harmless, mostly law-abiding citizen for his misdemeanor while he timidly ignores the felonies of the dangerous hard-core criminal.

Third, an ancillary to nuclear non-proliferation should be strong support for democratization. A world of 20 or so nuclear powers is scary; a world of 20 or so dictatorial and autocratic nuclear powers is terrifying. The Obama administration has loudly caricatured the supposed neoconservative fantasies of George W. Bush, but at least the Bush administration grasped that the promotion of constitutional government was of value in discouraging first use of nuclear weapons.

In this context, it is especially regrettable that we have recently reached out to the dictatorship in Syria, despite its proven record of supporting terrorism and the spread of nuclear missiles while trying itself to obtain a nuclear program. President Obama’s failure last spring and summer to support the Iranian dissidents was even more regrettable; the end of the theocracy is the only real way, short of the use of force, of increasing the likelihood either that Iran will not obtain a bomb, or that a future democratic government might, South African style, give up nukes that a prior regime had obtained.

Finally, the Obama administration is talking of eliminating nuclear weapons entirely. Unfortunately, I cannot think of a single deadly new weapon that ever disappeared by fiat...

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Arnold Shcherban - 5/4/2010

Hanson as usual - chauvinistic, misleading, and wrong.
Just take one of his assumptions that he chooses as a premise for his charged against those who are not "we" or with "us" conclusions: "we" don't fret at the knowledge of India or Pakistan's having nuclear weapons.
That's not, unfortunately, what "we" know about the mutual feelings of Hindus and Pakistanis on that matter or Chinese and Hindus...
But they and other of "us" are not "we", according to Hanson. They and those other are not important, and not just as their opinions or feelings are concerned, but potentially lives, as well.
I'm not already mentioning the respective and total absence of fear in "our" hearts towards the most forbidden topic in nuclear discourse:
the Israel's huge nuclear arsenal.
Apparently, the Arab countries of Middle East and Palestinians are more afraid of flood in Tennessee than of these toys in in the hands of peace-loving democrats that never hurt anyone (unless deservedly so.)
Please, tell me, folks, how can I make all that money that Mr.Hanson does for writing such a chauvinistic nonsense and insult to elementary intelligence.

Randll Reese Besch - 4/30/2010

Along with India/Pakistan nominal democracies but still lethal. Don't forget the USA in that litany. Right now it is the democracy of the USA that is killing millions for years in countries all over especially in Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, & Afghanistan just to start with. So this fallacy of a "democracy won't be the first to attack, be aggressive" is either naive or a propaganda point well believed. In history it has been shown to be a-historical.

Stephen Kislock - 4/30/2010

Israel, is not a Democracy!

Israel,is the most scary Nuclear Power (WMD) on the face of the earth.

Joe Biden, would gladly let MILLIONS Die, so Israel would not be bothered by the damn PALESTINIANS!

Astaea, has been blinded and Muted, by the joe bidens' of the u.s. government