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Abdul Rahman asked: Is Nuclear Revolution a benefit or harm?

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  • Sasikumar Shanmugasundaram replies: The meaning of nuclear revolution has clearly impressed the security studies community while the judgement of its utility has not. Bernard Brodie’s (1946) first analysis of nuclear revolution still remains an oft quoted phrase: “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them.” Brodie’s analysis was refined and perfected by scholars like Michael Mandelbaum, Thomas Schelling, Robert Jervis, Kenneth Waltz, and Stephen Van Evera, among others. Nuclear revolution as the result of mutual vulnerability therefore still remains an impressive theoretical logic. However, like any debate on the social adaptation to technology, the evaluation of the effects of nuclear revolution is strongly debated both among scholars and policy makers. Therefore, the benefit or harm of nuclear revolution has to be contextualized.

    Scholars of defensive realist camp believe that nuclear revolution is a benefit because it creates a degree of security and precludes self-defeating expansionist policies. Proponents of offensive realism would, however, argue that nuclear revolution cannot stop a state’s incentive to accumulate power. Constructivists would contend that the success or failure of nuclear revolution depends on the social context through which it is interpreted. And finally critical theorists/ post-modernists would argue that the meaning of nuclear revolution depends on complex power relations in world politics. Moving from the ivory tower to the ground, multitudes of opinion still remain. The United States would contend that the risk of nuclear confrontation (between States) has reduced but the risk of nuclear attack (by terrorists) has increased. Therefore, capitalizing the effects of nuclear revolution against responsible nuclear weapons states and simultaneously augmenting conventional forces against terrorists or rogue states has been its security policy. North Korea, on the other hand, would continue to advertise confidence on its own nuclear deterrent, engaging with, although not explicating, the ideas of nuclear revolution. For India the benefits of nuclear revolution vis-a-vis China is very different from the complexities it generates vis-a-vis Pakistan. For Israel, China or Pakistan, even a robust nuclear arsenal cannot reduce the security competition with their adversaries.

    The question whether nuclear revolution is a benefit or harm therefore has to be contextualized. Future transformation of the nuclear era might enable more patterns of evaluation of the question which annihilation would obviously confirm.