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Wednesday 21 Feb 2018 | 04:40 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 21 Feb 2018 | 04:40 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: The value of zero



8 July 2008 13:32

Rod Lyon responds to my critique of his op-ed on the dangers of total nuclear disarmament. My response follows:

For me ‘staying at zero’ is not a trivial concern. Breakout is most likely to occur when strategic tensions are high, perhaps even when conventional forces are going backwards in a war. Pressures for early direct use would therefore be high. Those pressures would be aggravated by the inherent vulnerabilities of tiny arsenals. 

I think the case you cite — Iranian breakout if the existing nuclear-weapon states had no nuclear weapons in today’s world — is not nearly as straight-forward as you think. The breakout dynamic is not confined to Iran and a responding state: the responding state begets its own breakout dilemma amid a host of fears by others of being left behind. 

Rod raises a good point about a nuclear-weapon-free world, which is that if a country is tempted to 'break out' and re-create its arsenal, the initial small size of that arsenal would encourage a 'use it or lose it' mentality. But the country conducting the break-out would have an incentive to avoid this vulnerability by protecting and hiding its small arsenal, which should not be too difficult a job. And the risk of break-out must be weighed against the advantages of a zero option. Most importantly, total nuclear disarmament would remove the single most direct threat to the survival of humankind. It would also eliminate the possibility of accidental or unauthorised launch.

Rod is right to say that an Iranian breakout could set off a cascade (no pun intended) of other countries that fear being left behind. But that's true right now, and as I said in my earlier post, the US, France, the UK, Russia and Israel could re-build small arsenals much faster than Iran could. So how would we be worse off if the US, Europe and Israel had only virtual nuclear arsenals? In fact, the West would have the distinct negotiating advantage of the moral high ground.

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