Persistent nuclear background noise

As the summer is drawing to a close, the pressure around North Korea’s nuclear power is monopolizing attention (as is Iran’s request, to a lesser degree). Their lead correspondent being the United State’s, the world’s biggest nuclear power. But in the beginning of summer, we remember the resignation of the « C.E.M.A »(Chief of the general staff headquarters of the Armies) during a budget related controversy due to, amongst other things, the renewal of our strategic nuclear arsenal.

Let us not forget that the nuclear issue is a passionate one, and that from Hiroshima to Fukushima to Chernobyl, it rouses the sciences as much as consciences.


So where does our reluctance, nay our overall hostility for the exploitation of the atom come from? The answer is well known: From it’s first use which was a military one, and a tragic one.

The military use of the atom stems from the great scientific adventure of the 1920’s that was then put to use by the military necessities of the 1940’s. The atomic bombs that were then dropped on Japan revealed the unequalled power of unbridled nuclear energy, but also indefinitely branded it with the hallmark of inhumanity. Indeed, the atomic bomb combines power and lethal lasting damage, never before seen with another explosive. As no shield can protect from it’s effects, no war based on an exchange of nuclear strikes was therefore winnable in a useful way.

Thus, after 1945, the emergence of the atomic bomb  contributed to the progressive change in the way we wage wars now. If the victors of 1945 made war illegal with the U.N Charter, the atomic bomb made it unwinnable and those that had it, untouchable.

The dynamics of strategic nuclear deterrence progressively developed on this basis at the end of the Second World War to then establish itself at the heart of the strategic equation of the Cold War. Then it was perverted in the world in crisis that succeeded the bipolar balance of terror.

Like cyclone Irma, there was first a rise in power in 1945, then a period of full throttle in the 60’s followed by a slow decrease since the 1990’s. Today we are achieving a progressive decrease and probable crumbling.

However, strategic nuclear armament still remains an instrument of invulnerability for Pyongyang whose threatened regime is looking to enshrine.

For Paris who is ready to pay a steep price to keep it, it has become not only an indicator of it’s rank, but also the bedrock of it’s security.

So now is a good time for La Vigie to address three sensitive issues, three substantive questions: What has become of strategic nuclear deterrence? What does North Korea’s obstinacy to possess a strategic nuclear arsenal mean? Is it not time for France to learn to do without nuclear energy?

Let’s delve into these issues succinctly.

What has strategic nuclear deterrence become since the Cold War ?

Put simply and going straight to the conclusion : it’s lost part of its relevance in regulating today’s polycentric world in which states are no longer the only war entrepreneurs. But its drop shadow on the organisation of a world in crisis retains a rather positive effect on the hampered globalization that has replaced yesterday’s bipolarity.

Let’s look at it step by step.

At the heart of war, there has always been a struggle for freedom of action : To guarantee our own, hinder as much as possible that of our opponents and, no matter the circumstance, to keep the initiative to serve our own interests. It’s the basis of strategy, previously and now, even if battle tactics are continuously renewed by technological advances.

But discouraging our rival from acting, stalling our competitor, dissuading the adversary from seeking victory, making our enemy doubt his ability to achieve it, making him give in, is as the grand Chinese master said, the mark of a great strategist. It is methodically applying the first principle of war, the precise one that makes freedom of action the key to strategic authority and to the ability to weigh heavily enough on the enemy’s will to deprive him of it. Such is the dynamic of deterrence, an art as old as man. This is also how intimidation is practised, a deliberate affront on the adversary’s will, to neutralize it.

To achieve the profitable strategic end of rendering the battle useless, to install supremacy without battle, and to impose one’s will without destroying useful resources, the surrounding circumstances must be favourable. We can try to develop them with tactics of direct defiance and confrontation, like those in games of chess, or by indirect tactics of suffocation or by burying the game from the get go. This is indeed « going all out ».

To win, you must clear the field for decisive causalities. In any case you need at least some common ground, a dialogue between competitors or adversaries. A dialogue of sufficient rationality that the successive episodes can lead to useful dialectics, with simple rules that brings forth sufficiently predictable behaviour from the involved parties.

The messages that are then sent back and forth between rivals use coded signals to boast about the complex strategic game that forms the pillar of deterrence. These signals play a central role in the dialectics of the opposing wills by offering all the more landmarks of resolution and ability of the actors. Deterrence hereby passes through the exchange of these somewhat public coded signals that make, by the convincing evocation of unacceptable effects, the perspective destruction present enough to keep it virtual and thus useless. This is known in Pyongyang as well as in Washington.

It’s this mechanical strength of strategic deterrence that erstwhile had the decisive effect of neutralizing direct combat between the Superpowers of the Cold War. It showed the key role played by nuclear weapons in the progressive freeze of combat that went as far as making war impossible between the Atlantic Alliance and the Warsaw Pact. It was wrongfully labeled « the non-war ». It was very much a war, just a war with no direct combat.

Despite obvious shortcomings, this partial strategic nuclear order, combined with the globalization of the market and a nuclear energy control agency, the IAEA in Vienna, has channeled tensions between the Superpowers and produced a certain strategic stability.

The shadow cast by nuclear weapons has contributed to the feeling of security. Who can deny it !

The balance of terror was disrupted after the Cold War. Indeed, a drift combining the effects of annihilation by the atom of the inter-state war and the quest for invulnerability by aggressive powers in search of nuclear sanctuary, played a large part in the period of permanent crisis that followed the Cold War. This vicious cycle, triggered  at the end of the era of strategic bipolarity, was amplified bit by bit by the limitations of the fight against nuclear proliferation and lead to the bypass of deterrence with the eruption of strategic terrorism in 2001. We discovered that the strategic nuclear order, that allowed for the Cold War to conclude without going in to pitched battle did not eliminate the cause of the stand off or the military conflict. Especially in those states that are fragile and unstable, where the wealth is coveted  and the population is struggling to develop. It only managed to halt the outbreak of battle where a legitimate nuclear powers interests or its geostrategic order weighed in the balance.

It was also understood that the political legitimacy awarded to the 5 « nuclear-weapon states » (per the definition given by the NPT) was weakened by the tolerance of 3 de facto nuclear powers and strongly contested by budding regional powers like Iran and North Korea. These two states known as « rogue » professed to acquire their strategic autonomy despite international pressure stating that nuclear proliferation was a breach of international peace and security and thus fell under the notion of collective self defense that the U.N Charter stipulated.

With all this in mind, can we get rid of nuclear weapons ? Because that is what president Obama was proposing and what the promoters of Global Zero are now demanding. Can the imperfect order of nuclear power be replaced without risk by an equivalent alternative that still deters war ?

This legitimate question warrants an in depth answer. We have our doubts but lets lay out the arguments.

  • We can’t really see what regulating body would have a military superiority sufficiently intimidating to freeze any imperial projects on a local, regional or planetary scale.
  • A world order, or failing that a regional order would require procedures for persuasion, formal notices, sanctions, warnings and neutralizing the rebellious, to which the international society would have to consent to. Are we ready for that ?
  • Intimidation tactics carried out in the name of an international police would have to be delegated to States established as central powers, to the exorbitant authority  of international law. This would then be an unacceptable challenge for the budding powers.
  • Should we resume the race for conventional armament for the strategic authority of these police states to be unchallenged ? Should we replace the threat of nuclear retaliation with that of a conventional preventative or punitive high tech intervention ? Would it even have the same deterring effect ? Such an option would bring about an unacceptable imperial new order.
  • Should we not just leave to the disruptive state – if it’s crazy enough to attack an established power –  to the intrastate or transnational troublemaker that advances concealed, the uncertainty of the weapons they will face and the risks they must weigh ?

So what should we do with this deterrence stance designed for another age ? Embarrassing legacy, morally debatable infrastructure, this regulating nuclear reality, that was objectively useful to the balance of the Superpowers of yesterday, between them and the emerging powers, is today beneficial to aggressive dictators.

As of now, the dialectics of wills confronts the developed countries of yesterday with the awakening powers of today, and the transverse stakes that are emerging. Channels of rivalry are multiplying between them, as are the subjects of critical strategic dialogue. The diversification of the indicators of power and of vulnerable spaces has deeply changed the methods of deterrence and the signals they reveal. The range of possibilities for friction and of conflict resolution has opened up so much that a global approach of the terms of practice of deterrence now requires a large scope of interdisciplinary studies involving political science, law, economy, sociology and engineering.

So now we’re left with the embarrassing question of nuclear proliferation.

Should we rage war to better forbid it, to preventatively block the process ? But is it not first and foremost the message it conveys that’s preoccupying, more so than the way it develops, that can always be detected, slowed down, countered ? Are there not already « virtual » quasi nuclear powers, whose technological nuclear expertise constitutes a powerful deterring shield ? Is this « on the verge of nuclear » stance not always better for a threatened state than security guarantees given by others or areas devoid of nuclear arms ?

Striving against proliferation is not only countering a plan by force (bombing) or by ruse (Stuxnet), it’s also rendering the plan useless and secondary. It is therefore the maintenance of powerful common stakes between competitors to which globalization can provide now more than ever.

The military shade cast by the nuclear weapons of legitimate States has to stay strong, and the uncertainty persist as it is the foundation of dialectic deterrence. No one can deny the inhibitory power of the nuclear weapon on predatory wishes or can correctly evaluate it for that matter.

Therefore why should we do without ? Because we don’t know how to replace it or who should exercise the regulatory authority. How can we use this decisive tool for the benefit of global governance ? And in the name of which community (Cf. LV77) ? Is it not therefore prudent to keep it at a minimum level ? Because there is this ongoing globalization in which different actors are going against eachother for durable prosperity, and a fairer distribution of riches that no-one can dissuade their rival from seeking.

The strategic nuclear status quo is a powerful request of collective wisdom. It is, until further notice, the more reasonable option to regulate tension between States, those with and without nuclear power. Even if the erstwhile distress has faded, the house of cards of international balance is still far too fragile to recklessly shake things up.

We are now broaching a new phase of deterrence, of which warmongering North Korea (like the constant Iranian demand) and the renewal of France’s stock, are tracing contrasted outlines.

Once all this is spelled out, it becomes easier to address the two other questions in this post about the current nuclear background noise.

So why this North Korean addiction to a strategic nuclear arsenal ?

North Korean warmongering and their very thunderous staging of ballistic and nuclear tests seem incongruous if we ignore two key factors : the signature of deterrence as we’ve discussed it here and the apparent weakness of the Pyongyang regime. We know the attractiveness of a sanctuarizing strategic nuclear arsenal by the invulnerability that it provides to states whose regimes are fragile. They become untouchable.

It is indeed the case for North Korea whose political model is unusual, a mix of retrograde Maoism and provocative warmongering (cf. LV 69 The Koreas).

It’s precisely this intrinsic weakness that is felt in Pyongyang who knows they are threatened namely by the colour revolutions who wanted to change the regimes of countries that inherited the ideological imperialism of old. It was often the case from Cuba to Chile, from Georgia to the Ukraine. It did not take more than that for Pyongyang to feel the need for aggressive sanctuarisation that we see today. This is what alerted international consciences and triggered threats from America.

No need to object to the fact that Pyongyang legally withdrew from the NPT to join another club, that of the de facto nuclear states, Israel, Pakistan and India with which the United States and members of the P5+1 make do. No need either to mention that the NWS (nuclear weapon states) have exempt themselves from the obligation set by the NPT to decrease their nuclear arsenal until disarmament. Even less need to point out that Moscow and Beijing, heirs of the Soviet and Maoist eras and « legitimate » NWS are not against seeing the United States and their European assessors embarrassed by the strong objection to a western governance of the atom.

Should we fear a nuclear war ? The demonstrations of North Korea should be watched closely. For now it clearly appears to be the creation of an experimental nuclear arsenal for demonstration purposes. As of now, there seems to be no need for a permanent nuclear positioning or to constitute a significant stock of miniaturized weapons embeddable on missiles. China, who has fewer nuclear weapons than France has taken this direction and continues to do so. The effect achieved was enough to be untouchable. (Cf. 17/08 post : North Korea-US : nuclear bluff)

So no exchange of nuclear fire as long as prevails rationality which is the hallmark of nuclear asset possession. Nuclear power does not make he who masters it insane. The complete opposite of what is portrayed in the media, it tends to calm down and drive him to speculate on the political rather than military value of his investment.

The only thing left is the risk of collective mishaps or perverse provocations by a third party. Possible, but not likely. Salutary uncertainty…

Can France do without nuclear power ? Can we renounce the bomb ?

This is the third issue raised in this post. To the first question, a simple answer but that needs to be carefully argued by rewinding a bit.

Where does this French passion for the atom come from ? From the combination of great scientific research and the acute need for strategic autonomy.

Indeed we are the spoilt heirs of the Cold War atomic era. Electronuclear power as well as military nuclear power are part of France’s scientific and technological excellence. Save for considering the atom as intrinsically perverse, it is justifiable for France to strive to garner its considerable internal liaison power and take advantage of it. A peaceful advantage mind, to contribute to its own development and that of the planet. But also to use it to guarantee its security. Traumatised by its collapse in 1940 and warned by the abandonment of its allies during the SUEZ crisis in 1956, it constituted an independent atomic fighting force for itself that was operational at the end of the 1960’s. But France was also mindful of its freedom of action and its rank on the security counsel of the United Nations.

Why should France now renounce the bomb ? To indulge Germany, who has renounced all manner of use of the atom, including electric generation and has abided by the strategic nuclear deterrence of the Atlantic allies ? To take shelter under the American umbrella ? To save money ? To show our political virtue and trigger a generalised disarmament movement by leading by example ?

Once our initial investment has been recouped and adequate sufficiency achieved, we must simply maintain our position and guarantee the possibility of a foolproof attack. Such is the case today and no one can question the technical ability and operational aptitude of the strategic nuclear forces of France.

Is there an urgent need to renew our nuclear fleet ? Admittedly the optimisation of the military nuclear production line prompts us to start in 2018 the implementation of the 3rd generation of our nuclear forces. But the strategic precariousness of France on a socio-economic and security level first requires a jump start to these key areas.

So let’s start by making France viable before revamping our deterring arsenal, that there is no serious need to renounce in the world of uncertainty that we’re facing today.


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