Over at the Duck of Minerva, Patrick Porter takes issue with Kenneth Waltz's argument that it would be no horrible thing if Iran got the Bomb. Read those before you read this...
... So Porter's right about the trembling hand. But I don't think he's being fair to Waltz (and I'm not generally inclined to give Waltz the charitable reading, but the old man has a few points that Porter hasn't dealt with).
1. We're in probabilistic territory here. The question is not "would a nuclear exchange be horrible" or even "would the pursuit of more advanced weapons exacerbate some already-existing tensions". The question is "is the likelihood of bad outcomes higher or lower if Iran gets the bomb, relative to other feasible counterfactuals". In other words, we need to specify values for two variables: the probabilities for nuclear conflict and conventional conflict, and the likely cost of those conflicts. This is hard, but it's really the whole exercise. Suppose, over the next two decades, that there was a 1% chance of 10 million deaths from a nuclear exchange involving Iran, and a 30% chance of 1 million deaths from a conventional war involving Iran. If we had to choose between the two, we'd have to accept the possibility of a nuclear exchange as being objectively better. We don't get to choose "none of the above"... that's Waltz's point. Maybe you'd assign different probabilities and/or different costs to those outcomes, but the point is that Waltz is forcing us to be precise. It's not enough to just say "nuclear war would be horrible".
That's the whole reason why Waltz keeps citing India/Pakistan. Porter writes: "In the wake of 9/11, a Pakistani army general warned India that his country could launch a rapid nuclear attack, telling Alastair Campbell to remind the Indians: ‘It takes us eight seconds to get the missiles over.’ If this volatile frontier is a signpost of things to come in the Gulf, then the future is dark."
How so? It's been a decade since then, with no significant casualties. Tensions now are lower than they were before both states went nuclear, and the trend is in a positive direction. How is that a "dark future" relevant to feasible alternative scenarios?
2. Regarding missing Armageddon through luck... yes. And I agree that the trembling hand is not to be taken lightly. But it is not only present in nuclear exchange. Nuclear conflicts may be more likely to escalate more quickly than conventional wars -- although we don't really know, since it hasn't ever happened -- but other conflicts still escalate. Waltz's argument, which must be taken seriously, is that the very severity of a nuclear exchange mitigates the effect of the trembling hand. To use Porter's examples of close calls, the Soviet officers worked hard to dissuade their commander from firing nukes just in case it was a false alarm. The Kennedy administration held back in 1962 just in case there might be nuclear retaliation. They did these things precisely because nuclear war would be so horrible that they didn't want to chance it. At every knife-edge point we've had someone has made the decision that a nuclear holocaust would not be initiated by him. At every chance, the trembling hand has pulled back from the button. That observation does not mean that we'll always be so lucky, but it does imply that luck isn't the only factor in operation.
3. Suppose you disagree with my #1, and think that the probability of a nuclear exchange and/or the costs of one are higher than I've put down. If that is the case, then aren't you required to advocate for a pre-emptive strike against Iran? One can't have things both ways... either the risk of a nuclear Iran is acceptable or it is not. Porter doesn't make it clear where he stands on this question. But to criticize Waltz -- who does make it clear where he stands -- he must. Porter leaves the impression that Waltz is being flippant, but I don't think that he is. Waltz is making calculations. They may be "ahistorical" -- in fact they must be, since there is no history of mutual nuclear exchange -- and they may be based on Waltz's gut, but they are calculations nonetheless.
Waltz is right about one thing: there is a correlation between nuclear capability and peace. Perhaps the correlation is spurious. Perhaps not. But it is correlation, and it can't just be dismissed.
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Monday, August 6, 2012
Posted by Kindred Winecoff at 3:19 AM . Monday, August 6, 2012