Apocalypse Later

Apocalypse Later

by Author(s): John Mueller

In the previous issue of The National Interest, John Mueller argued that the threats from nuclear proliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear war are exaggerated. Now he gets the last word in the Apocalypse When? forum.

I WISH, first, to thank my distinguished detractors for their considered comments and, second, to register a few points of clarification, disagreement and dismay.

Dismay is the easiest. All three seem in various ways to want to detach quiet and methodical programs for securing Russian fissile material and improving the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—programs I am happy to support—from the more spectacular consequences of the nonproliferation obsession, particularly the Iraq War. But that war was principally packaged and sold as a quest to prevent or roll back Iraq's supposed nuclear development. As Francis Fukuyama has crisply put it, a prewar request to spend "several hundred billion dollars and several thousand American lives in order to bring democracy to . . . Iraq" would "have been laughed out of court." Similarly, the sanctions against Iraq, popular on both sides of the political aisle, were substantially designed to keep the evil, if pathetic, Saddam Hussein from obtaining a nuclear capability. Not bad goals, but in carrying them out, each venture inflicted more deaths than did the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs combined. Costs like that, I modestly suggest in my article, can reasonably be labeled "dire."

That's the kind of policy that logically (and actually) follows when nuclear non-proliferation is designated a "supreme priority" (Allison) or "our number one national-security priority" (Cirincione). It also follows that there should be wars against North Korea and Iran if diplomatic and other devices fail to rein in those countries' nuclear programs, wars that could easily engender the same calamitous human costs. Moreover, the intense hostility toward those particular regimes, due in considerable part to hysteria over what might conceivably happen should they obtain an atomic bomb, has had the perverse effect of enhancing the appeal of such weapons-for the sake of deterrence if nothing else.

To explain the remarkably slow pace at which nuclear proliferation has taken place, all three essays put a great deal of weight on the beneficial effects of the 1968 NPT. Indeed, Joseph Cirincione suggests that, without that document, there would have been a "nuclear wave", and the conclusion in the 1958 National Intelligence Estimate that a large number of countries might soon develop a nuclear capacity would have come true. (At the time, the same spooks were also estimating that the Soviet Union would have 500 intercontinental nuclear missiles by the early 1960s, an estimate that proved to be, shall we say, wildly off the mark.)

In contrast, I suggested in my article that most countries fail to pursue nuclear programs because they come to realize that nuclear weapons are dangerous, distasteful, costly and likely to rile the neighbors. Since any signatory can legally withdraw after giving suitable notice, I'm less willing to put so much stock in a piece of paper-and maybe Cirincione agrees since he suggests that the treaty would be no hindrance to a bunch of signatory states if Iran gains an atomic capability.

In his response, Graham Allison repeats his 2004 prediction of a nuclear terrorist strike within ten years. Applying arithmetical logic, the interval should perhaps now be shortened to seven years, but I'll leave that to others, since I'm still trying to internalize his 1995 declaration that "we have every reason to anticipate acts of nuclear terrorism against American targets before this decade is out." He marshals the testimony of others who (roughly) agree with his alarming estimate, but it seems to me that, as briefly outlined in my article, the difficulties confronting the would-be atomic terrorist are monumental—and consequently likely to be profoundly dispiriting to any terrorist with a brain.

There are literally dozens of major hurdles, all of which must be conquered. Even if the terrorist stands a fifty-fifty chance of overcoming each of these, the chances of ultimate success—that is, of coming up with and successfully setting off a bomb that would be, as Allison puts it in his book, "large, cumbersome, unsafe, unreliable, unpredictable, and inefficient"—are almost vanishingly small. As Christoph Wirz and Emmanuel Egger, two senior physicists in charge of nuclear issues at Switzerland's Spiez Laboratory, have said, the construction of even a simple bomb is difficult, dangerous and extremely exacting; the technical requirements "in several fields verge on the unfeasible"; and the task "could hardly be accomplished by a subnational group." I have much expanded my argument and presented it as an academic paper.1

Allison suggests I am a "committed contrarian." Let me refer to my past works to see how my "contrarian" predictions have held up.

In 1967—before the NPT cast its awesome spell—I argued that, contrary to the overwhelming wisdom of the time, the pace of proliferation was likely to be slow. In 1986, I proposed that, contrary to the overwhelming wisdom of the time, the Cold War might well be coming to an end. In 1989, in my book Retreat from Doomsday, I suggested that, contrary to the overwhelming wisdom of the hysterical 1980s, major war—war among developed states—might not recur (so far, so good, on that one). Finally, in January 2003, I protested that a war in Iraq would supply terrorists with new recruits, inspire them further and provide them with inviting new targets in the foreign military and civilian forces occupying a defeated, chaotic Iraq.

My newest prediction is that anyone who managed to get past the first paragraph of my "Radioactive Hype" article would forget that "I consider dissuading more countries from obtaining nuclear weapons to be quite a good idea and preventing terrorists from getting them to be an even better one." I seem to have scored three for three on that one.

I have nothing against making nonproliferation a high priority. I would simply like to top it with a somewhat higher one: Not killing hundreds of thousands of people in the service of worst-case scenario fantasies.


John Mueller is a professor of political science at Ohio State University and the author of The Remnants of War (Cornell University Press, 2004). His most recent book, Overblown (Free Press, 2006), concerns exaggerations of international threats, including the one presented by terrorism.


Click here to read the other responses in the Apocalypse When? forum on nuclear proliferation.

1 It and several other "contrarian" items are available at http://polsci.osu.edu/faculty/jmueller/tnistuff.html.

Essay Types: Essay