“Behind the black portent of the new atomic age lies a hope which seized upon with faith, can work out salvation. If we fail, then we have damned every person to be the slave of fear. Let us not deceive ourselves: we must elect world peace or world destruction.” — Bernard Baruch
The fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit finished in Washington, D.C. today, with very minor achievements. The states involved made a series of commitments to increased nuclear security policies, most of which amount to sharing notes between governments and did not contain clear plans or definite deadlines for action. Critically, Russia declined to attend the summit, and security cooperation between the two countries with the largest nuclear weapon arsenal remains non-existent. This is despite the fact that both Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin have reason to fear a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of violent non-state actors like the Islamic State. Obviously the Crimea crisis and the Syrian civil war have soured U.S.-Russian relations, but even before recent events in the Ukraine, the focus has been on preserving the status quo, not making dramatic change. Washington and Moscow jointly threw their support behind arms reduction with the New START agreement in 2010, but effectively “only” lowered their respective stockpiles to 1,550 ready-to-use long-range nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, even this modest pledge has yet to be fully implemented, and is not set to be met until 2018 — at which time, hopefully, the foreign policy interests of the U.S. and Russia will be in good shape.
Nuclear proliferation has also become an issue in the U.S. election, with Republican candidate Donald Trump advocating that South Korea and Japan acquire nuclear weapons in order to make a world a safer place. As shocking as some media pundits thought this answer was, the notion of “nuclear stability” has long existed in academia. The scholar Kenneth Waltz has long argued within international relations that, since the world lacks a universal sovereign and countries must look after their own survival, countries should seek the capacity to defend their security concerns. From this Hobbesian perspective, nuclear proliferation is not just inevitable, but beneficial. Waltz argued in Foreign Affairs that Iran gaining the nuclear bomb would actually make the Middle East more peaceful, not less. Actual research, however, contradicts this thinking, and the official U.S. policy remains devoted to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that combats proliferation.
The U.S. is able to do this because, theoretically at least, it can project power through conventional weapons around the globe; we have army installations, air bases and carrier fleets in every region of the globe. Given our propensity for military interventions abroad, many countries have believed the guarantee that, should their territorial sovereignty be threatened, the U.S. would act against the aggressor. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the U.S. did its best to become that missing universal sovereign: military operations in Kuwait, Haiti, Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and of course Iraq, just to name a few. The American public, however, is losing its appetite for the long and bloody process of regime change. Looking at Libya and Syria, we observe that the U.S. has become more cautious in how it fights it enemies, relying more on cruise missiles and funding “moderate rebels.” When Russia annexed the Crimea from Ukraine, Washington sent Russia a scolding and little else. This alarmed many of those nations who have historically relied on the U.S. as their protector. If Russia could take territory from a U.S. ally without a U.S. military response, would Washington also be reluctant to attack Iran or China, or even North Korea, considering the heavy costs implied in a second Korean War — one in which Pyongyang itself has nuclear weapons that it regularly threatens to use?
To be clear, the U.S. no longer acting as a “universal sovereign” is desirable, and it is sensible that U.S. foreign policy has moved away from adventurism to encouraging other countries to look after their own security interests. The problem is that, for some countries, those “security interests” may involve nuclear proliferation. There is great public support in South Korea for acquiring a nuclear weapon like its northern neighbor. The Abe government in Japan has, to great domestic debate, increased defense spending and backed away from a position of pacifism — a hallmark of Japanese political culture, created by their past imperialist aggression as well as having the horror of nuclear weapons inflicted on them, the only people to have so far endured such suffering. Israel has long add numerous nuclear weapons, and ironically it is not the recent Iran nuclear deal that is most hazardous to peace, but the irrational reaction within Israel that it is has been abandoned by the U.S. and must defend itself against Tehran, perhaps by preemptive means. Of course, in addition to these simmering conflicts between states, there are also terrorist networks who already at war, for whom civilian casualties are not just “collateral damage,” but their actual targets. Given their tactics, nuclear weapons are arguably the most ideal form of weapon, given their indiscriminate and widespread destruction.
Once upon a time, it could be argued that nuclear weapons were an unpleasant relic of the Cold War, a necessary deterrent to a potential antagonist from using nuclear weapons first. As proliferation continues and, worryingly, becomes the norm, nuclear arms may become common, while still luxurious, features of countries that could be caught up in global flashpoints. The taboo surrounding nuclear weapons has weakened over time, and the default position of disarmament is taken more and more for granted. What is needed is not just non-proliferation (especially in the form of Western finger-wagging at non-Western states) but actual, meaningful efforts by countries already with nuclear weapons to eliminate their stockpiles. Speeches and summits are not enough; ordinary people need to be involved in a resurgent disarmament movement that pressures decision-makers to accept abolishing nuclear arms. After all, even the ineffectual terms of New START barely passed conservative opposition in the U.S. Senate, and as long as nuclear weapons are perceived as required to be taken seriously in foreign policy matters, there is going to be stubborn resistance within the U.S. to nuclear disarmament.
There are a number of practical arguments to be made toward disarmament. Firstly, Russia and the U.S. by far have the most nuclear weapons, with around 7,000 each; France has the third most, with 300. If Russia and the U.S. could agree tomorrow to eliminate all save 300 of their nuclear weapons, that would be a substantial reduction. By doing so, they could then draw in other nations, such as France as well as Britain and China, to reduce and eventually safely destroy their nuclear weapons. Bringing Pakistan and India into the fold would be more difficult, given their respective history, and it would have to be a negotiation involving both. It is reasonable to presume that North Korea would not bend to international pressure to join a disarmament campaign, but the consequence would not be different than the status quo: the political and economic isolation of Pyongyang. We could even arrive at a time when the mere possession of a nuclear weapon is a violation of humanitarian law, which is not far from the International Court of Justice position. Granted, the U.S. has not traditionally needed legitimate reasoning to justify a war to remove “weapons of mass destruction,” but in a world where such weapons are earnestly deemed too dangerous to possess, we can imagine a scenario where a coalition of countries could indeed come together to forcibly disarm countries seeking the apocalypse.
What about stopping terrorists? The U.S. nuclear deterrent did not prevent al-Qaeda from attacking the World Trade Center in 2001, and even in the wake of that attack, the U.S. did not drop a nuclear bomb on Afghanistan — knowing that it would, quite rightly, be denounced for sacrificing countless civilians to take out a handful of terrorist cells. The same logic applies today: even though the Islamic State may claim to “own” a state, the U.S. will not slaughter millions of Iraqis, Syrians and Turks to attack a movement that exists more as an idea than as an institution or set of institutions. If anything, the only way to ensure that nuclear weapons do not fall into the hands of terrorists to destroy all existing nuclear weapons and the material needed to create such weapons.
While climate change is a huge threat to human existence, it seems strange that ecology and environmentalism should be more of a mainstream issue than nuclear disarmament given the unsettled times we live in. The tragic truth is that we will likely not see another major disarmament campaign until a nuclear weapon (or “dirty bomb” variant) is actually used in anger for the first time since 1945 — much in the way nuclear energy suddenly becomes an issue in the wake of disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima. The question is, sadly, how many hundreds or thousands will die when the unthinkable happens. The threat of nuclear holocaust, much like the dangers of climate change, is one all of humanity faces, and one that we must act on to secure the planet for future generations.