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Do nuclear weapons make the world a safer place?

Yesterday we looked at the question ‘Why are there more women active in the Christian Church than men?‘ from our UK promotional book Very Short Answers to Very Big Questions. Today I’m bringing you another question and answer from the book: Do nuclear weapons make the world a safer place? The answer comes from Joseph M. Siracusa and his book Nuclear Weapons: A Very Short Introduction.


Does the spread of nuclear weapons make the world safer or more dangerous? Most people usually have an instinctive reply to this question: Of course, it makes things more dangerous. How could it not? It might seem surprising, therefore, that not all nuclear analysts agree, and the debate remains unresolved. Like so many of the issues relating to nuclear weapons, the debate is built largely on speculation and ambiguous historical experience. Nuclear weapons remain attractive to insecure or ambitious states. In regional rivalries such as the subcontinent, East Asia, and the Middle East, the bomb still has influence. Whatever else one has to say – and presumably not much has been left unsaid about the nuclear strategy of the past six decades – nuclear status still imparts extraordinary prestige and power. The nine current members of the nuclear weapon club still possess about 27,000 operational nuclear weapons of various types between them. At least another 15 countries have on hand enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon.

Since 1945, many influential voices have expressed alarm that the spread of nuclear weapons will inevitably lead to world destruction. So far, that prediction has not been proved right. But is that because of effective efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, or, to borrow a phrase from former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, just ‘plain dumb luck’?

Nuclear proliferation remains urgent not just because of the risk of a terrorist organization getting its hands on nuclear weapons, but because the proliferation of weapons necessarily means a proliferation of nuclear deterrents. Nuclear weapons have long been a force multiplier, able to make up for imbalances in conventional military power. Paradoxically, then, the unassailable lead of the United States in military power and technology might actually invite other nations to acquire the bomb as a way to influence or even deter American foreign policy initiatives. The lesson of the first Gulf War, one Indian general was reported as saying, is that you do not go to war with the United States without the bomb, the 2003 invasion of Iraq serving as yet another glossy advertisement of the protective power of a nuclear arsenal. This is not a new development. It is, in fact, a lesson American policymakers have been concerned about for some time, and one for which no easy solution seems likely. Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin, outlined the problem in December 1993:

During the Cold War, our principal adversary had conventional forces in Europe that were numerically superior. For us, nuclear weapons were the equalizer. The threat to use them was present and was used to compensate for our smaller numbers of conventional forces. Today, nuclear weapons can still be the equalizer against superior conventional forces. But today it is the United States that has unmatched conventional military power, and it is our potential adversaries who may attain nuclear weapons.

Accordingly, Aspin concluded, the United States could wind up being the equalized. To take an earlier example, John F. Kennedy acknowledged in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis that even a small number of nuclear weapons could deter even the most powerful states.

A central element of the proliferation debate revolves around the perceived effectiveness of nuclear deterrence. If deterrence works reliably, as optimists argue, then there is presumably less to be feared in the spread of nuclear weapons. But if nuclear deterrence does not work reliably, pessimists maintain, more nuclear weapons states will presumably lead not just to a more complicated international arena but a far more dangerous one.

Some analysts have made a compelling case that the fear of nuclear proliferation, or the spread of nuclear weapons, has been exaggerated. Some go even further and argue that proliferation may actually increase global stability. It is an argument peculiar to nuclear weaponry, as it does not apply and is not made with regard to other so-called weapons of mass destruction such as chemical and biological weapons. Nuclear weapons are simply so destructive, this school of thought argues, that using them is such a high bar that it would be madness itself to launch against a nuclear-armed foe. Put another way, nuclear states should know better than to fight wars with each other. The argument that proliferation is not necessarily a dire threat has been made in expansions both lateral – to other countries – and vertical – in the growth of nuclear stockpiles. ‘Since 1945’, remarked Michael Mandelbaum, 25 years ago, ‘the more nuclear weapons each has accumulated, the less likely, on the whole, it has seemed that either side would use them’. Others have made similar arguments. Kenneth Waltz maintains, for example, that nuclear weapons preserve an ‘imperfect peace’ on the subcontinent between India and Pakistan. Responding to reports that all Pentagon war games involving India and Pakistan always end in a nuclear exchange, Waltz argues that ‘Has everyone in that building forgotten that deterrence works precisely because nuclear states fear that conventional military engagements may escalate to the nuclear level, and therefore they draw back from the brink?’

It was an idea frequently debated during the Cold War. French military strategist General Pierre Gallois observed in 1960 that the path to greater stability lay in the increased proliferation. ‘Few people are able to grasp that precisely because the new weapons have a destructive power out of all proportion to even the highest stakes, they impose a far more stable balance than the world has known in the past’, he said. ‘Nor is it any easier to make people realize that the more numerous and terrible the retaliatory weapons possessed by both sides, the surer the peace … and that it is actually more dangerous to limit nuclear weapons than to let them proliferate.’ Gallois made this argument in the context of justifying the French bomb and increasing NATO nuclear capabilities. ‘These’, Gallois concluded, ‘are the realities of our time.’

Notwithstanding a few notable proponents of the ‘proliferation equals more security’ argument, the weight of opinion is mainly on the other side of the ledger, heightened, especially since 9/11, that the spread of nuclear weapons is a bad thing – a very bad thing, in fact. The issues driving nuclear-armed states and even terrorist groups are no longer just political; we have also seen the obsessiveness of religious fundamentalism, which does not seem amenable either to diplomacy or humanitarian restraint. Indeed, since 9/11 the ‘rules’ have changed and experts suggest that there are at least some terrorists who do want to inflict mass casualties. In this context, nuclear terrorism not only represents an effort to intimidate and coerce, but also poses a critical threat to states and peoples around the world.

Political scientist Scott Sagan has also highlighted the ways in which organizations and communications can fail; for example, rather than being anomalies, accidents should be seen as an inherent part of organizations. When nuclear weapons are thrown into the mix, the risk of catastrophic accidents becomes inevitable. Moreover, Sagan holds the view that a fundamental level of risk is inherent in all nuclear weapons organizations regardless of nationality or region. Clearly, it is an element that compounds the problem of nuclear weapons in regions still embroiled by centuries-old religious, cultural, and ethnic tensions. All of these elements combine in a barely controllable milieu of states’ nuclear weapons policy, a disaster waiting to happen.

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