Nuclear Proliferation and Democracy

Nuclear proliferation should no longer be treated as an unthinkable nightmare; it is likely to be the future reality.  Nuclear weapons have been acquired not only by an extremely poor per capita but large country such as India, but also by even poorer and medium-sized nations such as Pakistan and North Korea.  One could also mention South Africa, which successfully acquired a nuclear arsenal despite economic sanctions (the likes of which have not yet been imposed on Iran).  It is widely believed that sanctions and rhetoric will not prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and that many countries, in the Middle East and beyond, will act accordingly (see, e.g., recent Heritage report).

Nuclear Warfare -- Myths And Facts

The direct consequences of the limited use of nuclear weapons -- especially low-yield devices most likely to be in the hands of non-state actors or irresponsible governments -- would probably not be great enough to bring about significant geopolitical upheavals.  Casualties from a single 20-KT nuclear device are estimated [1] at about 25,000 fatalities with a similar number of injured, assuming a rather unfortunate scenario (the center of a large city, with minimal warning). 

Scaling the above toll to larger devices or to a larger number of devices is less than linear.  For example, it has been estimated that it would take as many as eighty devices of 20-KT yield each to cause 300,000 civilian fatalities in German cities (a result actually achieved by Allied area attacks, or carpet-bombings, during the Second World War).  A single 1-MT device used against Detroit has been estimated by U.S. Congress OTA to result in about 220,000 fatalities.  It is anticipated that well-prepared civil defense measures, based on rather simple presently known techniques, would decrease these numbers by maybe an order of magnitude (as will be discussed later).  There is little doubt that a nation determined to survive and with a strong sense of its own destiny would not succumb to such losses.

It is often argued that the fallout effects of even the limited use of nuclear weapons would be worldwide and would last for generations.  This is an exaggeration.  The following facts speak for themselves.

-- In Japan, as assessed by REFR, less than 1,000 excess cancer cases (i.e., above the natural occurrence) were recorded in over 100,000 survivors over the past sixty years -- compared with about 110,000 immediate fatalities in the two atomic bombings.  No clinical or even sub-clinical effects were discovered in the survivors' offspring.

-- In the Chernobyl area, as assessed by IAEA, only fifteen cancer deaths can be directly attributed to fallout radiation.  No radiation-related increase in congenital formations was recorded.

Nuclear Conflict -- Possible Scenarios

With reference to a possible regional nuclear conflict between a rogue state and a democratic one, the no-winner (mutual assured destruction) scenario is probably false.  An analysis by Anthony Cordesman, et al. regarding a possible Israel-Iran nuclear conflict estimated that while Israel might survive an Iranian nuclear blow, Iran would certainly not survive as an organized society.  Even though the projected casualties cited in that study seem to us overstated, especially as regards Israel, the conclusion rings true.

Due to the extreme high intensity ("above-conventional") of nuclear conflict, it is nearly certain that such a war, no matter its outcome, would not last for years, as we have become accustomed to in current low-intensity conflicts.  Rather, we should anticipate a new geo-political reality: the emergence of clear winners and losers within several days, or at most weeks after the initial outbreak of hostilities.  This latter reality will most probably contain fewer nuclear-possessing states than the former.

A country emerging victorious from nuclear warfare, even having suffered extremely high losses, is anticipated not only to gain territory, but also to attain extremely high international standing and credibility, which would then translate into massive international investment.  As a consequence, extensive destruction and economic damage may be repaired rather quickly, as was the case, ironically, in post-war Germany and Japan.

Strengthening Democracy

Which type of regime -- democratic or totalitarian -- is likely to have the advantage in a nuclear war?

It is often claimed that a democratic society, with its openness and tolerance, cannot withstand an assault based on brute force.  This view, however, does not refer to the essence of democracy, but rather to a very specific interpretation of it, based on the belief that, as Melanie Phillips put it, the traditional values of democratic societies should be "superseded by international laws and institutions -- which will apparently usher in the utopia of the brotherhood of man."

E.g., combating terror is a formidable task in a reality in which "judges ... time and again ... have come down in favour of the rights of terror suspects, illegal immigrants and common criminals against the rights of indigenous, law-abiding people."

John Mill, writing in the 19th century, had this to say:

[P]eople who are revolted by an execution, but not shocked at an assassination, require that the public authorities should be armed with much sterner powers of repression than elsewhere, since the first indispensable requisites of civilized life have nothing else to rest on.

In our opinion, democracies have a clear advantage.  Economically, a taxpayers' democracy is considered the most efficient in organizing public defense funding: developed and well-structured civil societies have proven their ability to provide public goods, including "pure public goods" (such as defense)[2].  Citizens of democratic societies believe in their values and trust their government and are thus more likely to be motivated and determined to fight.  Historically, there are many examples of a small but determined nation successfully standing up to a huge empire.  The list includes Pericles in ancient Athens against the Persian Empire, Wilhelm the Orange in the Netherlands against the Spanish, and the Finns during the Winter War against the Soviet Union.  During World War II, the degree of mobilization in democratic Britain was actually higher than in totalitarian Germany (e.g., there was no mobilization of women in Germany).  The USSR engaged in a nuclear arms race with the USA over a forty-year period, roughly half of which (1970-1990) transpired in the shadow of the Mutual Assured Destruction concept. 

At the end of this period, the USSR simply collapsed.

With this in mind, it seems obvious that in a multi-polar nuclear world, everyday, routine functions should be dispersed as much as possible, allowing for greater authority and powers to be retained by local government, NGOs, and individuals.  Such dispersal greatly increases a country's survivability.  A shrinking of governmental functions, although out of step with present trends, is entirely compatible with the original conception of democracy, as stressed, for example, by J.  Buchanan.

Fighting Doctrine

Weapons are seldom used without purpose, without the hope of achieving one's aims and defeating one's enemy.  A democratic society must do everything possible to deprive terrorists and rogue states from harboring such hopes.  Concessions -- gestures of good will on the part of a democratic society -- are seen as signs of weakness by totalitarian societies and lead only to an escalation of terror, as has been demonstrated by many authors -- see, e.g., M.  Sharon and J.A. Sautter.  A steadfast and determined stance -- including the willingness and ability to suffer heavy losses, in both human and economic terms -- is the price democratic societies must be willing to pay in order to effectively battle aggression on all levels.  As Winston Churchill put it, those who, given the choice of war or dishonor, choose dishonor will have both.

Civil Defense

Civil defense can be expected to be extremely efficient, decreasing the number of casualties by factor of twenty or more -- which can be the difference between victory and collapse.  The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey (SBS) report, compiled at the onset of the nuclear age and based on the initial data collected after the use of nuclear weapons against Japan, stated:

Civilian injuries and fatalities can be reduced, by presently known techniques, to one-twentieth or less of the casualties which would be suffered were these techniques not employed.  This does not involve moving everything underground, but does involve a progressive evacuation, dispersal, warning, air-raid shelter, and post-raid emergency assistance program, the foundations for which can only be laid in peacetime.

Years later, the value of civil defense was questioned, culminating probably in an ambivalent and implicitly unfavorable chapter in the report prepared by the U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in 1979.  The main reservation of the OTA report regarding civil defense was that "some observers ... argue that a vigorous civil defense program would induce people to believe that a nuclear war was 'survivable' rather than 'unthinkable', and that such a change in attitude would increase the risk of war."

In light of the foregoing (Fighting Doctrine), it seems obvious that today, the opposite is the case: by considering nuclear war "unthinkable," democratic societies actually provide terrorists and rogue states with an additional powerful incentive for increasing their nuclear capabilities, thus increasing the risk of war.


There are three issues which are crucial for the security of a democratic society in a multi-polar nuclear world:

1) Bolstering democracy by limiting government to its proper primary functions: security (internal and external) and maintaining critical infrastructures.

2) Adopting a steadfast and determined stance against aggression, together with properly conceived and well-planned policies for dealing with aggression.

3) Implementing a nationwide civil defense policy.

Finally: (SBS)

the best way to win a war is to prevent it from occurring.  This objective is well served by insuring the strength and the security of [our society.  Our society] was founded and has since lived upon principles of tolerance, freedom, and good will at home and abroad.  Strength based on these principles is no threat to world peace.  Prevention of war will not come from neglect of strength or lack of foresight or alertness on our part.  Those who contemplate evil and aggression find encouragement in such neglect. 

These words, written by officers who had just won a great war and ensured peace and security for decades to come, need to be taken to heart.


[1] Office of the Chief Scientific Adviser, "The Number of Atomic Bombs Equivalent to the Last War Air Attacks on Great Britain and Germany."  U.K. Home Office CD/SA.16 1950.

[2]  Vernon Smith, "Experiments with a Decentralized Mechanism for Public Good Decision."  The American Economic Review, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Sep., 1980), 584-599.