Nuclear weapons are scary, and the recent negotiations with Iran, as well as Netanyahu’s apocalyptic speech, have thrust nukes back into our minds. The thought of entire cities, states, even countries being obliterated in an instant is enough to make your heart beat faster. It’s for this reason that nuclear disarmament has become so popular with the public, and that anyone who strives to rid the world of nuclear weapons is lauded as a hero. Our very own president won a Nobel Peace Prize for doing just that.
Ridding the world of nukes is a nice thought. It’s like ridding the world of mean people, annoying noises, or honeydew melon: great in theory, not so easy in practice. It is naïve to think “nuclear zero” is attainable, but it’s also dangerous. The reality is that nuclear zero will never happen.
You Can’t Erase Knowledge
There are two ways to rid the world of nuclear weapons. One would be to get in a time machine and jump from country to country sabotaging each country’s nuclear programs starting with the US’s Manhattan Project. The second way would be to round up all scientists with knowledge of nuclear fission and fusion and use one of those Men In Black memory erasers. You see my point. The moment that first bomb detonated over Heroshima, the cat was out of the bag—we had entered the nuclear age and there is no return. It’s impossible to un-know anything. We could destroy every warhead, knock down the missile silos, rebury all of that uranium, and dismantle the centrifuges, but once a technology is invented it will always be recreated. Especially if there’s a high demand for it.
Countries Won’t Give Them Up
It is clear that nukes are very valuable to the countries that have them or aspire to have them. Iran has withstood devastating sanctions, while North Korea became an international pariah in defense of its nuclear program. That’s because nukes are the ultimate deterrent: no country has ever invaded a nuclear power (minor border disputes not withstanding). Even a tiny country can stand up to a world power if it has nukes because of the damage even one of these weapons can inflict. It’s easy to imagine that a leader, if put into a situation where he has nothing to lose, would use nukes in a last ditch effort to save himself and his country. As a result, we don’t put nuclear powers in those “nothing to lose” situations. It’s only powerful countries like the United States and its closest allies who see nuclear weapons as solely a threat. They have enough power to protect themselves with or without a nuclear arsenal. The small and the weak see nukes as something entirely different: as the surest means of survival. Before the advent of nuclear weapons, international politics was survival of the fittest—the brutal wars of the early 20th century proved that. The only way to overcome weakness is to either have the bomb or have a close friend with the bomb, and that is something that countries will not give up easily.
This is especially true in the case of Iran. The Iraq War sent a powerful message to aspiring nuclear powers. Bush named three countries in his “Axis of Evil:” Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. The United States invaded non-nuclear Iraq but not nuclear (and highly erratic) North Korea. One leader was hanged while the other’s dynasty lives on. Put simply: don’t mess with the United States, unless you’ve got nukes. Iranian statesmen, already highly suspicious of the US, may see nukes as the only thing between them and being next on the chopping block.
The Incentive to Cheat
Let’s imagine a world where Obama has succeeded: there are no countries with nuclear weapons. Nothing else has changed: the international system is still anarchic, meaning there is no world government to enforce international law and adjudicate disputes. While the threat of total annihilation is temporarily off the table, the world has become much more violent. Nuclear weapons provided a powerful incentive for peace—leaders were more war-averse knowing that millions of their people could die in an instant. With that possibility gone, hot wars replace cold ones, and war becomes more common. In this scenario, every country, especially the weak ones, would have a powerful incentive to cheat and covertly build a nuclear program. Having a nuke in this scenario would be much more powerful because the owner has a monopoly on the weapon. Other countries would be slaves to this country’s wishes out of fear.
But, because every country has the same incentive to cheat, many would do so, resulting in rapid proliferation. Thus, the only way to get close to “nuclear zero” is to establish a world government that could control all nuclear warheads and punish cheaters. That, however, is a long way off.
Nuclear weapons are scary, but they’re here to stay. Fortunately, second strike ability, the ability to inflict devastating damage on your enemy even if you are the second to fire, staved off war throughout the cold war. However, as nukes proliferate, the chances of a mistake being made or, even worse, of a nuke falling into the hands of a terrorist organization, become more likely. It is not the number of nukes in the world that is dangerous; rather, it is the number of people who have them. So, as we enter what the Economist has called “the New Nuclear Age,” we should focus on keeping nukes out of the wrong hands. We should not, however, ignore their value as deterrents or hold on to the delusion that they can be abolished forever.