Rationality and Nuclear Weapons: Revisiting Kenneth Waltz by Gideon Hanft

Read Waltz’s original piece: Is Kenneth Waltz Still M.A.D. About Nukes?

In the winter of 2000, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs interviewed Kenneth Waltz, the founder of structural realism. Waltz’s opinions on nuclear weapons are noteworthy, as he has long insisted that nuclear proliferation can help create peace. Describing the conflict between India and Pakistan, Waltz said, “Stability in the continent now exists; it had not existed since World War II and the partition of India and Pakistan. Now with nuclear weapons on both sides, India and Pakistan can no longer fight even a conventional war over Kashmir, as former General Beg [Chief of Staff of the Pakistani Army from 1988-1991] and former General Sardarji [Chief of Staff of the Indian Army from 1986-1988] both admitted.”

As a structural realist, Waltz’s beliefs are centered on the conception of states as unitary, rational actors. He argues that states seek survival above all else. This interest in survival leads policymakers and military officials to avoid nuclear war at all costs. As Waltz sees it, no regime can honestly believe it will survive a nuclear war, so mutually assured destruction creates a more secure environment. While the idea that the spread of nuclear weapons creates peace sounds counterintuitive, Waltz offers powerful support for this claim.  For example, although American officials claimed Saddam Hussein was irrational, Hussein did not strike Israel with lethal warheads during the Gulf War, displaying an instinct for self-preservation. Waltz also points out that although the Kim dynasty in North Korea has long been derided for unpredictability and irrationality, Kim Jong-Il and Kim Il-Sung have always stopped short of attacks that would risk the regime’s survival. Waltz even addresses the issue of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons, pointing out that terrorists have always had greater opportunities to inflict damage then they have displayed, and they have avoided such attacks. Nuclear attacks would not help a terrorist group’s image.  Waltz’s arguments are compelling. It is difficult to conceive of a situation where nuclear weapons would be used in interstate warfare. The potential costs are too great, while the potential benefits are minimal. While we often consider rogue states to be irrational, there is no evidence suggesting they are suicidal.

Waltz’s contentions seem quite prescient in light of the past decade. The Mumbai attacks in India which were linked to extremist elements in Pakistan created extreme tensions between the two powers, but the two nations refrained from the use of military force. After both the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, and an artillery strike on South Korean military installations by the North Koreans, there was no military response from South Korea or the United States. Despite fears in the aftermath of 9/11, there have been no nuclear terrorist attacks. The spread of nuclear weapons appears to have created a cold peace in several global conflict points.

However, the interview does not address a more pressing subject—the effect of nuclear weapons on rogue nation behavior. While it is extremely unlikely that nuclear weapons will ever be fired by North Korea, Iran or other rogue states, the possession of nuclear weapons enables these states to take more aggressive action without fear of international consequences. As North Korea’s recent conduct demonstrates, nuclear states seem to act with impunity on the world stage. The international community condemned the torpedoing of the South Korean vessel and the shelling of a South Korean island, but there were no major consequences for the North Korean government.

Until 2003, the Libyan regime was developing nuclear weapons. An Israeli airstrike in 2007 destroyed a covert Syrian nuclear program. Today these governments are collapsing, but would the Syrian and Libyan revolutions have achieved any sort of success if each country retained its nuclear arsenal. Waltz mentions that the US has never used military force against a nuclear power. Would we have been willing to institute a no-fly zone over a nuclear-armed Libya? Would the official US policy towards a nuclear-armed Syria be regime change? The debate over nuclear disarmament cannot be limited to a question of irrationality and deterrence. The spread of nuclear weapons may not cause nuclear war, but that does not mean it will not cause suffering and bloodshed.

Gideon Hanft is an online editor of the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs and a sophomore in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.