The nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 forever changed the face of war, and the half-century of Cold War which followed was dominated, above all, by the threat of nuclear destruction. Both superpowers raced to produce a greater arsenal than their opponents, leading to the point where they had the ability to destroy the world several times over. Added to the direct destructive power of the weapons was the consensus growing among scientists from 1970s onwards that a major war would plunge the world into a ‘nuclear winter’, destroying life even in places that had escaped attack. This led to the concept of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’, a stalemate in which both sides knew that the use of their weapons would lead to their own destruction as well as their enemies. The global situation has, however, changed substantially since the end of the Cold War. Nuclear Weapons have ceased to dominate world politics; however, the fear of proliferation – the spread of weapons of mass destruction to many more countries – is also on the rise. In this environment, President Obama proposed the abolition of nuclear weapons as a long-term policy goal. Donald Trump, on the other hand, has proposed expanding the US nuclear arsenal and floated the idea of some countries adopting their own arsenals, instead of relying on the US nuclear-umbrella. Which course of action is best?
The people that are most likely to use nuclear weapons are the people that are most likely to want to target civilians. It is commonly accepted that any responsible, accountable government will refrain from using nuclear weapons against a civilian population. It is naive to believe that someone who resorts to using this type of weapon would discriminate.
Over the past fifty years, we have seen a general tendency towards limited warfare and precision weapons, allowing military objectives to be achieved with minimal loss of civilian life. The entire point of nuclear weapons, however, is their massive, indiscriminate destructive power. Their use could kill tens of thousands of civilians directly, and their catastrophic environmental after-effects would harm many more all around the world. These effects could never be morally acceptable.
The decision to use nuclear weapons is made by a very small group of people at the top of a nation’s leadership. Given the fact that the use of nuclear weapons can affect millions of people and even civilization itself, the use of nuclear weapons can be seen as highly undemocratic.
Many states are technically capable of building nuclear weapons, but have made a moral choice not to. Nuclear states should respect the responsibility this demonstrates on the part of non-nuclear stats, and should correspondingly take action to reduce their own stockpiles.
For those who didn’t study the military doctrine of MAD (mutually assured destruction), the doctrine proves that nobody would be mad enough to start launching nukes. Look at Saddam Hussein, look at Ahmademijad, look at Kim-Jong-Il. Why don’t they start launching nukes? That’s because if they lauch nukes, other countries would launch nukes at them too. They all know that pressing one button can destroy the world (and thus destroy them too). They all know that even sending one division to a country to wreck havoc means siging a death warrant. Look at the last 50 years or so. Has there been any big wars involving or not involoving nukes? Come on, it’s paranoia.
The reason for maintaining an effective nuclear arsenal is in fact to prevent war. By making the results of conflict catastrophic, a strategic deterrent discourages conflict. The Cold War was in fact one of the most peaceful times in history, particularly in Europe, largely because of the two superpowers’ nuclear deterrents.
On the basis that nuclear weapons can help deter even rogue states from using WMD, it becomes unnecessary to implement a preventive war doctrine to prevent rogue nations from ever acquiring WMD; nuclear deterrence is sufficient.
While some argue that some modern states have opted not to develop nuclear weapons, making it unfair that other states have opted to create them, this ignores the fact that these non-nuclear states often only have the luxury to be non-nuclear due to their protection under the umbrella of a nuclear state.
While critics of nuclear weapons often cite the targeting of civilian populations as morally repugnant, this civilian targeting need not be included in the theory of “nuclear deterrence”. It is possible to target assets of a country’s leadership, ensuring the dislocation of the leadership.
Terrorists are frequently willing to kill themselves to commit acts of terrorism. Therefore, the threat of retaliatory death and destruction against terrorists will not create a level of fear within them that will “deter” them from committing an initial terrorist act.
Peace during the Cold War was maintained only by a balance of power – neither superpower had an advantage large enough to be confident of victory. This eventually became the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction: both sides had sufficient weaponry to totally annihilate one another, and potentially the whole world. However, there is no longer a balance of power. With the proliferation of nuclear weapons, some rogue states may develop the ability to strike at enemies who have no nuclear weapons of their own. It is not clear that the major nuclear powers would then strike back at the aggressor. This is further complicated by the fact that most of the emerging nuclear threats would not be from legitimate governments but from dictators and terrorist groups. Would it ever be acceptable to kill thousands of civilians for the actions of extremists?
Great power rivalries persist between such countries as the China, Russia, and the United States, even though the United States’ is more powerful at this time. Nuclear deterrence remains a factor in the relative stability that persists between these great powers, and the abolition of nuclear weapons would eliminate this stability.
Many believe that the end of the Cold War spelled the end of the notion of nuclear deterrence. Yet, nuclear deterrence remains relevant and an important element of international stability. As mentioned above, great power rivalries between China, United States, and Russia seem to persist, and nuclear weapons help maintain the level of sobriety between them.
Rogue states are often thought to be irrational, making it impossible to deter them with the threat of nuclear weapons. But the leaders of rogue states are focused primarily on maintaining power, and will not jeopardize that power by taking actions that could lead to a retaliatory response by a nuclear power.
Rogue leaders are unlikely to give WMD or nuclear weapons to terrorists if it will jeopardize the existence of their country or their grip on power. And, they are highly unlikely to trust terrorists to take measures to reduce the risk that the source of their weapons is revealed.
For small states, even a small nuclear deterrent can be very beneficial to their national interests.
During the Gulf War, for example, one of the factors which prevented Iraq from launching missiles tipped with chemical weapon warheads against Israel was the threat the USA would retaliate with a nuclear strike. Although there is no longer as formal a threat of retaliation as there was during the Cold War, the very possibility that the use of nuclear weapons by a rogue state could be met a retaliatory strike is too great a threat to ignore. Moreover, although the citizens of the current nuclear powers may be against the use of force against civilians, their opinions would rapidly change if they found weapons of mass destruction being used against them.
With the many risks associated with nuclear weapons, including accidental firings and mis-calculation, the risks may very well be higher than the presumed benefits.
Accidents are a common occurrence with nuclear weapons. Nuclear submarines have sunken many times in history. Military airplanes holding nuclear weapons have crashed in history has well. Nuclear missiles in silos, too, have exploded unexpectedly. These accidents can be minimized by never fully eliminated. The chances are good that at some point in the future a catastrophic nuclear accident will occur.
Numerous nuclear submarines have accidentally sunk. Some of these have fallen to the bottom of the ocean where they are never to be recovered. The problem with this is that the nuclear missiles on board are likely to leak radioactive materials into the environment, causing significant harm.
Nuclear states through the Cold War and beyond have been nearly five times as likely as non-nuclear states to be engaged, at any given time, in an international conflict.
While there are often fears about the result of a country abandoning nuclear weapons, all states have remained safe in the international system. The possession of nuclear weapons does little to secure a state.
To be a part of the so-called ‘nuclear club’ is seen as a matter of great prestige; when India and Pakistan recently declared their nuclear capability, it was seen in both countries as increasing their international status. Also, nations opposed to a nuclear power feel that they need to develop their own capability in order to protect themselves. The declared nuclear powers must therefore take the lead in disarmament, as an example for the rest of the world.
This is particularly true in Russia, which now had control of all of the nuclear weapons which were distributed around the former Soviet Union. The military is disastrously underfunded; technicians and officers who were used to a high standard of living are now finding themselves without pay, sometimes for years. At the same time, other states and extremist groups are willing to pay substantial sums for their services, and to gain access to nuclear weapons. The danger of a weapon being stolen, or – in consideration of the current political instability in Russia – a nuclear base being taken over by disgruntled members of the military or other extremists, can only be ended by destroying the weapons.
Of course not. Keeping nukes make the world more secure. Nukes make great leverage. That’s why Saddam Hussein, Kim-Jong-Il, Ahmademijad and countless others couldn’t press the red button themselves. Nukes make war virtually impossible since war means firing of nukes which means a big bang! (All dead including the aggressor.) Nukes make great leverage, and also act (in a way) like an international forcible police.
The nuclear arsenal of the United States creates a nuclear deterrence umbrella for its allies that helps protect them against various international threats.
Russia’s foreign policy under President Putin became highly ambitious and potentially expansionary. Nuclear weapons, particularly those of the United States, play a role in constraining Russian power in this way.
Instead, they must be stored in special facilities; in Russia, there are some thousand sites were military nuclear material is stored. It is producing this plutonium which is in fact the most difficult stage in building a weapon – by dismantling missiles, you are therefore not destroying their most dangerous part, and hence the risk of theft does not decrease. In fact, it may increase: missile silos in Russia are still the most heavily funded part of the military, whereas in recent years it has become clear that security at storage facilities is often inadequate. Moreover, it is far easier to steal a relatively small quantity of plutonium than an entire Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. Ironically, the safest place for plutonium in present-day Russia may be on top of such a missile.
Nuclear weapons could protect the human race, all other living species on the planet, and the planet itself should it come under threat of alien invasion, a massive asteroid, and so forth if they happen to be the only suitable defense available at the time. This suggests that keeping at least a ‘sufficient amount’ of such weapons would be beneficial for survival.
The deterrent effect of nuclear weapons depends on the threat of nuclear weapons to civilian populations of an opposing country. Yet, even the implicit threat of the use of force against civilian forces violates all international legal protections provided to civilians in time of war.
If a country has no other means to defend itself against an imminent threat than by the use of nuclear weapons, a defensive nuclear strike may be legally defensible. If, for example, the United States initiated a large-scale nuclear attack against Russia, Russia would be legally justified in launching a large-scale nuclear strike against the United States in an effort to eliminate the threat and defend itself.