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If America Splits Up, What Happens to the Nukes?

Summary:
Opposition to American secession movements often hinges on the idea that foreign policy concerns trump any notions that the United States ought to be broken up into smaller pieces. It almost goes without saying that those who subscribe to neoconservative ideology or other highly interventionist foreign policy views treat the idea of political division with alarm or contempt. Or both. They have a point. It’s likely that were the US to be broken up into smaller pieces, it would be weakened in its ability to act as a global hegemon, invading foreign nations at will, imposing “regime change,” and threatening war with any regime that opposes the whims of the American regime. For some of us, however, this would be a feature of secession rather than a bug. Moreover, the

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If America Splits Up, What Happens to the Nukes?Opposition to American secession movements often hinges on the idea that foreign policy concerns trump any notions that the United States ought to be broken up into smaller pieces.

It almost goes without saying that those who subscribe to neoconservative ideology or other highly interventionist foreign policy views treat the idea of political division with alarm or contempt. Or both.

They have a point. It’s likely that were the US to be broken up into smaller pieces, it would be weakened in its ability to act as a global hegemon, invading foreign nations at will, imposing “regime change,” and threatening war with any regime that opposes the whims of the American regime.

For some of us, however, this would be a feature of secession rather than a bug.

Moreover, the ability of the American regime to carry out offensive military operations such as regime change is separate and distinct from the regime’s ability to maintain an effective and credible defensive military force.

Last month, we looked at how even a dismembered United States would be more than capable of fielding a large and effective defensive military force. A politically divided America nonetheless remains a very wealthy America, and wealth remains a key component in effective military defense. In other words, bigness is not as important as the extent to which a regime can call upon high levels of wealth and capital accumulation.

[Read More: “When It Comes to National Defense, Bigger Isn’t Always Better” by Ryan McMaken]

That analysis, however, concentrated on conventional forces, and this leaves us with the question of how the successor states to a postsecession United States would fare in terms of nuclear deterrence.

In this case, there is even less need for bigness than in the case of conventional military forces. As the state of Israel has demonstrated, a small state can obtain the benefits of nuclear deterrence without a large population or a large economy.

In other words, an effective military defense through nuclear deterrence is even more economical than conventional military forces.

After Secession, Who Gets the Nukes?

But how would secession actually play out when nuclear weapons are involved?

One example we might consider is Ukraine’s secession from the Soviet Union the early 1990s.

In 1991, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly to secede and set up an independent republic. At the time, the new state of Ukraine contained around one-third of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. This means there were literally thousands of nuclear warheads within Ukraine’s borders, making Ukraine’s arsenal the third largest in the world. In 1994, Ukraine began a program of denuclearization and today is no longer a nuclear power.

The relations between Ukraine and the new Russian Federation were acrimonious in the early nineties—as now—so this means that the lessons of the Ukraine situation are limited if applied to American secessionist movements. American pundits may like to play up the red-blue division in America as an intractable conflict of civilizations, but these differences are small potatoes compared to the sort of ethnic and nationalist conflicts that have long existed in Eurasia.

Nevertheless, we can glean some insights from that separation.

For example, the Ukrainian secession demonstrates that it is possible for nuclear weapons to pass into the control of a seceding state without a general conflict breaking out. Indeed, Ukraine was not alone in this. Kazakhstan and Belarus “inherited” nuclear arms from the Soviet Union as well. If Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus can all peacefully negotiate a resolution on how to deal with a suddenly decentralized nuclear arsenal, the Americans can pull it off, too.

Nonetheless, the Ukraine situation highlights some of the technical and logistical problems involved in working out who exactly controls nuclear weapons in a postsecession situation.

For example, it was never a simple matter for the Ukrainian regime to assert technical control over land-based nuclear missiles. It is unlikely that Ukraine ever obtained all the tools necessary to actually launch the nuclear missiles within its territory.1

It is likely, however, that Ukraine could have eventually gained this power, as it was already developing its own control system for the arsenal in 1993. Not surprisingly, the Soviet Russian regime was unenthusiastic about helping the Ukrainians in this respect.

When it came to using nuclear-capable bombers, on the other hand, it appears Ukraine’s regime had total control.2

It is likely the successor states of the US would face similar issues. The use of land-based missiles would be heavily reliant on authorization from whichever faction most recently controlled access and launching authority, even if those missiles are physically located within the borders of a separatist state. It must be noted, however, that the state within which land-based nuclear missiles exist has the ability to prevent usage in most cases. This is because even if the missiles themselves cannot be directly controlled, the personnel that maintains and controls the sites can far more easily be traded out for personnel loyal to the new regime.3

When it comes to submarines and bombers, a secessionist US region might find itself better able to assert control in the short term. Where those bombers and subs end up would have a lot to do with the likely chaotic situation in the wake of the independence movement and shifting borders.

Separatist Regions May Be Unwilling to Give Up Nukes

Ukraine had denuclearized in part due to bribes and pressure from both the United States and Russia. Russia wanted Ukraine’s arsenal for obvious reasons. The United States was obsessed with deproliferation, although it naturally insisted on keeping its own massive stockpile.

Neither the US nor Russia had the ability to force Ukraine to denuclearize—short of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, of course. However, Ukraine capitulated to pressure when the Russian Federation, the US, and the UK (and to a lesser extent China and France) pledged in the Budapest Memorandum to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

In 2014, many interpreted this move as a grand folly when Russia annexed the Crimea from Ukraine and none of the other parties to the memorandum intervened. Ukraine had given up its best guarantee against Russian intervention—its nuclear arsenal—in exchange for weak “assurances” from foreign states.

Some foreign policy scholars—most notably John Mearsheimer—had predicted this and advised against denuclearization in Ukraine. Indeed, in 1993, Mearsheimer doubted that Ukraine would cave to denuclearization pressure precisely because reliable assurances from outsiders were unlikely. Even after the Budapest Memorandum became a reality a year later, it was nonetheless a rather weak reed on which to hang denuclearization. As Mearsheimer pointed out, should the Americans fail to provide an effective defense for Ukraine—as ended up being the case with the Crimea crisis—the Americans “would not have to live with the consequences of a Russian attack.”4 Nonetheless, some Ukrainians insist the Crimea crisis is not evidence of a need for a nuclear deterrent.

Many, Americans, however, may be much less sanguine—even to the point of unwarranted paranoia—about the prospects of foreign intervention on American soil. This is why it is best to proceed assuming that at least some successor states to the current US would insist on retaining a nuclear arsenal. After all, while the Ukraine might have been betting on the US as the enforcer of the international order, such guarantees would be even more unlikely in the wake of an American secession crisis. Postsecession American states, in other words, would need to rely on a self-help system of deterrence.

On the other hand, we should not assume that all successor states to the United States would seek permanent nuclear arsenals. Some would likely give up nuclear programs, just as Sweden and South Africa have abandoned nuclear programs that were well advanced toward assembling arms (Sweden) or had already completed the construction of functioning warheads (South Africa). While the Ukrainian example of voluntary denuclearization may appear to be a blunder to many now, the situation in North America is different. North America is not eastern Europe with its long history of interstate conflict. In North America, Canada and the United States have been at peace for more than two centuries, and Canada has never made much effort to move toward assembling a nuclear arsenal. Rather, Canada’s proximity to the United States shields it from nuclear threats from outside North America. Any conventional or nuclear arrack on Canada from, say, China or Russia is likely to be interpreted as an attack on the United States, with disastrous consequences for the initial aggressor.

In other words, Canada benefits from what Baldur Thorhallsson calls “shelter” in the international arena. Canada requires no nuclear arsenal of its own, because it can use its close alliance with the United States as a substitute.

So long as some successor states of the United States maintain a functioning arsenal, other nonnuclear states in North America will be able to function similarly. It stands to reason that just as the United States in its current form has been at peace with all other former British colonies, it is likely that new North American republics will share a similar fate.

Big States Are Not Necessary: A Deterrent Nuclear Force Is Entirely Feasible for Small States

A new American republic need not be especially large to maintain a working arsenal.

While a sizable economy and population are extremely helpful in terms of building a large conventional military, these factors are not nearly as important when it comes to a nuclear force capable of deterring foreign powers.

As Kenneth Waltz has explained, “Nuclear parity is reached when countries have second-strike forces. It does not require quantitative or qualitative equality of forces.”5 That is, if a regime can plausibly hide or move around enough nuclear warheads to so as to survive a nuclear first strike, it is able to deter nuclear aggression from other states altogether. Moreover, the number of warheads necessary to achieve this number “not in the hundreds, but in the tens.”6

This is why Waltz has concluded that “deterrence is easier to contrive than most strategists have believed”7 and that “some countries may find nuclear weapons a cheaper and safer alternative to running economically ruinous and militarily dangerous conventional arms races. Nuclear weapons may promise increased security and independence at an affordable price.”8 In other words, deterrence “can be implemented cheaply.”9

[Read More: “Why No State Needs Thousands of Nuclear Warheads” by Ryan McMaken]

The Israeli state is an important and illustrative case. This is a country with a GDP smaller than Colorado’s and a population smaller than that of the US state of Georgia, yet Israel is thought to maintain a nuclear triad of sea, air, and land-based warheads. In other words, this is a small state which has taken full advantage of the relatively economical nature of a small nuclear arsenal (estimated to include approximately eighty assembled warheads).

Clearly, claims that even medium-sized American states—such as Ohio with 11 million people and a GDP nearly as large as that of Switzerland—are too small to possibly contemplate functioning as independent states are quite detached from reality. Moreover, there is no reason to assume any postsecession American state would seek to act alone in the realm of international relations. Kirkpatrick Sale has pointed out what should be regarded as obvious: “Historically, the response of small states to the threat of … aggression has been temporary confederation and mutual defense, and indeed the simple threat of such unity, in the form of defense treaties and leagues and alliances, has sometimes been a sufficient deterrent” (emphasis added).10

On the other hand, a continuation of the current trend toward political centralization in Washington—and the growing political domination of every corner of the nation by central authorities—is likely to only harm future prospects for amicable separation and peaceful cooperation on the international stage.

  • 1. John J. Mearsheimer, “The Case for a Ukrainian Nuclear Deterrent,” Foreign Affairs 72, no. 3 (Summer 1993): 50–66, esp. 52.
  • 2. Ibid., p. 52.
  • 3. Graham Allison notes the importance of personnel in the post-Soviet Ukraine situation in the National Interest: “Officially, the chain-of-command continued to run from the new President of Russia through communications and control systems to missile officers in Ukraine. Physically, however, the missiles, warheads, officers, and mechanisms for launching weapons resided on the territory of Ukraine. Moreover, the individuals who operated these systems now lived in houses owned by the government of Ukraine, received paychecks from the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, and were subject to promotion or firing not by Moscow, but by Kiev.” See “Good News From Ukraine: It Doesn’t Have Nukes,” National Interest, Mar. 21, 2014.
  • 4. Mearsheimer, “The Case for a Ukrainian Nuclear Deterrent,” p. 58.
  • 5. Kenneth Waltz, “Structural Realism after the Cold War.” International Security 25, no. 1 (Summer 2000): 5–41, esp. 32n75.
  • 6. Kenneth Waltz, “Nuclear Myths and Political Realities,” American Political Science Review 84, no. 3 (September 1990): 731–45.
  • 7. Ibid.
  • 8. Kenneth Waltz, “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better,” Adelphi Papers 21, no. 171 (1981).
  • 9. Waltz, “Nuclear Myths and Political Realities.”
  • 10. Kirkpatrick Sale, Human Scale Revisited (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2017), p. 312.

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