Shellenberger Is Wrong About Proliferation

My friend Michael Shellenberger recently published an article in Forbes titled: “Who Are We To Deny Weak Nations The Nuclear Weapons They Need For Self-Defense?”    

The article’s “takeaway” – seems to run as follows: “nuclear armed nations don’t get invaded because their nuclear arms deter potential invaders.  More nuclear armed nations will be able to deter more potential invaders. More deterred aggression means more peace. Ergo, more nuclear armed nations mean more peace.  In the interest of this peace, and the opportunities to improve human welfare that accompany it, “strong nations”, i.e., those already possessing nuclear weapons should abandon the hypocritical and imperialistic non-proliferation framework, and allow “weak nations” the “Nuclear Weapons They Need For Self-Defense”.  

Finally, somehow – the article never makes clear how this happens – the elites in nations that will acquire nuclear weapons, by virtue of that acquisition, will end up having “skin in the game” that they did not have “in the game” before.  Having this “skin in the game” will somehow motivate these elites to treat the “poor and weak” better.

From Shellenberger’s article you would conclude that, for any “weak nation”, or for the “poor or weak” persons within such nations, things are bound to improve with acquisition of nuclear weapons.  So, for humanitarian reasons, the imperialistic nations and hypocritical people standing in the way of that acquisition should get out of the way.


The article’s contentions are falsified by the article’s logical untenability, things it got wrong, and things it left out.  While Shellenberger’s willingness to take controversial positions has often been valuable, a “contrarian” view is not always right just because it is contrarian.  

Deterrence requires pre-conditions that do not automatically come into being just because a nation has nuclear weapons.

Deterrence is the principle behind the international relations theory of “mutual assured destruction” (“MAD”).  Basically, it goes like this: attacking me virtually guarantees your destruction, so you are deterred. The principle of deterrence is simple, and familiar to anyone who felt relieved of a threat by notifying the grade school bully of your big older brother nearby on the playground: the potential that aggression may well provoke devastating consequences deters the aggression.  When two adversaries both possess this ability-to-deter, the resulting stalemate is peace.

Where the theory applies, it’s a good theory.  The United States and Russia deterred each other from direct aggression during the “long twilight struggle” of the cold war and continue to deter each other.  No matter how close they came, or how many wars they fought by proxy, the potential consequences of direct aggression have been too high. India and Pakistan have avoided major war, but not all war, with each other since Pakistan achieved rough parity in nuclear weapons.   

But the fact that deterrence works in some circumstances does not mean that removing barriers to acquisition of nuclear weapons will result in generalized deterrence and stability.

“Weak Nations” is a bad category. 

Lumping all non-nuclear armed countries into a category called “Weak Nations” is a “category error” because it obscures important differences between nations without nuclear weapons.    

Nations, like people, vary.  They also do things for their own reasons, not the ones outside analysts might prefer or project.  

“Weak nations” – those currently without nuclear weapons – are not necessarily motivated to get nuclear weapons for “self-defense”.  Nothing prevents a relatively “weak nation” from deciding it “needs” nuclear weapons as a tool to deter rivals that neither have such weapons, nor are positioned to acquire them. It is reasonable to expect that, if barriers are lifted, the first countries to get nuclear weapons would be countries that both have capacity to develop the weapons and that see advantages from doing so.  There are advantages other than balancing leverage with an already-existing nuclear power. For example, South Africa’s motivation for acquiring nuclear weapons seems to have been the desire to preserve its internal status quo – the system of racial segregation known as “apartheid”.

The France-Germany example doesn’t fit.

The article opens by recounting a memorable scene from a Quentin Tarantino movie: Jews fleeing and hiding from Nazi terror are discovered and murdered by Nazis.  It then recounts the terrible fate of French Jews under German occupation and French collaboration.  The purpose of all this, and the odd presentation of the article under photographs of young children, appears to be to generate sympathy for the article’s analysis by implying that the imposition of these horrors on innocent and vulnerable people could have been avoided if only “weak” France had possessed a nuclear weapon: "The Germans felt comfortable invading France because they knew the French lacked [deterrence]”.   

The “comfort” Shellenberger claims the Germans felt about invading France did not exist. German war planners were extremely worried.  As they should have been. 

There are lots of reasons that things came together for a speedy German victory in 1940.  Some had to do with luck, e.g., decisions that prevented intelligence about Germans massed in a vulnerable position prior to invasion from being timely communicated or intelligently interpreted.  Some had to do with being in the right place at the right time, as a matter of planning.  Some had to do with bold unconventional strategy.  Some had to do with tactical innovations.  Some had to do with technological advantages, e.g., in battlefield communication.  Some arose from improvisation – some of Germany’s most striking military successes in the campaign were achieved by commanders violating orders.  

None of these had to do with France being a “weak nation”.   Hitler expected to lose a million soldiers in the invasion of France.  He was convinced at times during the invasion that the military effort was on the brink of disaster.   Contrary to American right-wing mythology – which often seems unable to camouflage an unseemly adulation of what is seen as Nazi efficiency and determination – many French units fought hard and well, often achieving success in battles where forces were evenly matched.  If one reads a lot of books on French history and the history of the conflict, as I have, it seems fair to conclude that, overall, the Germans had the balance of luck, technique, technologies, and preparation, and the French and their ally, Britain, fell hard for a strategic deception.  A combination of luck and errors left the democracies without the resources to mount effective resistance in locations that would have conferred other advantages on them.  When things fell apart, the will to fight quickly dissipated.  

Despite all of this, it is not hard to conceive ways the battle of France could have, with a few different decisions before the conflict or a few different decisions within it, and a different balance of luck, turned out much differently.

Aggressive militaristic nations are probably more likely to seek nuclear weapons first if the non-proliferation framework is lifted.

Posing the hypothetical question of what would have happened if France had a nuclear weapon in 1940 also begs other hypothetical questions:

What if Germany, instead of France, had had the nuclear weapons capability?

 Or both?  

Of these potentialities, the first is more plausible.  Germany aggressively sought a nuclear weapon. It might well have had one before the United States, but for its efforts being frustrated through a combination of intelligence, determination, bravery and luck.  It is reasonable to expect militaristic nations oriented toward aggression to be the “first movers” if impediments to getting nuclear weapons are lifted.   Countries they target for elevated aggression may simply be unable to acquire one. Possession of a nuclear weapon can increase an aggressor’s confidence that it can proceed with little risk. Consider what might have happened if South Africa had had regional aspirations in addition to a desire to maintain its racist status quo.  

If Germany and France both had nuclear weapons in 1940, it cannot be said with certainty that Germany would have been deterred.  For deterrence to work, adversaries must possess roughly symmetrical abilities to impose unacceptable consequences on the other’s aggression and roughly symmetrical inhibitions about risking those consequences.  The measurement of an “acceptable” consequence is made in the mind of the party contemplating aggression. Nothing about removing barriers to accessing nuclear weapons means adversaries will obtain them symmetrically or have roughly symmetrical inhibitions about using them.   Nor does having nuclear weapons entirely prevent nuclear armed nations from waging war on each other. India, and then Pakistan, demonstrated their competing nuclear capabilities with tests in 1998, and fought a “conventional” war in 1999.

In 1940, France, which had been in a declared war with Germany since September of the previous year, but had done little, was less warlike than Germany.  It seems more likely that France – which declared Paris an “open city” and surrendered it without a battle in an effort to preserve its citizens, cultural treasures and beauty from the ravages of German bombs – would have been the first to blink in a confrontation.   By way of contrast, the thought of sacrificing Germans and Germany never seemed to much perturb Hitler. He wasn’t the type. He was the type to gamble on aggression working out even when he knew his situation was precarious; see: Munich; Czechoslovakia.

The evidence indicates that it is autocracies that have sought or developed nuclear weapons over the last 50 years, and that they have done so to enable autocrats to better position themselves to retain control and gain leverage.   Authoritarians seeking military advantage cannot always be counted on to act rationally. Freeing up restrictions on nuclear weapons broadens the range of nations likely to have them, and individuals likely to control them.  This increases the risk of bad outcomes.

Gaining access to nuclear weapons does not encourage elites to treat the “poor and weak” better.

The Article’s argues that having nuclear weapons makes nations "more peaceful over time” and this produces benefits for the “poor and weak” in the nuclear armed countries.  Supposedly, these benefits arise because of pressure other nations exert on the new nuclear nation. In other words, the contention depends on the notion that, instead of insulating a nation from interference through deterrence acquiring nuclear weapons increases the pressure on it.  This pressure puts the ruling elites of those nations to have “skin in the game” and having that “skin in the game” motivates those elites to treat "poor and weak" citizens better.   Thus, we “should be glad” that North Korea has nuclear weapons. Presumably now that the North Korean elite has accomplished this “deterrence” they will have “skin in the game” which will lead them to treat the "poor and weak" better.   This is an odd claim. In 1964 Pakistan’s leader, surveying India’s nuclear weapons development, stated that “"if India builds the bomb, we will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own."  It is not elites who would be sacrificed to “eating grass” to advance a nation’s nuclear weapons development.

For the notion that nuclear weapons make nations more peaceful, the article cites the greatly reduced chances of dying in a war in the nuclear age.  It does seem reasonable to attribute the lack of major wars between the world’s leading powers to deterrence. Deterrence works with rational actors.  An alternative explanation, presented in this critique of Shellenberger’s article, is that the reduction in deaths from may simply reflect a cyclical trend, or may be because of other reasons, such as increased interdependency.  Irrespective, the decline in war deaths the world has experienced occurred in a framework in which leading nuclear weapons powers generally worked to deny nuclear weapons to nations that did not have them, i.e., the “hypocritical” and “imperialist” framework Shelleberger derides.  Since the decline in war deaths occurred within that framework, it makes no sense to attribute the decline to a policy that would do away with it.  


Nor is better treatment for the “poor and weak” within nuclear armed nations identifiably linked to their acquisition of nuclear weapons.  South Africa sought nuclear weapons to protect its institutionalized racial segregation. The brutalized citizens of North Korea have not had their lot improved because their dictator gained nuclear capability. Iraq’s effort to acquire nuclear weapons seems to have been aimed as much at regional hegemony as self-defense.  Iran’s failed effort – so far – seems to be aimed at further cementing the power of its religious autocracy.  Having nuclear weapons may be entirely rational from the perspective of retaining power as an autocrat, but this is does not mean it confers benefits on the “poor and the weak” who are dominated by those autocrats.

Atoms for peace, not for war.

The article seems to presume that if the nuclear non-proliferation framework is eliminated, nuclear capabilities will be quickly equalized through some kind of dystopian Oprah episode in which “YOU get a weapon, YOU get a weapon, EVERYBODY gets a weapon!!!”.  The resulting equalization of capabilities will lead to peace, kind of in the vein of the NRA slogan that “an armed (international) society is a polite society”.

This is, quite obviously, not how proliferation develops.  Allowing ready access to nuclear weapons likely spreads them first to relatively strong nations that are already feeling international pressure, likely because of disturbing human rights records, hegemonic ambitions, or both.  It may be hypocritical to try to deny nuclear weapons to autocracies that aspire to them, but these nations themselves can be “imperialist”, i.e., aspiring hegemons seeking to dominate their neighbors.

By introducing the possibility that a neighboring nation may seek nuclear weapons, making such weapons broadly available disadvantages nations that prefer to spend their resources on development instead of militarization.  There are good reasons for nations not to want to be pressured into a nuclear arms race with aspiring hegemons. As President Eisenhower pointed out, elevating commitments to weaponry and war-readiness creates, within a society, a constellation of institutionally benefitted parties that then wield influence to sustain or expand those benefits and direct national resources to themselves.  Nor does the possession of nuclear weapons end the competition for military advantage that demand a nation’s resources. As Eisenhower also pointed out, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”  Forcing the weakest nations to compete for nuclear weapons to keep up with stronger and more aggressive neighbors is a recipe for harming the “poor and weak”, not helping them.

Eisenhower’s solution to the dilemma of having something so powerful as nuclear weapons available to human beings was to first recognize the underlying scientific knowledge is not going to be erased.  The energy available from manipulating atoms is just too compelling. Sophisticated nations are going to use it and develop associated technologies. Genies do not go back into bottles. Eisenhower’s strategy was to manage the spread of nuclear technology by focusing its use into peaceful nuclear power, which would be made available with conditions and under supervision that would impede the broad deployment of nuclear weapons, so that our species’ “miraculous inventiveness” would be “consecrated” to life, not dedicated to death.

The term “consecrate” has powerful connotations.  It means to “make or declare” something sacred, committing it to a high purpose.  Historically, this has been a “divine” purpose. Shellenberger’s previous association of a “transcendent moral purpose” with nuclear energy was consonant with this view, but not the same.  A “transcendent moral purpose” inheres in the thing itself – something perceived, not created. “Consecrating”, on the other hand, is something people choose to do.  One does not have to be religious in a traditional sense – or religious at all – to want nuclear technology “consecrated” to its potential to provide massive amounts of power to uplift peoples’ lives, spread the comforts of civilization across our species, and help us lower and reverse adverse impacts on our planet’s other species and ecosystems.   

So, to address the rhetorical question posed in the title of Shellenberger’s article: Who are these “hypocritical imperialists” that want to deny nuclear weapons to “weak nations”?  I suggest that they include a lot of people who don't want autocrats to get nuclear weapons, who don’t want nations forced into regional nuclear arms races, who want nuclear technology directed towards human welfare, and who want no-one, ever again, to die in a nuclear war.  

Implementing a non-proliferation framework across decades, and, hopefully, centuries, is harder than abstractly contemplating the lofty vision invoked in Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech.  But despite the vision’s shortcomings, the framework has been reasonably successful. Nuclear energy is the only non-emitting form of power capable of operating as the cornerstone of a worldwide clean energy system.  Lifting the non-proliferation framework would only compound the difficulties of realizing that benefit.