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  Nobel Laureates Plus



Thomas C. Schelling was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics for 2005. A professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, Schelling has long been active on nuclear-weapons issues. He spoke with Nobel Laureates Plus editor Nathan Gardels on Thursday, Oct. 27.

By Thomas C. Schelling

NATHAN GARDELS: There has been no nuclear war for six decades — mostly due to the Cold War balance of terror, or deterrence, as well as the “taboo” of universal moral revulsion.

However, as more and more players get the bomb — India, Pakistan and now perhaps Iran or North Korea as well as terrorist groups, and as the U.S. plans to build “bunker busters” for battlefield use — isn’t that bound to change?

THOMAS SCHELLING: The hope for the future rests on the fact that, despite plenty of opportunities to use the bomb in these past few decades — whether the U.S. in Korea or Vietnam, or Israel when Egyptian troops crossed the Suez in 1973, or the Soviets in Afghanistan — it wasn’t used.

This reality ought to impress India or Pakistan or anyone else who acquires nuclear weapons. By looking at these foregone opportunities, they will realize for their own case that using the bomb would incur universal opprobrium, if not bring devastation down on their own house.

By calling this record to the attention of the Iranian leadership in particular, I hope they will see that any actual use of nuclear weapons other than holding them in reserve for deterrence would cause them to lose any friend they have and multiply their enemies.

GARDELS: Iran is on the brink of developing a nuclear weapon. And now President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for “wiping Israel off the map.” Doesn’t this combination of capacity and intent call for Bush-style preemption instead of old-fashioned deterrence?

SCHELLING: I don’t think the ayatollahs or anyone else in Iran wants their own nation wiped off the map. They know that Israel has enough nuclear weapons and delivery systems to utterly destroy Iran in retaliation for any attack on Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. This would deter them. To hit Israel would be suicide.

GARDELS: And suicide bombing is not a tactic that works for nations or cultures.

SCHELLING: Absolutely. The Iranians are not stupid. I’m sure they are studying the history of the past six decades, and of the Indian and Pakistan bombs, to see what nuclear weapons are good for — defense and deterrence — and what they are not — actual use.

GARDELS: Deterrence and fear of opprobrium may work for those with rational geopolitical calculations, but what about the al-Qaidas or Aum Shinrikyos who are either nihilists or make their calculations in some metaphysical realm?

SCHELLING: I don’t know if deterrence fits somehow into their metaphysics, but these groups are not likely to have much physical competence. Aum Shinrikyo did a lousy job of trying to poison people in the subway. They don’t strike me as the kind of people who could put together a nuclear weapon if they had the fissile material. They might not be able to recognize if fissile material bought on the black market was really any good.

Most terrorist groups would have a hard time finding people who actually have the technical competence in making a bomb who would be willing to devote themselves to doing so — going off into seclusion, leaving their jobs and families for long periods and risk, in the end, being vilified as the bomb builder.

It is simply too hard to recruit topflight scientists, engineers and machinists needed to do the job. And if they were able to do that, they would have put together an intellectual team that would have a hard time submitting to terrorist goals. Once such a group managed to put together a bomb, they would likely find it too precious to use and instead try to leverage influence from its threatened use.

GARDELS: Doesn’t the stated U.S. intent to build a new generation of nuclear weapons, like the bunker buster that can be used on the battlefield, undermine the taboo that has kept the nuclear peace?

SCHELLING: The U.S. government ought to recognize the taboo is in its favor. I’m afraid a lot of people in the Pentagon think, “We are so rich in nuclear weapons, it is a shame not to use them.” They should learn we are so rich in people and infrastructure that we will risk losing that if we encourage others, by our own example, to look positively on the use of nuclear weapons.

That is why, among other things, it is important to get the United States Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty — not because testing is important, but because that treaty is a pillar of the taboo, another nail in the coffin of the idea of weapons use. The U.S., above all, should never say nuclear weapons should be used preemptively.

GARDELS: Well before Iran argued that global “nuclear apartheid” was unfair, the Indians made this argument in the long years they built up to testing. After the end of the Cold War, is there any justification for some to have nuclear weapons while others can’t?

SCHELLING: I don’t think the U.S. has a convincing argument against this Iranian charge of nuclear apartheid — especially since we’ve been allies of Israel for many decades knowing they have nuclear weapons. Although, the Iranians should recognize clearly the limits on Israel — even when it had the perfect target for tactical nuclear weapons of Egyptian troops as sitting ducks out in the Sinai desert in 1973, Golda Meir didn’t use them.

I don’t know if there is any way to stop the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons. If they do, we should try to persuade them to declare — as the Indians and Pakistanis have done — that they are for deterrence and defense, not for offensive use.

Further, we should assist the Iranians in making sure custody of their weapons are secure in any time of disruption. In the case of a riot in the streets, will the weapons be safe? Who might grab them in case of civil war?

It is important for the Iranians to understand — and have access to — technology like we have in the U.S. that disables bombs if they get into the wrong hands. U.S. weapons, for example, have “permissive action links”— a radio signal code that arms weapons but that will also automatically disarm them it if launched at an unauthorized target.

This will be a big dilemma for the U.S. If the Iranians get weapons, will we be willing to share the technology to ensure the security of their use? That is where the debate is heading.