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01 March 2019

Drawing on nuclear history

What the strategies of states like China and Egypt can tell us about nuclear geopolitics today

Soviet SS-20 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM)

Researchers and students of war and global security often look to the past to better understand the present. So, what can we draw from the history of nuclear weapons to help us understand today’s security challenges?

On 25 January, the Centre for Science and Security Studies (CSSS) brought together a panel of its experts to explore this very question. On this panel, Drs Nicola Leveringhaus, Hassan Elbahtimy, Daniel Salisbury and Ian Stewart presented their respective research on China, Egypt and the United Kingdom in the nuclear age. Following the event, the War Studies Podcast (WSP) interviewed the panel chair and Head of the School of Security Studies, Prof Wyn Bowen, to learn more about why CSSS decided to hold this research panel.

Prof Bowen told WSP that "this occasion provided [CSSS] with a great opportunity to combine a bit of looking back on nuclear history and getting our speakers to reflect on how this [history] is relevant today." He continued stating that "the reason for doing this is to try to contribute to that expert debate during a time when nuclear issues are still hugely important and very lively."

Today, international debates around nuclear weapons appear to be on the rise, since the US and Russia recently suspended the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and the 2020 review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) looms on the horizon. But, how can nuclear history inform our understanding of such events? Prof Bowen offered a quick example in relation to the INF treaty.

"To understand the relevance of the INF treaty today and why the US is pulling out and why Russia has an issue with it too, you really have to go back to the 1970s and 1980s, when the question of the deployment of shorter-range nuclear missiles in Europe became a big issue, particularly from the perspective of the US and NATO countries."

Prof Bowen continued highlighting the development of the Soviet SS-20 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) - pictured above - in 1976, ‘this was seen as providing the rapid ability of the Russians to hit major cities in Europe very quickly, and so it created a big strategic problem from the perspective of the US and NATO.’ He went on to provide that, in turn, the US and NATO made "a dual track decision to counter deploy missile systems in Europe", and then pursue an arms control agreement to try to remove these missile systems on both sides.

Prof Bowen made it clear that understanding the development of the INF from both the NATO and Russian perspectives is crucial for not only grasping the significance of the INF during this critical point in history but also for underlining the need for such treaties in the present.

In an interview with WSP, Dr Nicola Leveringhaus provided another example of what we can draw from nuclear history. In exploring China’s experience in the nuclear age, Dr Leveringhaus finds that China, compared to other nuclear powers, has experienced ‘a high degree of vulnerability and threat’, which is often overlooked. For example, during the Sino-Soviet Border War in 1969, Russia threatened China’s nuclear arsenal to the extent that the Chinese government relocated from Beijing and set in motion a public education campaign to prepare its people for potential war, including the possibility of nuclear war. Dr Leveringhaus told WSP that this particular conflict "was incredibly formative for China."

"It pushed China for instance to develop a more coherent nuclear weapons strategy. It did not yet have that already. It only had recently become a nuclear weapons state, remember, in 1964. And it also made China think very seriously about this concept of nuclear deterrence and realise how difficult nuclear deterrence is, both to practice as a country and to work with and manage in a crisis scenario."

Also, Dr Leveringhaus provides that China’s history reveals crucial continuities, as well as evolutions, that inform our understanding of China’s current nuclear policies. For example, since China first developed nuclear weapons in 1964, and even through tensions with Russia, it has maintained a ‘no first use’ policy. This means that China would only use nuclear weapons in retaliation to a nuclear attack on its soil. In addition to maintaining this policy, Dr Leveringhaus also provides that China has historically retained a small nuclear arsenal, especially when compared to the US and Russia. In sum, she argues that China’s historically ‘minimalist’ nuclear policy "is really about the political symbolism of having these weapons rather than the military value and the battlefield use."

Now, it is clear that we can learn a lot from nuclear powers such China, Russia and the US, but what about states that are designated non-nuclear weapons state's under the NPT? It is often forgotten that there is indeed another side to nuclear history. In an interview for WSP, Dr Hassan Elbahtimy spoke about Egypt's experience in the nuclear age. He highlighted the restraint shown by Egyptian politicians from developing nuclear weapons in the 1960s, despite one of its international rivals, Israel, signalling the intent to proliferate. Dr Elbahtimy explains that instead of proliferating nuclear weapons in response to Israel's posturing and investment in nuclear technology, Egypt took a very different approach.

"We tend to think that a state deciding to develop nuclear weapons automatically leads to a wave of proliferation’, Dr Elbahtimy told WSP. ‘Interestingly, Egypt followed a different path. They invested significantly, and from a very early point in history, in the development of diplomatic tools. If you look at the largest nuclear weapons treaty, the [NPT], you find that Egyptian policymakers have invested a lot of political capital from a very early stage in that instrument."

Early on, Egypt determined that it was in its best interest to avoid a potential arms race and the development of nuclear weapons in the region, which would have likely escalated conflict. Therefore, Egyptian policymakers backed international treaties that would prevent other states from proliferating, including its rivals. The case of Egypt shows one example of how and why non-nuclear weapons states aim to set restraints on the use, proliferation and spread of nuclear weapons.

In the end, relative peace and stability are paramount to both nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states. However, in order to understand and approach today’s challenges, we need to consider the past and how we got to where we are in the present. Otherwise, it may be easy to lose sight of why states originally undertook certain diplomatic and strategic measures to decrease the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe.

If you are interested in learning more about what we can draw from nuclear history, watch the live stream of the CSSS panel here:

Additionally, listen to full interviews with Wyn Bowen, Nicola Leveringhaus, Hassan Elbahtimy, and Daniel Salisbury here: