Nuclear weapons might actually have widespread beneficial effects, especially in states with lower national defense capabilities, suggested Ahsan I. Butt, assistant professor of government and politics at George Mason University, during a presentation at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center Library on Thursday.
At the presentation, entitled “The More Things Change? Nuclear Sustainability and Pakistan’s Conventional Doctrine After Nuclear Acquisition,” Butt acknowledged that nuclear weapons are a matter of great controversy because they have the potential to “equalize strengths between strong and weak countries, as well as negate the advantages of conventional superiority.”
Still, he argued that nuclear deterrence—a defense mechanism that reinforces one state’s protection against another by threat of nuclear retaliation—is considerably stronger than conventional deterrence, which involves the use of non-nuclear weapons.
Weak states, then, would benefit the most from nuclear weapons, Butt said. He added that by developing nuclear warheads, smaller states could bypass the conventional spending schedule of bulky ground and air units and instead spend more on infrastructure, education, and national development--a phenomenon he called the “nuclear substitution effect.”
During the open discussion period, Sunjar Singh, a researcher at MIT who studies international security, noted that Butt’s thesis is not very different from the usual arguments against nuclear proliferation. “It’s common knowledge that if you have nuclear weapons, you have a basic right to exercise the agenda that you want,” Singh said.
Butt challenged the idea that security and nuclear proliferation are always complementary. He cited Pakistan as an anomaly to the nuclear substitution effect because the country has bolstered its conventional arms instead of focusing on a nuclear arsenal and infrastructural development.
“Pakistan is a premier case study for nuclear substitution. It is a weak state, significantly weaker than its main rival India, and destined to lose any conventional arms race. Pakistan has much more to gain from nuclear weapons,” Butt added. “So why hasn’t it happened?”
HKS National Security Fellow Kevin P. Landers offered an answer to Butt’s question. “Countries like Pakistan still need to have conventional national defense. Nuclear weapons are limited in their capabilities in that they can't be used for on-the-ground warfare, a critical part of any country's military," Landers said to explain Pakistan’s development in both the conventional and nuclear weapons sectors.
In closing his presentation, Butt noted that nuclear discussions usually take place behind closed doors, making definitive reporting on the topic very difficult. It’s not clear, he said, whether states truly have aggressive intentions or are just trying to maintain the status quo. “We really need a deeper understanding of what nuclear weapons do to state security,” he said.
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